Editor’s Note: this is a guest post by Kristin Offiler of Kristin Offiler.com.
Many writers consider getting a Master of Fine Arts degree. I’ve heard both sides of the argument: some believe it’s essential for becoming a better writer, while others think it’s a waste of time and money. There really is no right or wrong answer. There’s only what’s right for you and your writing journey.
Choosing The Right MFA Program
I decided to go to graduate school and get my MFA straight after graduating from college for a few reasons. I was only able to fit two creative writing workshops into my undergraduate course schedule while working on my English degree, and I desperately wanted more time to focus on fiction. One of those workshops was in poetry, which was great, but I devoured everything I learned in the fiction course because that’s where my passion was.
So I started researching graduate schools, most of them in New England where I live. Searching for creative writing programs quickly turned up a phrase I had never heard before: low residency. Turns out there are a number of creative writing MFA programs that are structured in the low residency style, where you attend a residency on campus for around 7-10 days, then go home and work on your writing for the rest of the semester under the guidance of a writing mentor.
This really appealed to me. I wouldn’t have to move, find an apartment in a new city, search for a job to pay the rent. I could stay settled where I was and integrate an MFA program into my life, rather than the other way around.
A low residency for a writing program made sense. Most writers do their work alone, only sharing it when it’s time for feedback and critiques. The structure of a low-residency program meant I could focus on writing new pieces and revising them for a few months before sitting down to workshop. I know traditional MFA programs where students meet weekly are just as useful and effective, but I liked the idea of writing by myself for a few months before being immersed in workshops.
Applying to An MFA Program
Applying for programs was a long process. I secured a number of letters of recommendation from professors I had worked closely with as an undergrad, and started compiling my essays and writing samples. I took the GREs, and promptly wanted to smash my head into a wall afterwards. Not to discourage anyone, but that test was worse than the SATs, worse than any test I have ever taken, and I left it with the most agonizing migraine of my life. If I could do it over, I would only apply to schools that did not require GREs. I believe writing samples should speak for the writer; who cares what your math score is if you’re looking to enter an MFA program?
I remember sitting on the floor of my bedroom with applications, writing samples, stray papers and envelopes strewn out all around me. I double and triple checked that each essay said the right school’s name. I filled the envelopes, stamped and addressed them, and sent them off into the world after weeks of preparing them.
I was stupidly confident. Some of the schools I applied to (mainly the traditional ones) had very low acceptance rates. I was very naïve about my chances of getting in to some of my schools, which was probably a good thing. Who knows if I would have even tried if I knew I’d get so many rejection letters?
Getting Accepted Into An MFA Program
But that’s the writing life. Rejection after rejection rolls in. Then I received one acceptance: to my undergraduate school for their English MA program. The only appeal was that they had just added a concentration in creative writing. Of the five or six schools I had applied to, they were the only ones who wanted me. Defeated, I started their program in the fall of 2008. I hated it.
A week into the semester, I got an email from Lesley University’s MFA program director. He wanted to call me. Their fall class had filled up so they’d stopped reviewing applications, but then they came upon mine and wanted me to transfer in the spring. To be in their MFA program.
It wasn’t just an acceptance, it was a request. Join us. Get your MFA here, in Cambridge, down the street from Harvard. Be in our community.
It took me all of five seconds to accept. I finished off the semester in the MA program, transferred the credits, and started the low residency program at Lesley University in January 2009. It was the best decision I’ve made in my writing life, and here’s why:
The MFA Experience
The MFA program nurtured my writing. It gave me a place I could go twice a year to be around fellow writers from all over the world, where we could learn from gifted, published authors and poets and screenwriters, attend readings, workshop each other, wander the streets of Cambridge, get away from our lives for a week to think solely about writing.
I think it’s true that you can learn a lot from reading. Heck, I’ve been reading for 20 years. I read everything I can get my hands on. I make weekly trips to my local library and come home with stacks of books. I read blogs, poetry, short stories, novels, memoirs, self-help books.
And yet, I learned things from my MFA program that I wouldn’t have learned from reading alone. I got to work with some very smart writers. They showed me, on paper, exactly where my stories weren’t working. They could tell me why something wasn’t working, would refer me to novels that would be useful at that stage in my writing, could give me exercises to try, or pose questions that made me see a story in a whole new way.
MFA programs aren’t for everyone. Traditional programs are for certain writers, and low residency programs are for other writers. You need to know what’s right for you based on where you are in your writing life.
I was fresh out of college and all I knew was that I wanted to write fiction and I wanted to do it well. My MFA achieved that. I didn’t hear a single classmate say on graduation day that they wished they hadn’t done the program. On the contrary, we all wanted another semester or two to keep building our writing toolboxes.
And another perk of the MFA has been the friends I’ve made. I have a writing community now, fellow fiction writers and poets and screenwriters who have a desire to write. Of course you don’t need an MFA program to gain writing friends, but that was exactly what the program gave me: friends, incredible growth in my writing, and the chance to learn so much about something I love.
Kristin Offiler is a writer living in Rhode Island with her husband and dog. She works freelance and writes articles, blogs, web copy, resumes and columns in addition to her fiction writing. She is an avid reader, loves the beach, and hates New England winters. She can be reached via her website, kristinoffiler.com or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have you thought about getting your MFA? Why is it—or isn’t it—something you would do? Do you have any lingering questions about applying to MFA programs or the program itself that you’d like me to answer? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!
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