There’s a lot of differing opinions when it comes to whether a writer should get a MFA. In a recent interview I did with Marge Piercy that will be coming out in the Spring 2012 issue of The Pinch, she says writers need to have life experiences in order to be better writers. We need to work on oil rigs, be fire fighters, doctors, travel the globe. Writers in academia have little time to explore the world, thus they must draw off of other writing to be inspired, and/or they are forced to “publish or perish.”

I applied to a MFA program because I wanted the time and space to work on my poetry. I was writing, but at my best, not very frequently. I didn’t know what I should be reading to help my work improve. I had submitted to literary journals before, but always stopped right after the first rejections rolled in. I had the idea that maybe my work needed something, and a program seemed like the way to go.

Today, half into my second to last semester, I’m so grateful I went to one, and especially the one at the University of Memphis. My first semester, I was shell-shocked around writers. At my first Southern Festival of Books, I was too much of a chicken to stand in line to get my book signed by a poet I heard read. They were who I wanted to be, yet I couldn’t even talk to them. Same thing at AWP. Went to a bunch of amazing sessions, talked to no one but the people in my group. I went to a session where Nicky Beer, James Allen Hall, and two other poets talked about how they organized their manuscript. I had really enjoyed the session and ended up buying Nicky Beer’s and James Allen Hall’s first books. Again, too much of a chicken to talk to them.

Through working with The Pinch, I had the opportunity to solicit Nicky Beer and James Allen Hall. Nicky Beer didn’t have work she could send me, but when it came time to pick a poetry judge for The Pinch’s annual contest, I was able to ask her, and she accepted. I solicited James Allen Hall as well and he submitted work. We published one of his poems in the Fall 2011 issue.

Over this past weekend, The Pinch celebrated the release of the Fall 2011 issue with a party. Six contributors came, which is an amazing turn-0ut (Chris Gavaler, James Allen Hall, Angie Macri, Alex Stein, Jannell McConnell, and Glenn Shaheen). I also was able to go to breakfast with James Allen Hall and drive him home after the party.

Networking is an important aspect in this business, and it’s one I hated the most when I came to a MFA program. I didn’t want to have to talk to people, let alone for a long enough time to be “friendly” with them at other places. It’s taken me over 2 years to get over that. At the Southern Festival of Books, I was able to comfortably talk with Darren Jackson, the editor from Grist (I bought his book, had him sign it, talked to him–not a big deal, but in the past, my God), Bobbie Ann Mason, William Pitt Root, and others. Then, at the release party this past weekend, I had a really wonderful time talking to James Allen Hall about his work and what he did to get where he is since I so admire him.

For me, experiencing the world and writing on my own would not have made me a better writer. I needed structure. I needed space. I needed someone to guide me, make suggestions. John Bensko is an amazing professor. I’ve learned so much from him over the past couple years, and I greatly respect him. Some people have made the assertion that once you join an MFA program, your writing will be too dependent on workshopping. That has not been the case for me. The longer I’ve been in school, the better I’ve been at editing my own work, and every piece I write does need time, and sometimes, I just need to let it have that. I have a lot of confidence in my own ability to edit today.

I also really needed to work on something like a literary journal. It taught me the business aspect of writing, got me to solicit writers I wanted to talk to, got me in an “in” in situations where I wouldn’t have felt comfortable talking to someone before (“Hey, I’m _______ for The Pinch.”), got me reading submissions and seeing what we looked for to get a sense of what other journals were probably looking for as well.

Not all people might need to attend an MFA program, but for me, it has been invaluable. From the outside, the writing world seems big and frightening. From the inside, it’s rather small, and that’s why those relationships and how to manage those relationships are so important.

Did you get a MFA? Why or why not?

8 thoughts on “The MFA

  1. I did get an MFA, mostly for the reasons you cite above (time & structure, and learning to ‘workshop’ my own work & be better at revision on my own); however, I did choose to delay getting that degree by about six years, as I really had very little to say straight out of college. The only caveat I have about MFAs/Phds is this: don’t think you are going to get a great teaching gig right out of the gate. Other than that, go for it!

    There should be room for all paths to good writing.

      1. Applied for many graduate level teaching gigs both without a book and then later once I had my book. Never got an interview.

        Was lucky and got a full-time (non-tenure) job at a 4-year school right out of grad school, but many / most of my peers ended up adjuncting or going on to get PhDs which they are now finishing and must try to find a job.

        Due to personal relationship, I am now anchored in central Arkansas and was able to also get a full-time job at the community college here. Even with the book, was not offered an interview when a position came open at the 4-year school in my town. The job went to someone with 2 books and years of having been an editor along with teaching in a low-res MFA. The job is to teach undergrad classes, including workshop.

  2. I haven’t gotten an MFA, but it’s been on my mind recently. In fact, one of the reasons I like reading your blog is that it gives me insight into the routines of an MFA student. Great post. I never would have thought you were so shy around writers before.

