Pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing

Graduation for MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, June 26, 2016

People have asked me about my experiences in Goddard College’s Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing program, so I thought I would post about them. Hopefully this will help anyone thinking of pursuing his or her own MFA.

I have been writing for publication for over 20 years. I started pursuing my writing seriously while I was working on my master’s degree in journalism at Indiana University. In the summer before I graduated, I attended the six-week Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop at Michigan State University (it has since moved to the University of California at San Diego). At that workshop, I worked with instructors such as Tim Powers and Samuel R. Delany who helped me onto the path of becoming a published fiction author. During that workshop, and afterward, I spent a lot of time thinking about genre fiction and developing my writing process.

After the Clarion workshop, I decided that I want to master as many styles and genres of writing as I possibly can. I decided that I want to be the kind of professional who can write anything, write it well, and deliver it on time. If an editor approaches me and says “We’d like you to write a narrative sestina that re-tells the myth of Daedalus in a near-future dystopian setting; what do you think?” or says “We need a 4,000-word, first-person Lovecraftian story set in Victorian England,” I feel that my response should be “Why yes, I can do that; when do you need it?”

I pursued my writing goals and sold dozens of short stories and poems to a wide range of competitive publications. I also sold several collections, and Del Rey published three of my novels. In short, things were going well.

But I also realized I wanted to develop more depth as a writer. I missed the intense study experience of Clarion and wanted to connect with a new, vibrant community of writers. I wanted to gain new practical and theoretical knowledge and the stronger grounding in literary fiction and writing theory. I wanted to do substantial work in a form I had not attempted before.

And so I decided to start applying to MFA in creative writing programs. Specifically, I wanted to apply to a program with a low-residency format, which would enable me to continue living in Columbus while I pursued my degree. I knew I’d have to attend week-long, in-person residencies at the college campus twice a year, but I wouldn’t have to pull up stakes, quit my job, and move to a strange town.

As a working writer, I knew I was in a very different place than most prospective MFA students. Some students enroll in creative writing programs in order to have the freedom to discover who they are as writers; I already had a well-established writing identity. Many students pursue creative writing MFAs as a way to gain the skills necessary for publication; I was already published.

As a consequence, many people questioned why I wanted to go back to school. Didn’t I already have a master’s degree? Wasn’t I already doing the thing that MFAs are supposed to enable a writer to do?

The answer I gave was that I wanted the credentials necessary to teach at the college level. I explained that I could sell a dozen novels but few college English programs would ever consider hiring me to teach without an MFA or PhD (or a high-level literary award). Most people were surprised by this news, but would then nod, satisfied that I’d de-mystified my motivations. Corporate America has primed us all to understand professional development!

Figuring Out How To Make an MFA Workable

Once I started telling people that I wanted to pursue a low-residency MFA in creative writing, other working writers were not shy about regaling me with their MFA horror stories. So naturally I had lingering concerns about enrolling in a program. Would the other students accept me as a fellow student, or would I be an outsider? Would the other students resent my presence because I was already published? Would I face tedious lit snobbery from students and faculty who look down on speculative fiction? Would members of the faculty who don’t publish very much view me with hostility? Would I be assigned to well-meaning advisors who didn’t understand genre and therefore didn’t understand what I was trying to accomplish with my work? Would I receive less-than-optimal advice as a result?

Furthermore, several people said, “No! Don’t put yourself into that kind of debt!”

This was the real point of worry for me. I’m not wealthy; like many writers, I normally need a day job and a part-time adjunct faculty job in addition to my freelance writing, and despite all that work, I’m still driving a 22-year-old car. My side hustles have side hustles. I’m not alone; lots of people have joined the precariat. But while wages have remained flat in a lot of jobs, college tuition costs have rocketed like they’re on a mission to Mars. Total tuition costs at low-residency MFA programs in the U.S. currently ranges from $20,000-$40,000, not counting costs of books, travel, wages lost to residencies and study time, etc. That’s a lot.

Paying for school these days represents a crushing debt burden for many students. I know people who owe so much on their student loans that they have no expectation of ever being able to pay it all off, in no small part because their degrees have not helped them get the kinds of jobs necessary to make a dent in their debt.

But here, at least, I had a solid plan: I was employed full-time at a not-for-profit private college that participates in the The Council of Independent Colleges’ tuition exchange program. And I knew that several schools that participated in that program also offered MFAs in creative writing.

How does the program work? Here’s their blurb:

CIC-TEP is a network of CIC member colleges and universities willing to accept, tuition-free, students from families of full-time employees of other participating institutions. Each participating institution in the network agrees to import a limited number of students on the same admission basis as they accept all other students, without regard to the number of students it exports.

