How to Choose an MFA in Creative Writing

How to choose an MFAHere is another question from a reader:


I've decided to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing, hopefully within the next 2 years, once I've taken the GRE. I haven't seen any available dates for this year, but will still be preparing for it in the interim. I've been checking out a few universities, but would appreciate any advice from you regarding universities that you know of, which have an excellent, or even good, programme in that field of study.


Dear Reader,

Greetings!

Except for the famous ones like Iowa, I don't know much about MFA programs, so this is why I've asked some of my online friends for their advice. In Miami, we have two great (albeit relatively young) programs at the University of Miami and Florida International University. I'm a graduate of the University of Miami.


Over the years, I've had more dealings with FIU, so I can safely say that not only do they have many talented writers, but that these writers are also great teachers. If a program is as good as its alumni, then take a look at a few of their alumni. I'm sure you'll recognize quite a few who have appeared on this blog. I took a writing class with Lynne Barrett and learned a lot about setting a scene.

And that's what you need really, a great teacher. Someone who may not be a famous writer, but who understands the craft of poetry or fiction. Someone who will break down the threshold concepts such as metaphor and rhythm in poetry or scene, plot, and narrative in fiction. Someone who doesn't want to turn you into a disciple and will honor your voice.


The teacher should also have enough humility and compassion to realize that s/he doesn't have all the answers, but should also be able to give you a straight answer based on his/her aesthetic stance why s/he thinks a poem, short story, or novel needs some work or warn you against adding another line or sentence.


Finally, I would say think about cost. The poet, Al Young, once said that the secret to his creative longevity was "low overhead." Don't get into a program that will leave you burdened with thousands of dollars of student loan debt and will have you balancing whether you should finish the novel or eat. I know you'll finish the novel, but between the sale of the novel, advance and royalties, you better have a great support system.


I hope this helps.

Blessings,
Geoffrey


***

Afrobella


I got my MFA at the University of Miami. Overall, it was a good experience. The program was undergoing a great deal of change at the time, and I imagine it's better for that transition now -- hopefully professors are settled into their positions more and there would be less ruffling of feathers/academic infighting. But my advice to anyone considering the degree is, you get out what you put in. If you take it seriously and push yourself to do the best work you can, you can get wonderful results from the experience. I am considering the PhD for my future studies, but for now I am focusing on publishing my work before I commit to any program in particular. I still dream of teaching creative writing, and I am steadily working towards making that a reality.


Patrice Elizabeth Grell Yursik

Afrobella

bella@afrobella.com



***


Tobias Buckell


If you are writing popular fiction, Seton Hill University offers a Masters in Writing Popular Fiction that is a long distance program, where I teach. It has a staff of Romance, Historical, Mystery, Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction authors who all mentor students through the process of writing a novel for the degree. It also offers two week residencies where the authors host workshops about the craft and business of writing.


Blogging at:

www.TobiasBuckell.com

www.BloggingStocks.com

www.Futurismic.com

www.sfnovelists.com


***


Kwame Dawes


What genre?


My advice is always quite simple. Write a list of all the writers (especially American) that you admire and would love to work with. Your list should be about twenty people.


Write down what you hope to do with your MFA after you are through. Teach? Write harder for publication? Work in publishing? Continue to live in your mother's basement?


Write down how long you have to do this program and how much time you have to spend on it in a given year. Do you have to work while you take the program? Do you have money independently to pay for the program?


Write down the parts of the country you just KNOW you could never live in. Do you have aversion to cold? Do you aversions to the South? Do you hate rural settings? Do you need to be near a major urban center? Do you need to have an international airport within half an hour from where you will study?


Quite easily, you can start eliminating programs using some of the information you have laid out. Geographic considerations will help to narrow the pool. Length of program will help to narrow the pool. Cost of program and the financial support available will help to narrow the pool.


Using the list, do a Google search on each author to find out if he or she is teaching in a program. If you find matches, start to list those schools where they are teaching.


Some things to be mindful of:



Small programs can be difficult especially if they are three year programs. You may be stuck with the same professor/author for your entire time. If they like you and you like them great. If not. This could be hellish. It is important to have a strong program with some diversity of permanent staff.


