MFA: Expectation vs. Reality

Laura Maylene Walter
August 20, 2016
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It’s mid-August, the time of year when aspiring writers all over the country are gearing up to begin MFA programs. Only three short years ago, that was me. I remember the nerves, the excitement, the self-doubt, the anxiety. Would I get along with my cohort? Would I become a better writer? Was this decision worth giving up the comforts of my stable job and life?

Prior to the MFA, I’d spent a solid decade working in the nonprofit and corporate worlds, which made academia seem like a long-lost, distant land. As a result, I created an idealized version of what life in an MFA program would be like. I imagined a writing utopia, a two-year period where I had no responsibilities other than my fiction. I could write for six hours a day! Scratch that. Eight hours a day. I literally pictured myself sitting at my writing desk all day, every day. Who knew what I could accomplish now that I didn’t have to work my corporate job? Plus, the fact that I’d achieved a consistent writing schedule back in the “real world” made me confident that I could make a seamless transition into the MFA writing life.

But the MFA experience initially wasn’t as blissful as I’d hoped. Teaching undergraduate courses, as part of my assistantship, took about five times more time, planning, and mental and emotional energy than I’d expected. And while I attended a studio program, there were still electives, pedagogy classes, editing responsibilities, and other coursework that made significant demands on my time. Not to mention the general stress of doing my best work and trying desperately not to let this opportunity slip through my fingers. For much of the first semester, I didn’t write as much as I’d wanted to. Sometimes I was even afraid to write, a problem I didn’t face often pre-MFA.

My MFA writing desk.

My desk during the MFA, complete with necessary tea.

Three years later, I can say it all worked out for the best. Despite the pressures of the program, I did have more time to write. More important, I had ample mental space to think about my writing without being distracted by the corporate world; it also didn’t hurt that I was constantly surrounded by other aspiring writers who saw the value in literary pursuits. During my time in the program, I improved as a writer, made new friends, and gained additional professional skills. I’d do it all over, no question.

But now that MFA programs are receiving yet another new crop of students—including a handful of writers I either know or wrote letters of recommendation for—I found myself wondering about these writers’ expectations, hopes, and anxieties. And so I decided to ask.

I created two surveys—one for incoming MFA students, and one for recent MFA graduates—that posed short lists of questions about perceived expectations, benefits, and challenges surrounding MFA programs. I linked to the survey in some Facebook groups and on Twitter. A few dozen writers responded, and I compiled their answers anonymously.

The MFA graduates—of whom roughly 67 percent were fiction writers, 25 percent poets, and 8 percent nonfiction writers—completed their programs between 2011 and 2016. The incoming students—57 percent fiction writers, 29 percent poets, 7 percent nonfiction, and 7 percent screenwriting—are currently entering MFA programs in creative writing. My admittedly small-scale, nonscientific study allowed me to compare new students’ expectations with graduates’ reflections on how it all shook out.

Genius vs. Total Fraud

I started by asking the incoming students how confident they felt about their writing as they prepared to enter their MFA programs. A strange mix of ego and insecurity is often involved in pursuing a graduate degree in creative writing (or to be a writer at all), and I wondered how these new students were handling that conflict.

As it turns out, most of the respondents exhibited that particular blend of swagger and absolute terror that many writers know well.

“I swing between mildly confident and [thinking] my professors are going to wonder why they’re wasting their resources on me,” one writer admitted. Another wrote, “I feel I have brief moments of competence amidst lengthy stretches of failure,” while yet another worried “that I will be the worst writer of the lot, and everyone will know it.”

But perhaps my favorite response was this gem: “Some days I’m a genius; some days a total fraud.”

For these writers and all the others like them, I offer #17a from “How to Be a Contemporary Writer,” a list of advice penned by none other than Roxane Gay: “You are neither as great or terrible a writer as you assume.”

Seeking a Community

When I asked incoming MFA students what they were most excited for, the standout answer was clear: the chance to become a part of a literary community. One writer looked forward to “being a part of a group of people that will push and motivate me to write more often, more seriously,” while another anticipated “the opportunity to focus most of my attention on my fiction, and to have a community to share it with.”

The second most popular answer, meanwhile, would have to be “time to write.” This response also shared the most overlap with the responses from MFA graduates. Again and again, graduates asserted that the most valuable benefit of their MFA program was, simply, the time afforded to write. Other graduates, meanwhile, acknowledged that teaching experience, help from mentors, the opportunity to work with visiting writers, and even escaping a struggling economy were major benefits.

“The MFA made me a writer,” one graduate wrote. “It taught me that a writer is only as strong or talented as her discipline—that in order to be successful, you have to sit down and do the work.”

Many incoming MFA students recognized that graduate school might improve their discipline. One new MFA student hoped to “form a more dedicated daily writing practice,” another was determined to develop “a deeper and wider cast of knowledge,” another was intent “to become both a more critical and a kinder reader,” and yet another simply wanted to “be a writer who isn’t afraid to write.” Others hoped to gain more confidence in their writing or take themselves more seriously as writers.

When asked more explicitly the biggest goal they had for their time in the MFA, most writers relayed their desire to complete a book-length manuscript. Many also admitted publishing was a major goal—and not just to rack up some publishing credits while in the program, but to produce a publishable book-length manuscript by the end of the MFA.

