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To MFA or Not to MFA?

In just about a week I’ll be finishing classes in my intensive two-year MFA in Writing program at the University of San Francisco. Then all that’s left to do is to complete the novel that will be my major project, due in early August, and I’ll graduate with my MFA. The time has flown by and I know I’m going to miss the intellectual stimulation and camaraderie of my fellow writers. I couldn’t have been happier with the program, which offers evening classes twice a week, on Tuesdays (writing workshop) and Wednesdays (seminar). I have learned so much about both craft and literature from wonderful instructors, who are passionate about writing and books.

So as an aspiring novelist should you go for an MFA? There are as many MFA programs out there as there are types of writers and it seems that both are increasing at breakneck speed. It seems now more than ever that everyone wants to write a novel, having been told countless times that everyone has a story in them.

An MFA won’t guarantee that you’ll sell your novel or that you’ll even be able to get a teaching job: it’s not the most practical degree in the world. Many programs combine the study of literature with the teaching of craft, giving students a well-rounded education. If you don’t need or want this, you may be better off having your novel critiqued by a manuscript consultant or teacher and not worry about getting a degree. However, I know there are students in my program who went in knowing they would have deadlines and that they would have their novel finished in two years and this was a big motivator for them; it would have been much harder to do it on their own.

There are a number of programs for working adults that include night courses or what is called “low-residency.” Low-residency MFA programs allow students to do the majority of their work online from home, with a couple of 10-day (or so) stints on-campus per year. This would give a student who lives in California, for example, the opportunity to study at a university in Vermont.

There are many resources on the Web regarding MFA programs. Tom Kealey has written a valuable guide called The Creative Writing MFA, which profiles fifty programs. The book has a useful companion blog as well.

Another source is Poets & Writers magazine, which is filled with ads for MFA programs. Also, The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) is a great organization that offers The AWP Official Guide to Writing Programs as well as their stimulating magazine, The Writer’s Chronicle.

To all who are graduating soon with their MFAs or who have just been accepted to their dream program—congratulations!

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Have You Seen Craig Clevenger's Blog?

While I have not pursued an MFA, I haven't completely counted out the idea. My years at UCLA were challenging and wonderful, and provided me with many opportunities to write about later (the roommate who stored her roasted chicken in the oven instead of the refrigerator; alternating happiness and sadness watching the Bush v. Gore election results coming in with my conservative Christian roommate; being stuck in an elevator going up and down between floors and not stopping).

My guess would be that -- especially with remote programs -- an MFA program would be most helpful in terms of writing style since it doesn't have the "life experience" element of roommates, etc. built in.

Also ... have you seen Craig Clevenger's blog entry on "My Two Greatest Writing Lessons"? He includes a letter he received that said, "You've already made one likely mistake- you went to college. It will probably take a decade to rectify that."
I'd be interested to see what your response to that statement would be.

- Heather Goyette, redroom.com

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Re: Mistake: You Went to College

Yikes! Somehow I missed this comment and apologize for writing a reply at such a late date, but...I know what this person is saying about college perhaps being a mistake and we all know that each person's experience is different. All I can say is that I'm a bit more of an unusual case because I'd been trying to get my five novels published for years without any luck. When I got the opportunity to pursue an MFA it was because I wanted to continue to study craft seriously. Lo and behold, I got an agent and a book deal the summer I started the program! So a kind of unique experience, but a wonderful one. Also, being an older person, I'd had a lot of life experience before I started grad school. For me, spending these years studying literature and craft, I think, has made me a better writer.

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Older the Better

I know this is an old post, but I wanted to comment on it.  I'm also taking an MFA and sometimes feel like I live on an island.  Is anyone out there?  I'm an older fellow too, and find that the MFA is helping me considerably.  I'm part of the tribe that beleives that the past can inform the future.  I've been introduced to many writers and styles that I never would have had I not sought an MFA. 

That said, I do understand the previous comment about going to college being a mistake.  Luckily, I've been published and it seems you have as well.  We already have our own voice.  Taking an MFA early on in one's career, or before one's career takes off, could obscure an original voice with something more predicable.  Hell, I didn't know what my voice was until a few years ago.

Weston Ochse, Dark Fiction Author and Superhero for Rent