March 17, 2010

Recently a writer asked me the following question:

After I finished a YA book I particularly loved, I found out that the writer is on faculty at the Vermont College MFA program. It's a low-res program - ideal for my lifestyle. I'm considering applying and wondered about your perspective on the pros and cons of an MFA...My goals would be to develop as a stronger writer. For me, that means learning how to go deeper with POV and understanding how to vary my sentence structure to improve pace and description.

This is a great question and one I'm sure many writers anxious to break into publishing ponder at one point or another. In my opinion, a writer who considers, enrolls in, or has completed an MFA is off to a good start. I tend to assume they're willing to work on their craft, accept feedback, and approach their writing as something more serious than a hobby. The writer who posed this question seems to be considering an MFA program for the right reasons. From my side of the desk, when a query comes in and mentions that a writer has completed an MFA, I take note and regard the submission with a higher level of interest.Of course, it's not all rainbows and puppy dogs. Although I didn't attend an MFA program myself (my graduate degree was an MA in Writing, which basically meant less organization in the courses, less focus on the creative side, and more head-scratching when I try to explain what the heck the degree was all about), I can say from my own experience that a writing program is definitely a mixed bag. Because most of the programs do still use the workshop setup, in many ways you're at the mercy of the rest of the class. In some cases, this could be terrific, as you'd be paired with other serious writers looking to offer sound advice to improve your work. That's the ideal scenario. You have to remember, however, that these programs are incredibly competitive--just getting accepted is difficult enough, but once in, everyone is competing over awards, publication in the literary magazine (if there is one), and the attention of the instructors. Even if you're not in an overly competitive program, stories that get workshopped ad nauseam can sometimes get so caught up in the particulars that they never get to bloom, like a flower that's being repeatedly covered in new soil, fertilizer, and plant food until it's just a pile of soggy dirt.In fact, a former colleague of mine from my days working in grad school practically refused to read anything published by a graduate of an MFA program. He felt these works had a shared pretentiousness about them that stunk of writing groups, self-congratulatory short stories, and purple prose. I once handed him my worn copy of Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, assuming he, an avid fan of comic books his whole life, would adore it like I did. He gave it back after reading the first 75 pages, claiming the writing read like, "An overblown MFA thesis." "But it won the Pulitzer Prize!" I argued. "Bah! The Pullet Surprise? Who cares?" he said. He, a card-carrying curmudgeon, is the exemption, I'm sure.The faculty for a particular program is important as well. It's always smart to ask around about the faculty before signing up. Unfortunately, some of the big name writers out there who wind up teaching should stay behind their desks. Just because they write beautifully doesn't mean they can teach you how to do so, and you want to make sure they're going to take the program seriously and aren't just looking to cash a check.Aside from the above concerns, enrolling in an MFA program is generally a smart idea, as long as you take the following into consideration:

  • You can afford the commitment of time and money
  • You've researched the faculty
  • You're serious about your craft
  • You're willing to take and dispense criticism without letting your ego get in the way
  • You know that you're not guaranteed publication upon completion

That last one is very important. I fear many people assume because they're putting up serious money and time to attend an MFA program, they should be awarded with a book contract once the degree is in hand. Sadly, this is not always the case. For every Trenton Lee Stewart out there, there are plenty of George Fakelastnames who never make it. An MFA program can definitely help you hone your craft, but it's not the golden ticket in the chocolate bar many wish it was. You still need a great story, commitment, and a few lucky breaks.If anyone is considering, currently enrolled in, or has finished an MFA program, I'd love to hear your take!