Tuesday, April 8, 2008

To MFA or Not to MFA?

In just about a month I’ll be finishing classes in my intensive two-year MFA in Writing program at the University of San Francisco. Then all that’s left to do is to complete the novel that will be my major project, due in early August, and I’ll graduate with my MFA. The time has flown by and I know I’m going to miss the intellectual stimulation and camaraderie of my fellow writers. I couldn’t have been happier with the program, which offers evening classes twice a week, on Tuesdays (writing workshop) and Wednesdays (seminar). I have learned so much about both craft and literature from wonderful instructors, who are passionate about writing and books.

So as an aspiring novelist should you go for an MFA? There are as many MFA programs out there as there are types of writers and it seems that both are increasing at breakneck speed. It seems now more than ever that everyone wants to write a novel, having been told countless times that everyone has a story in them.

An MFA won’t guarantee that you’ll sell your novel or that you’ll even be able to get a teaching job: it’s not the most practical degree in the world. Many programs combine the study of literature with the teaching of craft, giving students a well-rounded education. If you don’t need or want this, you may be better off having your novel critiqued by a manuscript consultant or teacher and not worry about getting a degree. However, I know there are students in my program who went in knowing they would have deadlines and that they would have their novel finished in two years and this was a big motivator for them; it would have been much harder to do it on their own.

There are a number of programs for working adults that include night courses or what is called “low-residency.” Low-residency MFA programs allow students to do the majority of their work online from home, with a couple of 10-day (or so) stints on-campus per year. This would give a student who lives in California, for example, the opportunity to study at a university in Vermont.

There are many resources on the Web regarding MFA programs. Tom Kealey has written a valuable guide called The Creative Writing MFA, which profiles fifty programs. The book has a useful companion blog as well.

Another source is Poets & Writers Magazine, which is filled with ads for MFA programs. Also, The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) is a great organization that offers The AWP Official Guide to Writing Programs as well as their stimulating magazine, The Writer’s Chronicle.

To all who are graduating soon with their MFAs or who have just been accepted to their dream program—congratulations!


Anonymous said...

Congrats on your upcoming graduation, Wendy. I'm glad that the program was so wonderful for you!

Wendy Tokunaga said...

Thank you, Ericka!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the camaraderie was the best part about the program. I do wonder about those who decide to get an MFA because of the built-in requirement to write a novel in 2 years. I mean, if writers write, shouldn't they be motivated to write it even without the MFA program?

But your other comment was so true - it seems everybody is writing these days because they hear that "everyone has a book in them." But if you want a career as a novelist, you're going to have to have more than one book in you. :)

Huge congrats, Wendy! That must feel great to have accomplished it.

Wendy Tokunaga said...

Kathy, I couldn't agree more with your comment about that if writers write, shouldn't they be motivated to write even without an MFA program. But I think there are people who need that structure, they just can't do it on their own. There could be several reasons: overwhelming family and job responsibilities, which they feel too guilty taking time from, but can feel less so when they're in an official program that they're paying for. Also, those nasty procrastinating demons that are hard for some folks to fight when they're on their own, but can be dealt with a little more easily in a structured setting.

And, yes, it is so true that you're going to need a lot more than one book in you to keep going as a novelist. :-)

Donna said...

I add my congratulations! With all the conflicting opinions on the MFA, it must still feel like an accomplishment to finish up the course work and the project. And I do think editors and agents regard the degree as what it has to be--a symbol of one's serious commitment to the craft of writing. Of course, as always, it's the writing itself that matters most. I do think you did a great job of outlining the pros and cons. For lots of reasons I'm probably going to pass for now, but the prospect is still tempting!