For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a writer.
There really wasn’t any other profession that called to me — or frankly one I thought I’d be good at. My first writing job was in the third grade when I was the class poet. Twelve years later I accepted an actual paid writing job at a newspaper. And currently I am a freelance writer who has learned some tough lessons when it comes it making a living as a writer.
If you’re serious about pursuing a literary life, you might have pondered obtaining an MFA, a Master of Fine Arts.
Many colleges and universities offer an MFA program in Writing with a concentration in fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, playwriting, screening or writing for children and young adults. While it’s certainly not a necessity or a prerequisite to writing professionally, obtaining an MFA offers students opportunities to network, hone one’s editing skills and most importantly the structure to write a piece of work ready to pitch to agents.
If you’re considering enrolling in an MFA program, here are some important facts to consider.
1. Different types of programs of study
There are many different types of MFA programs, including online, high residency and low residency programs. Each program is slightly unique in their own way.
Low residency programs offer 10-day intensives a few times a year and will market themselves to the working professional. I recommend proceeding with caution into an MFA program if you work full-time, as it leaves you little time to write. And if you’re not maximizing your writing time, what’s the point?
High-residency programs offer a more traditional graduate school experience and tend to be able to offer more students stipends and teaching assistant opportunities. High residency programs vary in length, but most take 2-3 years to finish.
The majority of the work for lower residencies programs happen at home and will allow students to continue working and more resembles the life of a working writer, which is important to consider. I also suggest that you visit the campus and talk to students in the program as a way to help you decide which is the best program for you.
Read the work of the main faculty members and find faculty members you want to learn from at the university of your choosing.
Get familiar with the faculty at various programs because down the road these faculty members might just be on your thesis review, or better yet, they might be able to help you navigate the publishing world. The heart of any academic program lies in its faculty. A wonderful writing teacher can inspire you and help you nurture your craft and a terrible writing teacher might have you questioning your talent.
I recommend visiting a class and meeting different faculty members and find a few that you can’t wait to learn from.
3. Your end goal
Consider your professional goals.
Do you want to teach writing? If so, seek out programs that offer graduate students opportunities to teach undergrads.
Do you want to learn about publishing? Review course catalogs and discover which programs offer elective classes.
Is your goal to become a blogger? Ensure that your MFA program will meet all of your goals before you apply.
As with attending any graduate program, it’s important to make sure that finances are in place before committing to putting a significant amount of tuition aside to attend an MFA program. The cost of most programs typically run between $8,000 – $15,000.
Many programs will offer funding, grants and scholarships. Other programs might offer a small stipend or might even waive tuition. There are often opportunities for undergraduate teaching opportunities in high residency programs, as well as editing a literary journal.
I remember experiencing my MFA program as a job. School and writing were my job and they were a priority. I missed social opportunities and gave up travel and free time (and a gym membership) to devote to my writing, but I understood that having the time to focus on my writing was a gift.
5. Your ability to accept criticism
Oh, it’s so hard to do this! Most of my writer friends and I are sensitive souls. And being sensitive is great for being a writer.
Being a writer also means you’ll receive criticism and negative feedback about your writing. A lot of it. And it can sting. I remember crying after one workshop where my short-story was heavily critiqued.
Hopefully the teacher will foster a kind workshop setting and will suggest that participants share positive feedback as well as constructive feedback. It’s a good idea to visit a workshop ahead of time to discover if the professor and students are invested in each other’s other and are speaking intelligently about the craft elements in the story.
Before enrolling in an MFA program, I also recommend developing a strong inner peace or other meditative practice. Writing can be painful and isolating. I believe that we write better when we’re healthy and strong.
6. How much you want to write
There’s a big difference between taking one college creative writing class and being a full-time MFA student.
Be sure you want to spend a lot of time reading other people’s writing and that you want to and are ready to sit at your computer for hours and struggle with plot development and characters and the creative process. If you’re ready to embrace life as a writer — as sloppy, messy, occasionally lonely, and also experience the joy and thrill of it, then sharpen your mind and get ready. It might just change your life.
Becoming a writer is a lifelong journey.
Being a writer means living with a curiosity and appreciation for being human. Writing well is a skill and like any muscle, it takes time to cultivate and strengthen that skill.
Obtaining an MFA is just one way to improve one’s craft. However, it doesn’t guarantee a publishing contract. It will improve your literary toolbox and just might just give you the inspiration you need to finish that novel or screenplay.