    The big question that has hung in my mind is whether the good habits I’d learn in an MFA program would stick with me after graduation. Would I continue to write as regularly? From what I’ve read in Poets & Writers, many students have trouble with that after graduating. For me personally, I can’t make writing more regularly a reason to get an MFA. I can and should do that on my own. I have no excuse not to as I’m not working full-time. However, I do see the value to having writing guidance and making connections.

    I graduated from college with a BA in English and psychology in 1997. Whenever I think of graduate school, I’m always torn between those two fields. More than anything though, I don’t want to go into debt for school again. It took me 10 years to pay off undergrad loans. I enjoy not having that bill. I can travel more now, which is great for writing.

    I’ve had several different jobs since graduating, and I’ve learned a lot about people from those jobs. I know you need life experience for poetry too, but I’m thinking that maybe novelists need it even more. Do you think you need to understand people more as a novelist or poet?

    I think there are lots of different jobs for poets. Even if you don’t become a professor, the world is wide open. I’ve never been able to figure out though the best type of job for a writer to have: one that makes you mentally tired or physically tired. I’ve had both types of jobs. The jobs that required me to use my brain a lot during the day (like teaching or proofreading or copywriting) discouraged me from reading or writing something unrelated to work at night. However, when it was slow I could write at my desk ; ) The jobs that made me physically tired (like working with animals) made me want to take a very long nap when I got home.

    I think the best place to be is where you can make your own schedule. Write when you want, not write around your job. In other words, just be a writer. The challenge with that is getting your people time in, but that could be done with volunteer work or writing groups. I’m shy too, so it’s a struggle for me to stay in touch with people.

    1. There’s so much to respond to in this comment! I’ll try to be as organized as possible.

      Thanks! Though I’ve worked hard to cover it up, I’m pretty shy and introverted. I’ve just learned to overcome that. Breathing exercises also help!

      I refused to go to a MFA program that wasn’t entirely paid for, so I applied for a Graduate Assistantship which paid me a stipend plus waived my tuition. On top of that, I have a part-time job. It’s made working harder, but it was very important to me to not go into debt. Other people feel differently.

      I’ve heard a lot of different things from people who have left MFA programs. At least four writers have told me that they left their MFA program and then didn’t write for a year. I think, in a way, writer’s block or “shoring up” for that length of time might be beneficial. James Allen Hall didn’t publish a book until about 8 years after he graduated from his MFA program, and he had heard from others that it takes most people 10 years to publish a book after they graduate. James said he needed the time and space to develop the threads he had discovered at the end of his MFA program. His first book includes none of the poems from his MFA thesis, but I did go to a workshop at AWP where a poet’s first book actually included nearly all of her original thesis manuscript. Similarly, I am discovering that the poems I am writing now excite me because they are a departure from what I’d previously been writing. If I was to keep working on these, I might find myself writing a whole book of poems around these new threads and keeping none of the older ones.

      I think productivity is really what I’ve gotten the most out of my program. We turn in 11 poems and 2 stories for the poetry and fiction workshops I’m in per semester. That’s way more than I would do by myself in a period of 4 months, so once I graduate, I will have a lot of material to comb through. Even if I just go back through and revise, I’ll still have a lot more work than I would if I had not joined the program. I did an interview with Richard Tillinghast that will be forthcoming in the Spring 2012 issue of The Pinch, and he said we need to stay in touch with poetry every day, reading an old poem of ours and just thinking about how we would revise it or reading someone else’s poetry every day, and that helps the avenue of inspiration.

      For writing short fiction, I need more of a sense of how to flesh out how characters develop and/or are affected by their environment. I can get to the crux of who a person is in a poem, but I need to show that change in a story, which I think takes a great deal more work.

      I’m currently applying for a fellowship where I’d teach one class, work for a literary journal, and work on a major writing project. I’m not applying to anything else, so if I don’t get it, I’m going to take a year off and figure out what I’d like to do. It’s been suggested to me that I go out for a PhD in literature or creative writing, but I’m up in the air about whether I’d want to go back to school again.

      For me, I need something to work around in order to be able to write. I waste time frivolously. I watch too much TV. I get up too late. I need something to plan around, and that’s partly why I have a writing routine today. I get up at 7 every morning on the weekdays and I write or read for an hour. I can’t afford to wait until inspiration hits me. I gotta work to get it. It also really helps me stay present in other areas of my life. I drift off a lot when I think of an idea for a poem or story and can’t be present to my husband or at my work. If I have a moment of inspiration, I write it down, and then I come back to it the next morning. Really helps me.

      A group of us are starting a workshop group. We will be sending out work this Sunday and then meeting on the 13th to discuss. Want to join in?

      1. I hope you get your fellowship.

        I know what you mean about wasting time. I do watch TV, but my biggest distractions are my two cats, one of which plops himself into my lap with (really) a smile and coo. He’s so loving and doesn’t understand this keyboard thing I pay attention to. I’m getting better about locking him out of the office.

        I’ll send you an email on the workshop. Thanks.

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