Some programs are designed around the idea of the conservatory—a focused, writing heavy program that does not really engage much conventional academic scholarship. Some programs can be heavily academic. Some programs try to strike a balance, but demand some academic work. You know yourself, and know what you need. Deciding what you want and can stand is critical in deciding about this particular matter.

The basic curriculum, faculty listing, and course listing may be the more critical matters to think about, but pay close attention to the less obvious things. What other programs exist in a school that could be helpful to a writing student--opportunities: working with a journal, working with a team that does workshops in the community, working with a statewide organization that nurtures writing, interaction with other programs and writers from other contexts, etc.


Sometimes these opportunities are far more valuable to the writer than the actual program. Prestige is nothing to sniff at. A program may teach you nothing, but may be packed with stellar writers with big names and fancy Rolodexes. A program may also have a big reputation. While the "pedigree" of one's program won’t dictate long term success as a writer, it often dictates short term success--i.e. the publication of the first book. What you do after that is up to you. But having an MFA from Iowa, NYU, Columbia, or Boston is often attractive to agents. Having an MFA from a less "prestigious" school will mean that a lot more effort will have to go into securing agents, getting publishers to take your work seriously, and so on. But it is not impossible. There is no guarantee that the instruction at the better known schools will be better than the instruction at the lesser known schools. In fact, the truth is that instruction may be better at lesser known schools. But the hit rate of Iowa graduates is higher regardless of the relative quality of their work. and so one may want to think about such issues.

If you are a minority, you may want to be in a program that graduates minorities and hires minorities on staff. I have heard enough horror stories about how debilitating and destructive all-white programs have been for minority students, because the faculty have no appreciation of, or knowledge of the aesthetics that may shape the minority student's work. Aesthetics that are long established and credible.


Gender issues are also important. Most programs tend to have a good balance in terms of gender representation, but it is worth examining those factors before entering a program.


For the hardcore and ambitious writers who have a professionalized attitude to this quest for an MFA, then checking out the publication record of graduates from a given program is absolutely critically. It might shock you to know how few published authors emerge from so many graduate MFA programs in the country that have been offering these programs for years. This may not be a fault of the program, but one can safely say that if publication is the aim, then find out who is producing published authors. Chances are that they are doing something in their programs to help authors to be published.


I could come up with many other considerations, but those are a few to work with.



One love

KD


Finally, I would say that one must ask why one is doing this.



Kwame Dawes

Distinguished Poet In Residence

Louise Fry Scudder Professor of Liberal Arts

Director of the SC Poetry Initiative

Director of USC Arts Institute


Department of English

University of South Carolina

Columbia, SC 29208


***


See also this article at About.com

Comments

Richard said…
Good advice from all.

I'd especially like to second the great Al Young's comment about "low overhead."

As someone who went to an MFA program back in the day -- 34 years ago -- when they were pretty cheap and nobody knew what they were -- and as someone who's also gone to law school (the incredibly inexpensive and excellent University of Florida) and worked at two Florida schools as an administrator or faculty member -- it's astounding to me that some MFA programs now rival law schools in the cost of tuition.

Do not imagine that you will find it easier to make money after you've got an MFA! The most it qualifies many graduates to do is be a low-paid adjunct faculty member teaching English.

So you should go for an MFA with a clear picture of how you can handle it financially and how you can pay off your student loans for years afterward if you don't make the best-seller lists (as 99% of MFAs don't).
Thank, Richard, for your important contribution to this discussion.

Bless,
Geoffrey
Jamaican Dawta said…
Great post with valuable advice.

I was told that an MFA is a terminal degree. However, I noticed that Afrobella plans to pursue a PhD. Is there a PhD. programme that follows the MFA?

Thanks, Mr. Philp.
It's a terminal degree. Unfortunately, some colleges don't view it as such.

Glad to be of help.

Blass,
Geoffrey
Nicole said…
What if you want to become a professor of creative writing? Then does it make sense to get an MFA?
Nicole, my advice would be to write the best book that you can write and then worry about an MFA.

You'd come with a bankable name and your students would trust you--that you've been there and know what you're talking about.

