What It’s Really Like to be an MFA Student
If you’ve made your way to this page, you have probably already read a little bit about the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree. You may be weighing the pros and cons of signing up for an MFA program, like the one at Alma College. But there is a lot of information online about MFA programs — and some of it may not be relevant to your interest as a student. Where can you go to find out what it’s like for students in a program like this?
Leslie Contreras Schwartz is a 2021 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow and the 2019-2021 Houston Poet Laureate. She is a proud disabled poet and community activist; her poet laureate community work includes writing a workshop resource book on poetry for healing, storytelling and mental wellness. She is a graduate of The Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and earned a bachelor’s at Rice University. She is also a faculty member in the Alma College MFA program.
Sophfronia Scott: I’d like to talk a little bit about the student experience in the Alma MFA. What are your hopes for what a student might get from their MFA at Alma?
Leslie Contreras Schwartz: I hope that students, when they come to the MFA program at Alma, are able to feel that their experiences are not only valued, but nourished by the faculty and that they’re in a community that also nourishes their lived experiences. That is not always something valued in creative programs, especially MFA programs.
Of course, we want intelligent writers. We want them to be able to study the skills and craft of writing, to be able to talk about it fluently, to understand the elasticity of language — all those things that we can do well in an MFA program. But I think intelligence also needs to include the concept of experience.
Experience is so important to develop our points of view and it’s an integral part of our creative side. If we show our students that we value that, we can help them further create meaning and go into the literary world once they leave. When they do, they will strong with belief in the validity of their experiences, so that they can continue to write not necessarily personal narratives, but they can write from their own perspective with confidence.
SS: I like that you make the delineation that you don’t necessarily have to tell a personal story to have a point of view. Sometimes, newer writers get into this feeling that they are not allowed to write about or talk about certain issues — that it has to be the realm of “these writers from on high” somewhere. But their voices are just as important as anyone else’s. They do have something to say.
LCS: I think that even if we’re not writing from a personal point of view, the writing itself is formed and shaped by our own experiences. So, it’s important that we nourish those experiences. We can’t just so that it’s valued, we have to show that it’s nourished, so they can feel and understand that this is a rich part of their life as a writer.
SS: We have an exciting, artistic community at Alma for that very reason — because writers come to us with so many different voices. In bringing those voices into the forum, we all learn so much from each other. It’s amazing.
I want to ask about what earning your MFA has meant for you, because so many of the students considering our program are going through a big decision-making process. There are so many voices out there talking about how getting an MFA may or may not be worth the time, the effort, or the money. Yet, I know that for me personally, it changed my life as a writer. I’m wondering what it meant for you.
LCS: It did absolutely change my life. When I was looking toward applying to a program, I was searching for something. I was already writing and was reading as a writer, but I wanted a space: a community where I could connect with other creative writers and be directed and mentored to study literature that would be helpful to me in my own creative practice.
That is very difficult to do on your own. It’s also very difficult to find a community that is so engaged — as they are in the MFA programs — in conversations around craft, around the issues that are central to what we do as artists. All those more academic discussions, but also being able to share our experience and to be able to have our stories, poems and nonfiction workshopped by people who have been trained, and to meet peers who are struggling with the same journey that you’re going through.
SS: Leslie, you mentioned reading. Can you say more about that? I felt the same way. I wasn’t reading as much before I got my MFA and being in an MFA program just opened up my reading world to writers I’ve never heard of before. It also let me see technique and craft on the page by talented people, which inspired me to go to new levels in terms of my own writing.
LCS: During my MFA program, I learned to read in a writer’s sort of way, if that makes sense. I studied the techniques that writers used and one writer exposed to me through my MFA would lead to 100 others who were often was very particular to areas of concern in my own writing.
I am constantly learning. It’s like you say, I did read before the MFA program, but because of the constraints of the MFA program, you had to read a certain amount of text. It opened up more avenues to me to different kinds of knowledge to different kinds of writing styles that I’m not sure if I would have been able to find on my own. Maybe if I spent decades in the library, eventually, but it helped with mentor guidance.
SS: How are you different now because you have this community, because you have a different type of reading life? How is your writing life different now since your MFA?
LCS: I definitely have grown and flourished from the support of a writing community, not just here in Texas, but around the country. Because of my MFA program, my peers, my teachers were from all over the country. They are practicing writers and I still am connected with them.
As far as the knowledge I gained, it’s a rigorous form of study. With MFA programs, there’s a lot of annotating, a lot of analyzing writing about different themes, and aspects of writing — so I gained the knowledge and then I was able to apply it. After I graduated, it helped me create and sustain a writing practice because I had all these tools at-hand. I had that support that I could reach out to to get feedback. It is a difficult and a long process and it’s vital to have a community, and then to be able to use all the tools that I gained.
The Alma College Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing offers the opportunity to enter an artistic community in which you will read deeply, study and hone your writing craft, and participate in energetic discussions that will help you see your poems, stories, essays, and memoirs in the context of current issues and events. Learn more at alma.edu/mfa.