PW recently talked with a few M.F.A. grads and faculty members to ask them about any cautionary tales they might have. Based on their answers, here are five pieces of advice for those starting or thinking about an M.F.A.
1. Don’t try to pack too much in
It’s only two or three years. You’re there to read and write. Several teaching writers advised avoiding work and family obligations as much as possible. Maybe you can fit it all in, but as Betsy Sholl,
a poet and longtime Vermont College M.F.A. faculty member, says: “The creative life requires time to absorb experience and unwind tensions. It’s worth making space in your life, even if it means living on noodles.” Nonfiction writer and UNH faculty member Jaed Coffin adds, “The M.F.A. should be about the writing, not about learning how to be an M.F.A.
professional.” Obviously, teaching fellowships are great opportunities; maybe you have to have a part-time job, and you shouldn’t ditch your family if you’ve got one, but make sure to consciously plan for time to write and read and think and wallow.
2. Ask for what you need
Poet and Auburn University faculty member Keetje Kuipers says: “The M.F.A.—the whole university—is there to feed your intellectual needs for two or three years. If you don’t get everything you want out of your M.F.A., that’s on you.” She means that you should try to stay open to surprises and new possibilities, whether that means new forms of writing, collaborations, or projects that deviate from your plans. At the same time, if you’re not getting what you know you need, don’t be afraid of speaking up and asking for it.
3. Create community
Poets and writers often exist on the margins—but there’s no reason to be on the margins of the margins. Find your people. Former M.F.A. students mentioned the importance of friendships. Fiction writer and Iowa M.F.A. Lewis Robinson says: “The key to productive time in an M.F.A. program is involving yourself in a lot of loose talk in bars. Workshops can be helpful, but what’s better is figuring out what’s truly important with your friends over beers.” If beer isn’t your thing, coffee works too.
4. Watch out for profs who pick favorites
Some teachers choose a pet each semester; don’t take that too seriously. A good teacher will help you figure out what kind of writer you want to be. However, if you change your style to fit a teacher’s taste, or become too dependant on one mentor’s feedback, it can paralyze you and stunt your growth. It can also prevent you from forming writing friendships with your peers. As poet and Columbia M.F.A. Tom Haushalter says, this kind of favoritism leads to“the wrong sort of competitiveness among students.”
5. Don’t worry about publication—yet
Some teachers urge students to constantly send work out and test the waters, but others caution that worrying too much about immediate publication can fog your judgment about the quality of your own work. School is a time for experimentation and figuring out what you don’t know. If you publish too early, it can lead to shame, once you realize that the work wasn’t ready for prime time; stunted development, when you tie your confidence as a writer to quick publication; and out-of-whack expectations, if you don’t develop the toughness and perseverance that comes from rejections.
Remember, an M.F.A. should be fun, first and foremost! What you gain from those two or three years can nurture your creativity for the rest of your life.