Bless,
Geoffrey
good advice. when i was looking for a program i knew i wanted to move east, so i focused my search there. i LOVED my program (brooklyn college). i decided on the school because i love the diversity of the city (and if you're west indian, you can't beat brooklyn!), and i also loved the writers/teachers i'd have the opportunity to work with.

Jamaican Dawta,

there are some schools, such as my undergrad alma mater (Univ. of Southern California) that offer PhD's in creative writing. you can either do the MFA or PhD through them.

Nicole,

Geoffrey is right! one of my MFA professors, who guided our workshop for the first year, didn't have an MFA. he had just worked his way through the writing world publishing like a mad man for years.
Anonymous said…
Allow me to be a little cynical about getting an MFA -- and to do so, I'm going to have to remain anonymous (sorry, I hate posting anonymously).

I did half an MFA program a little over a decade ago -- on a full merit scholarship, so it didn't cost me a cent. I was in a program with a decent reputation, I was taking a class with a Big Name Writer who is known for doing favors to students (and he liked me) -- but at a certain point I realized that there were a hundred other students in this same program, and well over a hundred equivalent MFA programs across the country, and there simply weren't enough academic jobs for all of us. So I dropped out, started working in construction, and wrote at night. I need to remain anonymous, but let's just say I now have a satisfying career writing in my chosen form (creative non-fiction), I have a substantial retirement account, and I don't have to teach.

To bring the point home a little more.... A close friend who got her MFA from the same school 15 years ago has finally gotten a tenure-track position, after *years* of teaching as an adjunct and *more* years teaching on one-year contracts -- 15 years for her to get, not tenure, but tenure-track! That's the reality of the academic job market. And she's published two books (excellent reviews and decent sales),*lots* of stories, gotten a Yaddo fellowship, the whole nine yards -- but only now is she in tenure track.

So having an MFA is by no means a sure ticket to fame and fortune, let alone a sure ticket to academic success. I'll add a further caveat -- my friend points out that search committees for academic positions are staffed by PhD's who are snobbish about the MFA degree, to a point where she was even considering getting a PhD in something (anything) just to up her odds of getting a tenured job.

Remember, the people who are writing above are the ones who have succeeded with an MFA -- but there are far more people for whom an MFA is nothing more than a big debt load. So be honest before making the plunge -- and have a back-up career that provides benefits and retirement!!
Dear Anonymous,

These are very serious concerns that anyone entering an MFA should seriously consider. I also think that a good teacher and workshop help tremendously because s/he and your fellow writers can often provide the support and the insight to solve certain aesthetic problems with narrative, plot, word choice--even when you think they are wrong.
Richard said…
Anonymous's warning is well-taken. As I wrote in my comment above, "Do not imagine that you will find it easier to make money after you've got an MFA! The most it qualifies many graduates to do is be a low-paid adjunct faculty member teaching English."

That said, I'm still unsure of why Anonymous dropped out of his or her program unless getting an academic position was the real goal.

Granted, I went to an MFA program at Brooklyn 34 years ago, but none of us -- including me -- really thought of it as a way to a teaching career. I got into college teaching by accident, but I've spent just as much time in the legal field.

Of my seven classmates in the fiction MFA, three published boo ks and another two still publish in periodicals. The writers are two lawyers, a systems analyst, a chief financial officer at a high-tech firm and a contractor turned dairy farmer.

Basically there are no masters degrees, even terminal ones, in the humanities, liberal arts or even sciences that assure one of better job prospects in 2008.

As a law school administrator, I can tell you that in today's economy, even a J.D. does not guarantee our graduates a job anymore!
Rona Fernandez said…
Wow, what a great post. I learned more about choosing an MFA in this post than i have in many conversations I've had with fellow writers, faculty at different institutions, etc. As both a left-and-right-brain-thinker, I especially appreciated Kwame Dawes' methodical approach to narrowing down the ridiculously long list of possible MFA schools to ones that actually make sense for me. Muchisimas gracias!
Welcome, Rona!
Give thanks for the kind words. I'll pass them on to Kwame.

I plan to do more posts like this in 2009 because many writers seem to benefit from them.

1Love,
Geoffrey

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