Should you go back to school?
Four writers share their graduate-school experiences to help you decide whether or not to pursue an advanced writing degree
Published: August 2, 2011
|While you can try out many avenues to improve your writing, from participating in a writing group to attending a writers conference to reading this website and its companion magazine, you may wonder if you could benefit from dedicating two or three years to immersing yourself in your craft—that is, you may ask yourself whether or not you should pursue a creative-writing degree. |
In a graduate writing program, you can focus on fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, writing for young adults, screenwriting, nature writing or even professional writing. You can receive an MA, MFA or Ph.D. You can choose a traditional program, or you can select a low-residency program, which allows you to work in your current job as you design, with the guidance of a mentor, an intense regimen catered to your own needs.
But before you worry about exactly what kind of program would suit you, consider whether
a degree program can help you accomplish your writing goals. What if you could talk to
current writing students and recent graduates to pick their brains and find out what you can realistically expect to get out of a degree program? The Writer did just that. These four writers share insights including what they wish they would have known about their programs and what has surprised them most, in the hope that you’ll be better prepared to make your own decision.
fiction and nonfiction works have appeared in Gulf Coast, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Los Angeles Review, Passages North and Camera Obscura. The Nigerian-American writer was born in the Midwest and raised in the South, and she later lived, painted and wrote in the Chinese city of Guǎngzhōu for years. She was a nonfiction editor at the literary journal Sycamore Review, and she’s currently working on a novel. Follow her at twitter.com/chidelia.
School: Purdue University
Degree: Master of Fine Arts in Fiction
Status: Third-year student
Why: I knew that I wanted to do an MFA program as soon as I knew that MFA programs existed. I chose Purdue because it is a three-year, fully funded program located in a cheap, boring town—the perfect setup for writing.
How it is helping: Before beginning my MFA program I had no understanding of, or appreciation for, narrative structure. I thought that beautiful words plus rhythmic sentences added up to a story. But an MFA workshop won’t let you get away with that for long.
Wish I would have known: I wish I’d known how time-consuming teaching would be! My first semester, I found myself spending hours more a week on teaching and planning Freshman Comp than on my own writing. I had to remind myself that I hadn’t enrolled in a graduate program to become the best composition instructor I could be; I enrolled to start the journey toward being the best writer I could be. Remember your priorities, and don’t feel guilty about letting your students drift to the back of the line.
Most surprised by: I was most surprised by the benefits of joining the staff of my school’s literary journal. As an editor, I was able to learn firsthand what the editors of other literary journals wanted in a submission, as well as what things annoy editors to no end. (Hint: There’s absolutely no need to write “THE END” at the end of your prose piece. We know when the piece is finished. We can tell by all that white space and lack of words.)
Bottom line: Doing the MFA has definitely proven to be the best decision for me. But it isn’t for the faint of heart. You have to be able to silence the voices that will inevitably follow you home from workshop. You have to have a solid vision for your work, and be simultaneously flexible and stubborn with that vision. You have to leave your fear—of criticism, of failure—at the door.
Elisa Neckar holds master’s degrees in English and journalism,
and her work has been published in The Offbeat and The Encyclopedia of Women and American Popular Culture. She is currently an assistant editor for Kalmbach Books. Follow her at twitter.com/erneckar.
School: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Degree: Ph.D. in English, Creative Writing track
Status: Doctoral candidate
Why: When I was an undergrad, my adviser looked at me carrying around my copy of the 1,327-page Riverside Chaucer anthology and gently suggested that someone who actually enjoyed reading Middle English was probably a good fit for grad school. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree and went on to earn two master’s degrees, and I am now nearly finished with my Ph.D.—and I’ve never looked back.
How it is helping: I loved picking my concentrations to specialize in and discovering that three seemingly disparate areas—literary journalism, young-adult lit, and online fan and media communities—not only informed each other far more than I’d expected, but they also influenced the development of my creative work. In addition, the regular feedback from my professors and my classmates was invaluable.
Wish I would have known: I went into the program with my eyes wide open, so I wasn’t surprised by the fact that teaching assistantships are hard to get, grant money is tight, and academic jobs postgraduation are hard to come by. However, those are things that not everyone realizes; there’s little room for rose-colored glasses these days.
Most surprised by: I was (pleasantly) surprised by the number of nonwriting classes required for the degree. My master’s degree in English (at Northern Michigan University) required an overwhelming number of workshops, which was great for fine-tuning my craft, but the Ph.D. requires a certain amount of rigorous academic study of fields like theory, literature, modern studies, pop culture, and so on in addition to the writing classes. My program requires you to prove your worth as a well-rounded scholar, not only as a writer, which means intensive comprehensive exams in addition to your dissertation. I’ve loved both broadening my knowledge of some topics and deepening my understanding of others, and the classes were very helpful in preparing me for taking my exams.