That’s a tall order. (One of my professors once stressed, “Your thesis is not your book,” and indeed, I believe every single graduating MFA in my class left with a thesis that, despite its strengths, needed additional time and development.) Still, I suppose producing a publishable book is not a surprising goal for writers who take their work seriously and are about to embark on a few years of focused writing time. I would only advise them to not feel disheartened if a book deal doesn’t come into play after graduation.

Other incoming students, meanwhile, focused more on the process than the end result.

“I hope to develop a consistent routine where I write at least six days a week, and for five of those days, I want to write 4 to 6 hours at the very minimum,” said one writer. (That sound you hear is my gentle sobbing at the memory of my own MFA writing goals and how, at least in the beginning, I failed to meet them. But who’s to say other writers will face the same struggles I did?)

“Honestly,” that same incoming student wrote, “I just want to be better at the end [of the program] than I am now.”

A Foreign Stress

Let’s move on to discuss what many writers do best, aside from writing: feel anxious. Incoming students shared a host of MFA-related worries that ranged from finding the discipline to write, drowning in teaching responsibilities, clashing with fellow students, producing a solid thesis by the end of the program, and surviving on a scant stipend, among other concerns. (I’m thinking of the respondent who worried about “the whiteness of workshop experience and reading assignments” and hope his or her program manages to offer some diversity.)

For those who have already graduated from an MFA program, the most significant challenges proved to be the time-consuming nature of teaching or otherwise finding time to write while in a demanding graduate program.

“I was a TA, and teaching plus writing was a struggle,” one recent graduate wrote. “Teaching was a more foreign stress, and it was easy to get caught up in that.” Another cited twelve-hour days: “We were expected to work for the university 30 hours a week and take 4 courses a semester. I remember sleeping in the office a lot.”

One graduate asserted that money was the primary challenge: “Even though I didn’t go into debt during my program, and everyone was fully funded, living on $15,000/year as an adult just doesn’t cut it.” Yet another highlights how a writer’s cohort can make or break the experience: “The pettiness, lack of professionalism, and butting personalities made certain situations (running a lit mag, classes, events, etc.) difficult.”

One graduate can sum up her biggest challenge in a single word: distractions.

“Between grading, planning my course, more grading, working on my own writing, reading for [a literary journal], and producing critiques/work for workshop, I was stretched pretty thin,” she admits.

Expectation vs. Reality

When asked to anticipate which aspect of the MFA would have the largest impact on their time in the MFA program, 43 percent of incoming MFA students listed “faculty” while 29 percent listed “cohort” and 21 percent “funding.” A scant 7 percent anticipated that professional development (including teaching, editing, conferences, etc.) would have the largest impact, and exactly zero respondents expected that workshop would have the largest impact on his or her time in the program. Similarly, MFA graduates also ignored the “workshop” response when sharing which part of the program (faculty, at 42 percent, followed by cohort at 25 percent) made the actual largest impact on their experiences.

In this respect, it seems the expectations of incoming students align fairly closely with the actual experiences of graduates: faculty and cohort will have a significant impact on the experience, while the workshop itself is considered less important. (Some graduates complained of “toxic” or tear-inducing workshops.)

Of course, it’s the faculty and cohort who ultimately make or break the workshop experience, so perhaps these answers merely reflect an imperfect survey design. Even so, it does appear that graduates and incoming students alike are more focused on their individual writing time and cohort/faculty relationships than the workshop experience itself. Which is interesting, considering that workshop is the core component of most MFA programs.

One incoming MFA student didn’t choose any of these answers for what might have the biggest impact on his experience. Instead, he placed that weight directly on his own shoulders: “If I put in the ass-in-chair hours, I think I’ll get better,” he wrote. “If I lack discipline, it will be a waste.”

More generally, most graduates revealed that their original expectations more or less aligned with their actual graduate school experiences. Many responded with some version of, “It was everything I needed it to be,” or “I knew what I wanted to get out of it—the time to write—and I got just that.”

Others, however, acknowledged a few key areas where their expectations did not align with their MFA realities. One writer thought earning an MFA would yield “some overall positive psychic benefit or validation,” but found that was not the case. Another admitted that the “MFA hangover” following the program was worse than anticipated. Others were let down by the experience of teaching, or were unable to monetize the degree as they originally hoped.

“I was poorer than I thought possible, [and] professors won’t go out of the way to help you unless you’re magically one of the anointed,” one graduate wrote of her experience in the program. “You also bear the burden of the effects of faculty not getting along. There were more useless hoops to jump through than would ever help me get better at writing. Both the lit classes and the teaching load could be crippling.”

Lest the honesty of that response scare away some incoming students, rest assured that even when graduates had some gripes, the overwhelming majority of them would do it all again, no question.

“It had its problems, but I learned something from everyone and I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without it,” one graduate said. “Ultimately, I gained what I needed from my program—an excellent mentor who helped me produce a novel I’m proud of.”

Other graduates claimed that while they would never take back the MFA, they might choose a different program—either a better funded program, a more diverse program, or a studio program that was less academic.

Overall, these survey results from both incoming students and graduates reflected much of my own experience, which is that a graduate program in creative writing can be stressful, overwhelming, insecurity-inducing, and yet also incredibly rewarding.

“I learned so much, and [the MFA] left me with the skills I need to pursue my writing career beyond academia,” a recent graduate wrote. “There’s no way I’d be the writer I am now without the MFA.”

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