Dear M.F.A. hopeful,
You’ve most likely reached this page because you’re doing some research on M.F.A. programs — what’s out there, how to get in, what it’s like once you’re there. Like outer space, heaven, and the fourth dimension, this realm is foreign to you … which is both terrifying and alluring.
If you’re anything like me, the allure will be more powerful than the terror. But here is exactly where (and why) you need to exercise the most caution, because much like your biggest crush or your dream job, not everything will be what it seems like on paper, and your expectations can get the best of you.
Your mind can easily turn the M.F.A. program(s) you get accepted to into the great and powerful Oz before you ever arrive. Continue on if you’re ready to see what might be waiting behind the curtain for you.
TIME TO GET REAL
Has at least one person in your life questioned the practicality of your plan to abandon that safe, decent-paying job for an “artsy-fartsy” writing program? Do people mock the optimism you wear on your sleeve? Have you already started imagining what your peers and teachers will be like? Are you a dreamer?
Of course you are; you’re a writer.
I was just like you. Then I got a heaping helping of reality.
But I don’t say this with any sort of cynicism or bitterness. No, my friends, reality is good. I just wish I’d had more of a sense of it before I arrived bright-tailed and bushy-eyed to Bowling Green, Ohio. Hence why I’m writing this to you.
I will always maintain that an M.F.A. program has a lot to offer any writer, so long as that writer puts forth the effort and makes the most of whatever he or she finds him/herself in. Here’s why.
Myth No. 1: An M.F.A. program is a safe haven for writers of all types to come and feel the love.
Reality: An M.F.A. program has the same characters that star in the real world, and they will behave (and misbehave) in the workshop just like they did and do outside of it.
The sexists. The racists. The homophobes. The fanatics. The narcissists. The liars. The bullies.
The list goes on and on, but you get the point.
It should also have the brainiacs, the passionate, the gifted. But while I had the privilege of working with many fantastic people I wouldn’t trade for the world in my M.F.A. program, I made a huge mistake when I assumed that everyone would treat me and the people around me with common courtesy, human decency, and plain old respect just because we were (technically speaking) united under the same cause.
Never assume other writers are like you or will like you just because they write. It may seem obvious, but I guarantee at least one person reading this will be as clueless as the person writing this was about this fact.
Myth No. 2: All your teachers will care about you and your work, and they’ll be great mentors.
Reality: Consider yourself lucky and/or blessed if you get one teacher in your entire writing career who gets you and your work and is invested in your success … because if you do, you will be lucky/blessed.
Although I know it may sound a bit insane to you if you have no point of comparison on a graduate level, having worked with many other teachers (some good, some not so good) in both poetry and fiction during undergrad, I truly believe that at Bowling Green, I had the absolute best writing mentor for me I could’ve ever had.
Not all of my peers were as fortunate, though. I saw it firsthand — their frustration, their alienation, their disappointment. While I believe even the worst teachers provide (often unintentionally) something we needed to learn, it’s hard to agree or find the lesson when we’re just trying to survive the ambivalence, ignorance, or even straight-up humiliation. After all, part of the reason you entered a program was presumably to acquire the exact opposite.
It’s been said many times by many others, but it bears repeating here: Not all writers make good teachers. Some writers teach to have more time for their own writing — nothing more. So no, they won’t care about pedagogy. They won’t care about straying outside the canon. Sometimes they won’t even show up to class. You see how unrealistic an expectation it is to believe these types of people would ever care about your work?
Myth No. 3: Well, at least you can count on your peers for great feedback.
Reality: Not so much. See Myth No. 1.
It would be surprising (well, maybe not too surprising, but let’s suspend the disbelief a little here) if you didn’t find at least one peer in an M.F.A. program who really engaged with your work and gave you constructive, revision-minded feedback most of the time.
It would also be surprising if that person came through for you on the same level during spring semester of your final year, right before everyone’s theses were due.
It would also be surprising if most everyone else didn’t just focus on their own work for the entire duration of the program. And technically speaking, they’re not entirely wrong for doing so.
Myth No. 4: Your best writing will happen while you’re in your M.F.A. program.
Reality: If it does, you’re doomed as a writer.
It’s like that guy who peaked in high school. No one wants to be that guy. He ends up with a beer gut and a job scraping pigeon crap off roofs (no offense, crap scrapers).
I’m not saying you won’t see improvement during your M.F.A. program; you should, or something is probably wrong. I’m not saying you won’t do your best writing thus far in your life while in your M.F.A. program; you should, and it’s a good sign of growth. I’m just saying, keep growing.
Your M.F.A. program lasts two, maybe three years at best, and even if you try to extend it by getting a Ph.D. in creative writing, that program too must come to an end at some point.
When it does, life goes on. Your writing will have to go on. You will have to figure out how to do it successfully. Hopefully you’ll have a structure/regimen that works for you, a schedule and some mentors/peers to rely on, but ultimately, it will come down to you. And you will either continue to best your best writing, or you will stop writing (either temporarily or permanently). I’d advise against the latter.
Myth No. 5: M.F.A. — I’m going to get published!
Reality: The two truly have nothing to do with each other. Seriously.
Some of the people in my program (myself included) had work published before the M.F.A. program. Some still haven’t had anything picked up by a literary magazine or press. It happens. I’m very opinionated regarding why it happens — and I’m referring to the crap shoot that is the world of literary magazines if you’re an unestablished writer (or even if you’re an established writer) rather than the “evident talent” some would argue is the reason they have selected one piece of writing over another.
You can put all the energy and effort into a piece and never see it published (well, unless you self-publish, but that’s a whole other story). You can draft something in a day, revise it twice, and see it in print the same year. Your M.F.A. program may encourage you to submit work for publication — actually, it should be doing this whether your work is “ready” or not because it is such a crap shoot, and you just never know. But just because you’re in or have attended an M.F.A. program doesn’t mean your work will ever see the light of day. Hopefully you’re not writing for this, or at least not this alone.
Myth No. 6: You need an M.F.A. program.
Reality: You need your own willpower, dedication, and belief in your work. Without this, not even the Iowa Writers’ Workshop can save you. (A little M.F.A. humor there.)
All this may have you thinking I’m discouraging you from attending an M.F.A. program. This is not the case. See more about it at my blog here. It’s just important to know your own expectations about, well, any major life choice, really, before making a final decision.
If you think an M.F.A. program is going to surround you with only the best people to review your work, you’re wrong.
If you think an M.F.A. program will make you write, you’re wrong. They’ll just kick you out if you don’t.
If you think your writing will improve in an M.F.A. program, you’re not necessarily wrong, but you’re not necessarily right, either. This depends on you.
Actually, all of it does. No matter how much research, preparation, visitation, conversation, etc., you engage in before finally applying, getting accepted, and arriving at your first graduate workshop, you will find some dream dashed, some expectation (often one you didn’t even know you had) completely unfulfilled by your M.F.A. program.
But if you’ve really got what it takes to be a successful writer, you will go on. Because going on actually is all it takes to become a successful writer — or successful anything, really.
The greatest gift of my M.F.A. program was this lesson. It was seeing the majority of my hopes destroyed, having to accept the realities glaring in my face, and moving forward with what remained that ultimately gave me the confidence that I could and would survive through and beyond the program as a writer. That’s because my M.F.A. program forced me to give me myself as a writer. With any luck, yours — or some other path in your life — will do the same.