It was our last semester of college, and future plans were weighing heavily on us. I had friends applying to grad school in English, grad school in veterinary medicine, applying for teaching positions, and applying for first jobs in whatever vaguely-related-to-majors gigs they could get.
“You will,” my bestie reassured, which felt good but the path ahead was unsettlingly nebulous. The French fries were particularly delicious that night, but I wasn’t hungry.
I wanted to continue my education in a Masters program and knew an MFA was the best-likely fit for producing my own creative-writing projects. During my undergraduate education, my parents had generously contributed what they could afford and I’d gotten scholarships at the liberal-arts school I attended, both of which I appreciated. I’d taken out thousands of dollars of loans to cover the rest each year. So while the writing spirit was willing to apply to grad school, the bank account hovering just a notch above empty said, “Off to work with you, writer. Pronto!” An MFA was out of my reach before I found work and dug into paying back my BA student-loan debt.
Fast-forward six years. Six very slow years of bumps and rejections and U-turns.
The whole time, though, as I was tutoring high-schoolers, I was also writing stories on my laptop in my free time. As I was teaching summer camp, I was also writing poems in my lined notebooks. As I was paying back my loans, check by check, I was also sending those stories and poems to editors’ desks, now and again getting the coveted We’d be pleased to publish this if it’s still available that kept me going, that keeps any writer going.
So how did I know it was time to apply for the MFA? 1. I sent the final undergrad student-loan check. 2. I had gone as far as I could possibly go with my writing with what I knew already. To get to the next level of my craft, every fiber of my being knew I’d need some outsider, fellow-writer help.
There was a lot going for my writing, I knew, but there were also lots of blind corners I couldn’t see around. I didn’t know a lot about revising my own work or how to offer individualized, specific feedback of others’ work (graduate school would help a bunch there). I had very little insight into which parts of my own manuscripts were trimmable and which portions needed clarification (again, graduate school to the rescue!). And I didn’t know anyone at the time who had the same publishing goals that I had (ditto).
Off I hop-skip-jumped to the bank, sweatier this time, knowing just how long and painful the monetary pay-back would be. I signed on the line, borrowing more than double the amount I’d borrowed the first time, with a quickly-beating pulse.
But here’s the thing: most of that pulse quickening was due to the excitement ahead of me in the program. Within five months of that day in the bank, I’d be back on track answering (as my friend had) the question I’d asked six years before.
I would return to school and graduate with my MFA 2.5 years later. To more debt, yes, but more importantly, to an enormous amount of knowledge about my writing practice, my editing skills, and my craft I couldn’t have gotten on my own.
I also accumulated pals on this same writing path who offer encouragement and honest feedback when we swap work from time to time. The experience of workshopping with motivated, engaged fellow writers who were at the same level in their writing careers was enlivening and taught me a lot, both about the kinds of feedback that works and the kinds that don’t for the development of my drafts.
I met diverse, cool writers, ages early twenties through their seventies, in my program—all of us with the same goals and passion for writing.
Yes, an MFA requires sacrifices of time, energy, and money. At the same time, an MFA (at least in my experience) delivers far more in knowledge, connections, camaraderie, practical skills, and self-reflection than I had anticipated during those six pre-MFA years.
I close with these questions: Have you gone as far with your writing as you can go on your own? Are you ready and excited to balance any possible cons for the pros of an MFA, such as steady support, pressure, and encouragement of a community of writers? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then it’s worth at least looking into an MFA.