For many years I held close to my heart the desire to go back to school to get my MFA in creative writing. I had this feeling that I was in a place where such intensive study would help my art immensely. But whenever I shared this thought I would get some combination of these two responses:
“You don’t need an MFA, you’ve already published a novel.”
“Why? Do you want to teach? Teaching is not all it’s cracked up to be. You won’t be able to write. You won’t be able to find a job, the market’s saturated.”
For some time I listened to these responses and kept the idea of an MFA to myself. Here’s the thing about that first comment: yes, I’d written and published a novel. But I always felt as though it were an airplane contraption I’d built on my own in my garage. Yes, I managed to get it off the ground and it flew and flew well. However I had the sense that I could build a jet, maybe even a rocket. And I needed help to do that.
I finally decided to go for my MFA in 2011. You can read about the journey that took me to that decision in my essay “A Change in Direction” in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Writers. I started the program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA), graduated in 2014, and it was the best thing I ever did for my writing life.
This is the season for applying to MFA programs and I know many writers are now struggling with the same questions and considerations I had. I’ll share here the gifts of my MFA in the hope that it will help others in their decision-making process. Here’s what I received from my MFA:
A community of writers: This perk is mentioned so often it’s almost cliché but let me add to it. It’s not about just having a big group of people in the same room who know your name and you all have in common this thing about putting words down on paper. It’s about the people you find within the group—the people who turn out to be your people. Though we only saw each other every six months (VCFA is a low-residency MFA program) I developed strong bonds with a core group of friends who came to know me and my work well enough to inspire and challenge me in ways I didn’t expect. I grew as a person and as a writer because of their influence and this still goes on today.
A way of writing: I knew I could write but I didn’t know why. I felt I could have a better technical grasp of my craft. It was like I was waving around a sword (or a light saber for you Star Wars fans) but I really didn’t know what I was doing with it. Now in my writing I can hold the sword with more confidence and wield it with intention and more precision. And, I should add, I’m writing more and more consistently. I’ve finished one manuscript and I’m close to completing another as of this writing.
New genres in which to play: I entered VCFA as a fiction student. For me the genre of nonfiction was the journalism background I had come from and I didn’t see myself writing much of it in the future. But I learned that creative nonfiction covers a wide array of writing from essays to memoir to literary journalism. A friend convinced me I was already writing it in essays I’d published in places like More Magazine. So I became a dual-genre student and received my degree in both fiction and creative nonfiction. I read and explored poetry as well.
A way of reading: I’m slow reader and before the MFA I’d be lucky if I got through a half-dozen books in a year. But reading is a major tool for a writer and I knew I would have to read more if I was going to improve my work. I don’t read any faster, I think, but my time at VCFA taught me if I’m diligent and consistent I can read a lot more than I did before. Now I read about 40 books a year even now that I’m 18 months past my graduation. If anything I would love to read even more because it’s hard to balance the new books coming out with classics I haven’t read yet plus books I read to help with what I’m writing at the moment. So much to read! But at least I am reading and I love it.
The writing world opened: The great thing about an MFA is all of what you receive doesn’t stop after graduation. The writing world is open to you and you can participate in it as much as you like. I attended my first conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) while at VCFA. It’s a huge gathering of about 10,000 writers and at these events I have the pleasure of meeting in person writing friends I’d met via social media and seeing again writers who had visited VCFA—generous, encouraging teachers such as Richard Bausch and Brian Leung who remain wonderful, encouraging friends. I’m attending AWP in Los Angeles this March speaking on a panel and participating in an offsite reading.
New opportunities: The teaching landscape is difficult to navigate but I’ve found the opportunities best suited to me do come my way. I’m thrilled to be on the faculty of Regis University’s Mile-High MFA program in Denver, Colorado. I’m also teaching courses at the Fairfield County Writer’s Studio and this summer I’ll present two sessions at the Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop at the Princeton Theological Seminary. I wouldn’t have made the connections that made these opportunities possible if I hadn’t gone for my MFA.
So these are my gifts and I’m grateful, tremendously grateful for every single one. If you’re considering the MFA journey know this: your own gifts are waiting for you. It’s up to you to decide to receive them.