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So you *think* you want an MFA?

by Marcia Lynx Qualey

Over the last three decades, Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programs for creative writers have surged to prominence in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. These programs have come to span fiction, children’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and have recently expanded to the art of literary translation. Most programs are workshop and deadline-centered, although the stronger ones also provide a variety of literature-oriented classes.

A writer, of course, need not be board certified, like a lawyer or doctor. No degree is necessary, and one can become a writer simply by reading literature and practicing one’s craft. But if you’ve decided you want help, and that help means getting an MFA in one of these genres, where should you start?

(1) Listen to the criticism of MFA programs.

While you may be convinced that an MFA is the right thing for you, this is a critical first step. Yes, an MFA program can provide structure, critical feedback, professional contacts, and help in learning to judge your own writing. But it can’t guarantee you a literary agent, a job, or a happily-ever-after.

Criticism of MFA programs has grown perhaps as rapidly as the MFA programs themselves. A number of reviewers and writers, including luminaries like David Foster Wallace, have suggested that MFA programs are “ruining American fiction,” as the workshop model promotes a “McStory sameness” in American writing. Others fault the workshop model for fostering an unfriendly, competitive atmosphere. It’s true that both points could also be made about capitalist consumerism or any number of other issues, instead of about MFA programs specifically, but do read the criticism and weigh it carefully before deciding to apply.

(2) Try out classes, build your portfolio.

If you’re not moved by the critics, then give online creative writing courses a try. The prestigious University of Iowa has recently been running free Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) workshops for both poetry and fiction. They’ve also pioneered free, small-group workshops—although these are highly competitive, as applications come in from all over the world.

If the University of Iowa workshops aren’t a good fit, many other universities offer distance learning creative writing classes for a reasonable fee. When I was building my MFA portfolio, I took an online class from the University of Washington, which has a strong MFA program. Although the time zone mechanics were a little difficult to work out, I was able to participate in meetings with the other students.

These writing classes, in addition to any others you might be taking, will give you a sense of whether the MFA environment will help your craft.

(3) Low residency or full-time?

When you start looking at programs, you might head over to “The Top Fifty” ranked MFA programs published annually online in Poets & Writers magazine. But what if you can’t or don’t want to commit to living in a cold, unfamiliar city for two or three years? You might sign up for a “low-residency” deal where you only come in for a few weeks a year. The rest of the work is done remotely.

A low-residency program might well suit your tastes and working style. However, one of the most significant downsides to a low-residency MFA is that there are no scholarships and no tuition reimbursements. Which brings us to the next item…

(4) Please don’t pay.

If you’re studying to be a doctor, there’s a good chance you’ll find a way to pay off all that post-medical school debt. Working as a writer, on the other hand, can be a wonderful experience, but it’s rarely a lucrative one. I’m not sure I’d have the freedom to work as a full-time freelance writer if I had years of MFA debt hanging, guillotine-like, over my head.

A number of programs—such as my alma mater, the University of Minnesota—offer free tuition, a small salary, and benefits in exchange for teaching one class a semester. Even if you don’t get a free ride offer from your university, you can create one by teaching in another department, perhaps as an Arabic instructor or teaching assistant. My husband taught in the journalism department while he did his master’s degree, even though he was studying in an entirely different field.

(5) Fiction, poetry, nonfiction, translation?

Once you’ve decided to apply, you’ll have to pick a genre. If you’re the sort of writer who has committed to just one genre—poetry, or essays, or short stories— then you can skip to the next step. But if you move between genres, then you have a decision to make.

I don’t have statistics from other programs, but at the University of Minnesota, by far the largest number of applications came in for the fiction program. Meanwhile, all three genres had the same number of seats to fill. If you’re on the fence, and you write with equal strength in a number of genres, you might want to go for a less crowded genre. Also, do ask the program if they allow you to take classes outside your primary genre.

(6) Assemble your portfolio.

Your portfolio will be, along with your statement of purpose, the most important aspect of your application. Don’t send off a story you wrote the night before the application deadline. Right now, it might seem like the most brilliant thing you’ve ever done, but you need to take your time with the portfolio. And while you’re revising, don’t just show your work to friends, who likely won’t know how to comment on a story or poem. Try to assemble a critique group that includes professional or semi-professional authors whose opinions you trust.

You might even submit your portfolio to magazines that offer editorial feedback. There’s no reason you can’t have published the stories, essays, translations, or poems that are part of your application package.

(7) Write the “Statement of Purpose.”

What is your purpose? For many of us, that’s a thorny, knotted, impossible question. But, if you want to get into a graduate school in the United States, you’ll need to answer it engagingly and succinctly. Based on conversations I’ve had with admissions panels, I’d say that universities are looking for someone who can work well in their group, who’ll have something interesting to contribute, and who’ll be an asset to the program. It’s about you, but it’s not all about you. It’s also about why you’ll be a great part of their program.

(8) Timing your MFA.

Some people walk into an MFA program, like me, with no idea what they’ll be working on for the next two or three years. Others, like the successful young adult (YA) author Swati Avasthi, arrive with a project already sketched out. An MFA can be a time to experiment with a number of different genres and styles, or it can be a time to finish a particular project. You’ll have to decide how you want to use that time.

Good luck!

Further Resources:

Poets & Writers magazine’s “Top Fifty MFA programs” list. www.pw.org.
• The University of Iowa creative writing courses. www.writinguniversity.org.
The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner. Be sure to do the exercises at the back.

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