ASK MJ: HOW TO GET AN MFA
Today, someone on Twitter asked me: “After getting a BA in Creative Writing, is graduate school for the same a bad idea?”
I replied that I thought it was a good idea to get experience in something else. To which someone else then replied: “Why? I’m getting my undergrad in writing and getting into a really good MFA [Master of Fine Arts] program is a big dream of mine.” Then many other people asked why. Why was I saying this? Do I just love the sound of crushing sweet, sweet dreams?
No! On the contrary, I hope to ASSIST you in making your dreams into reality! Since many people seemed curious about this, I thought it best to EXPAND my views into a blog post! Let us talk about MFAs, and let us be candid.
First of all, I don’t really like BAs in creative writing to begin with. But okay. Let’s say you have one, since that was the question. If you are considering an MFA in writing (which is the only kind of MFA I am talking about here), ask yourself this: “What do I hope to accomplish with my degree?”
*pauses while question is answered* Okay. Did you answer:
- to impress people with my fancy schooling
- to stay in school forever
- to find myself
- to delay getting a job
- to annoy my parents
- to figure out if I like writing
- to keep my campus parking permit
. . . WRONG ANSWER! *takes paper, eats*
Let’s get one thing clear . . . NO ONE WILL CARE ABOUT YOUR MFA EXCEPT YOUR MOM. MFAs confer no power. The only thing they technically allow you to do is teach other MFAs, except those jobs usually only go to people with some kind of publication record, many (if not most) of whom won’t have MFAs—or, more annoyingly, to the English MAs who often have mandatory experience teaching Freshman Comp—so don’t rely on it for that. Editors don’t care. Agents don’t care. It doesn’t increase your chances of publication one iota. MFAs are so expensive and essentially useless that they are definitely NOT the place to figure out if you like writing. The ONLY thing you can hope the MFA will do is improve your skills. That’s it. (And there are many people who hold that MFAs make you WORSE, not better. I think mine helped me, but I can definitely see their point.)
Now, if you go right from college to an MFA program, your only life experience up until this point has been in school. I realize that everyone has a life outside of class and everyone has their own story and personality, but . . . you’ve still be in college the whole time. And college is, well, college. Which leads to two potential problems:
THE SIN OF BORING
Up until now, you’ve always been in arenas where people have had to read your work, because you were a student. Once you are out of that arena, you enter a world of fierce competition, where no one has to read a word you write. So you had better be interesting.
Let’s get right down to it—if you are in a writing program, you are kind of paying for people to humor you. If you want to spend two or three years writing dense, tangled narratives about the life and death of your pet parakeet BooBoo,* your teachers and your fellow students may encourage you to stop, but no on can actually stop you without tazing you.** And the reason you may be doing this is . . .
YOU DON’T HAVE ENOUGH MATERIAL YET
The best material and the best method comes from life, life outside of the routine of college. Sure, stuff can happen to you in college—really weird and crazy stuff. But you’d be amazed just how SIMILAR a lot of that weird and crazy stuff is, how a lot of people will have the same stories.
Here’s a little story about ME . . .
“Great!” you may say. “That’s means people will LIKE my story because it will remind them of their own experiences!”
It doesn’t work that way. The key is PERSPECTIVE. You need experience and time to figure out how to frame those events, to realize what they mean in the long run. Plus, you just need MORE STUFF to happen to you outside of the confines of a campus. You need to struggle and have heartache and have to search for a job and a place to live and make important decisions.
The people I saw who really excelled in the MFA program were people who had been out of school at least for a few years. Pretty much all of these people had had jobs. And some people had come from very different fields of study. The difference in the writing was incredible. I mean, even if you are writing about vampires or werewombats . . . you still need to instill your story with an underlying BIG TRUTH about love or loss. Maybe you want to write about a girl who moves to New York to make it big! Awesome! What do you know about that? Have you tried to move to a place and make it big? Have you ever moved anywhere on your own? It’s experience and perspective that give stories depth.
Frankly, I don’t push MFAs on people at all. I did one, and I’m glad, but I don’t think it is what made me. And when I look around at all of my writer friends, I’m the ONLY one (that I can think of) with an MFA. They all had various kinds of experiences. John Green was a hospital chaplain. Ally Carter was an agricultural economist. David Leviathan still is an editor/publisher. Justine Larbalestier has a PhD in semiotics. Scott Westerfeld designed software. Robin Wasserman did her graduate work in scientific history. Cassie Clare worked for the National Enquirer. Meg Cabot ran a dormitory. The list goes on and on.
I had loads of jobs. I was a waitress in a theme restaurant, I traveled around the country with a media company, I worked in theater, I worked with tigers and weirdos and directors who made everyone take off their pants for rehearsal, for management consultants who used incomprehensible jargon . . . and I wrote. I used a lot of what I saw. I used crazy customers. I used the worry of not being able to make the rent. I used the psychology I learned from waiting tables. I used the struggle and loss and uncertainty and excitement and wisdom . . . all from things that happened to me after I left the security of a campus and moved to a city and made it on my own.
And I got an MFA.
Since I HAVE one, let me give you my suggestions for MFA success:
1. Know what you want. An MFA is loosey-goosey enough, so have a goal in mind. Don’t go there to “find yourself.” Go there to sharpen what you already have. But in order to figure out what that is . . .
2. Take a few years between your BA and MFA. Write a lot. Finish something.
3. Research any program you are considering to a fault. An MFA is no place for a safety school. Get into the one you want, or don’t go. Consider the faculty. Look them up. Read their books. Consider their graduates. Are they publishing? Can they demonstrate a clear track record? Consider the classes and programs offered. Do they offer any interaction with the publishing industry in addition to the academic work? Consider the acceptance rate. If they take the majority of people who apply, be wary. Consider how much it costs. Do they offer scholarships or allow you to work while you’re in school? Don’t be afraid to ask these questions.
4. Avoid the “my work is too good for this world” art snobs. MFA programs are full of them.
5. Stick with the people who work hard and write much, for theirs is the path of writeousness. (Sorry for that.) (But it’s true.)
6. Remember that the program is finite. Like the people of Ye Olde Times who used to put up pictures of dancing skeletons to remind themselves constantly that life is short and vanity is foolish, always think about life after your MFA. In fact, live that life as much as you can. Prepare by learning as much as you can about publishing and securing a way of earning income.
I truly believe those six steps will help you have a FULFILLING experience in an MFA program.
I hope this helps. It has certainly helped me break my cycle of NOT WRITING BLOG POSTS FOR A WHILE. This was because I was writing A BOOK. But I am back on the saddle now, so if you need ADVICE on other matters, please let me know.
* Believe me, I have seen this happen.
** They have probably considered this.