Bottom line: I’m a higher-education junkie, constantly finding new areas that I want to study or in which I wish could go back and earn another degree. But it’s not for everyone—a Ph.D. is strenuous, and you have to be willing to be fully committed in terms of your time and finances. I’ve done semesters where I worked 70 hours a week (not including my academic work) to keep myself afloat and barely slept. I’ve been very happy, but not everyone could or would be under those circumstances.
Eric Q. Weinstein
Eric Q. Weinstein is the author of Vivisection, a poetry collection. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in a variety of places, including the Best New Poets 2009 anthology, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Ploughshares and Prairie Schooner. Follow him at twitter.com/ericqweinstein. Web: ericqweinstein.com.
School: New York University
Degree: Master of Fine Arts—Creative Writing (Poetry)
Status: Second-year student
Why: I wanted the chance to participate in a community of writers (most of my friends in college were engineers). I also wanted the credential, so I could teach at the college level later on if I so chose.
How it is helping: The feedback I’ve gotten from my cohort and my instructors has been invaluable. I was sort of living in a solipsistic bubble—at least so far as my writing was concerned—before I started the program. My workshops and craft classes have made me aware of just how interpersonal creative writing is. I’ve also read a ton of books I would never otherwise have picked up.
Wish I would have known: About it sooner. Though I do imagine working for a few years after earning my undergraduate degree gave me some of that oft-cited “life experience,” as well as made me more appreciative of academic life.
Most surprised by: The spectrum of aesthetics and the lack of any definitive “house style.” My classmates’ work ranges from the very formal/conservative to the very avant-garde/experimental. It’s fascinating to see all these different kinds of poetry evolving in real time via the workshop.
Bottom line: I’d absolutely recommend the MFA—particularly the program at NYU—to anyone even remotely interested, with one caveat: Don't go into debt for it. There’s no reason whatsoever to go into debt for an art degree, and I would strongly encourage anyone considering attending an MFA program to only do so if it’s fully funded (or if, for whatever reason, money is no object). I wouldn’t have pursued the degree if I’d had to put myself in debt to do so, and I don’t think anyone should have to.
Lesley Weiss is an editor, writer, and lover of books, crafts and cooking. She is the author of The Absolute Beginners Guide: Stitching Beaded Jewelry. She blogs about writing at lesleymweiss.com. Follow her at twitter.com/lesleymweiss.
School: Pacific University
Degree: MFA in Writing
Why: As a professional editor and writer, I thought more intense study would improve my skills and help me move ahead in my career.
How it helped: The only way to become a better writer is to practice, and an MFA program required rigorous, consistent effort. I spent hundreds of hours reading, writing and revising, and even now, a few years after graduating, I’m still processing everything I learned. I’m still becoming a better writer, and I think I’ll still be learning from the experience years from now.
Wish I would have known: I did a low-residency program because I didn’t want to give
up my job, and I chose a school that was far away so I would be exposed to different perspectives (I live in the Midwest, and I chose a program in the Pacific Northwest). Two things I wish I would have known before making that choice: Many of the students were from the region, so in many ways I was the one with a different perspective, and I was a bit of a minority (although this was also a benefit as a learning experience). Also, because of this strong regional contingent, a lot of local opportunities were generated during the time that I was in the program, including teaching assistantships and mid-term get-togethers that I just couldn’t participate in. I felt like I missed out on the full experience of the program due to geography, especially in regard to teaching and forming connections that would help in that area.
Most surprised by: How many hours and words would add up to so few pages at the end. I took the approach of trying as many suggestions as I could, experimenting with my writing, and trying new things. Of course, many of these experiments were failures. I think one semester I rewrote the same piece seven times, and I ended up eliminating it from my final thesis altogether. It was exhausting, especially since I was working full time, and it could be disheartening when I forgot that I was in the program to learn—not to produce a certain page count.
Bottom line: I think you need to go into any MFA program with a clear idea of what you want to get out of it. If you want to teach writing, you need to remember it’s a competitive line of work and you need to pursue programs that will give you an advantage when you look for a job at the end. I went into the program to become a better writer and editor, and because I thought it would complement my work in publishing. In many ways, I got what I needed out of the experience. I’m a better writer than I was before, and I know I’ll continue learning through reading, writing and revision.
If you are going to pursue a low-residency route, you need to be self-sustaining. You don’t have the support system that a regular classroom-based program can supply. You can’t rely on seeing professors or fellow students on a daily, weekly or even monthly basis. There might be months where you have no face-to-face contact with anyone who understands what exactly you are trying to do. It’s a great way to get entrenched in writing as a solitary pursuit, but you need to have the drive to stick with it on your own.
Be sure to check out the August 2011 issue of The Writer magazine for MFA listings; tips and strategies to keep writing after your MFA; an interview with Lan Samantha Chang, the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; the best day jobs for writers; and much more.