How to Choose an MFA in Creative Writing
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Finally, I would say that one must ask why one is doing this.
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