By Sophfronia Scott
For many years I held close to my heart the desire to get a graduate degree: a master of fine arts (MFA) in creative writing. I felt I was in a place where intensive study would help my art 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. But I didn’t understand why. I didn’t know enough about my craft or what made me a good writer. And I had the sense that I could do better—I could build a jet, maybe even a rocket. But I would need help to do it.
I finally decided to get my MFA. I entered a program with a low-residency format which required me to be on campus only twice a year. My son was 7 at the time and we couldn’t pick up and move for a full-residency program because of my husband’s job. It wasn’t easy—in fact I became a substitute school bus driver during part of the program to help support my family while I wrote and studied. But I did it. I graduated and earning my MFA 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 what an MFA did for me 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 love of 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 for residency, 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 wand for you Harry Potterfans) 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 consistently. Since I graduated I’ve written and published three books with a fourth coming out in a few months. This is in addition to other pieces I’ve had published online and in anthologies.
New genres in which to play: I entered my MFA program 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 in lectures and in conversation with faculty 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 magazines. 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 as an MFA student taught me that if I’m diligent and consistent I can read a lot more than I did before. Now I read about 40 books a year. If anything I would love to read even more but 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), a huge annual gathering of more than 10,000 writers, while I was still a student and even shared a room with one of my MFA classmates. I had the pleasure of meeting in person writing friends I’d met via social media and seeing again writers who had visited the MFA residencies. Since my graduation I’ve spoken on panels and participated in readings at the conference.
New opportunities: The teaching landscape is difficult to navigate but there are many ways and places to teach. If you want to teach you’ll find the opportunities best suited to you will come your way whether they be in colleges, libraries, conference workshops, or correctional facilities. And the connections your make through your MFA makes more of these opportunities possible.
So these are the gifts I’ve received of my MFA 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.