CIC-TEP began more than 30 years ago when a small group of member presidents suggested that CIC create a program with minimal rules and low fees that they could offer as a benefit to employees. Today, 436​ colleges and universities (roughly two-thirds of all CIC Members) from 48 states and five countries are participating. Over the decades, thousands of employees and their spouses and dependents have been able to attend college tuition-free. This year alone, more than 1,700 students were able to fulfill their educational goals thanks to CIC-TEP.​​​

The basic deal is that if you’re an employee at one CIC institution, you and your dependents can get tuition remission for degrees at other member colleges. In some instances, this is a far better deal than the tuition remission that universities offer their staff for study. For instance, Franklin University staff who want to obtain graduate degrees at Franklin only have 50% of their tuition covered. Through the CIC program, assuming the degree is online or low-residency, 100% of full-time graduate tuition could be covered.

Unfortunately, actual details about whether or not I would receive funding were hard to come by. I found out that I had to apply to a participating school, be accepted into the program, and then I would have my employing school fill out a CIC scholarship application for me. But the HR rep who was submitting the paperwork on my behalf had no idea whether I would get funding or not; we had to wait and see.

Regardless, I figured that if I focused on the best-ranked of those schools – in this case it was Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont – and was accepted, it was likely I’d receive a full scholarship to cover the bulk of my costs. I’d still have to pay for my travel, books, and residency room and board, but those costs were maybe 10% of the total cost of the MFA program. The trick, of course, would be to make sure I could graduate in the limited terms the scholarship would cover.

Even though I had a plan to avoid debt as I sought my MFA in creative writing, I had plenty of logistical concerns. The MFA workload looked daunting: in addition to writing a novel, I would need to read a whole lot of books and write over 140 pages of papers. Furthermore, I had to maintain my full-time job to keep my scholarship, and I had reached a point in my writing career where I was regularly getting invitations to write for fiction projects. I didn’t want to start turning down invitations, because no matter how politely you decline an editor’s request, there’s the chance that a future invitation won’t be forthcoming from that editor ever again. Could I manage graduate school in addition to full-time work, adjunct teaching, and everything else I needed to keep doing?

Ultimately, I realized that the only way I could find answers to my questions was by trying the MFA program to see how things went. I applied to Goddard College with an unabashedly genre piece of fiction: my short story “Magdala Amygdala,” which won the Bram Stoker Award. Readers widely agreed it was the best story I’d written so far. I figured that if Goddard rejected my application, it would be for the horror elements in my story … and it would be for the best.

But Goddard accepted me, and after a few nail-biting months in which I was in planning limbo, I got a confirmation that I’d received my funding through the CIC program. When I attended my first residency, I was pleased to find that most of my concerns were unfounded. The faculty and students were overall very supportive, and I encountered far fewer students who resented my presence than I’d expected. So far, so good. My next goal would be to determine what I actually wanted to accomplish in the program.

What the Program Was Like

When I applied, I knew I wanted to write a novel for my creative thesis. I’d come to realize that no matter how many short stories I write or where they’re published, I won’t have much of a chance of being widely known as a fiction writer unless I produce good novels. And from a practical standpoint, I will never achieve my ultimate, difficult goal of being a full-time fiction writer if I write only short stories.

At my first residency, my faculty advisor and I decided that I would write a fantasy novel for my creative project. In addition to my novel, over the course of the program I would need to read 45-60 agreed-upon books and write short papers on them (at least 12 per term to stay on target). I’d also complete two short critical papers, a teaching practicum and teaching essay, a long critical paper, and a process paper. The program would take a minimum of four terms, but due to the workload many students need five or six terms to graduate. (I knew that I would have to manage to graduate in four terms or my funding would run out.)

During that first residency, I read Robert Chambers’ weird fiction collection The King in Yellow, and my reading sparked the idea for a new Lovecraftian southern gothic novel: The Girl With the Star-Stained Soul, which I first explored as a pair of short stories.

I realized that it would be a better project for me because it took better advantage of my Goddard advisor’s personal and literary expertise but also because it would involve me stretching myself creatively to work in a new genre. It was the first work of young adult fiction that I’ve ever tried to write.

That first semester, I wrote and revised a quarter of the new novel, and I felt good about the quality and quantity of creative work I was able to produce. The first term was a little rocky and extremely stressful because I was in the first stages of trying to figure out how to manage this huge black hole of time and energy that had just dropped squarely into my schedule. I did ultimately learn some new and better time management techniques, because when you have 24 hours of work to do and 12 hours to do it, you figure shit out.

At the start of my second semester, I realized that I also wanted to write more poetry and explore different types of short fiction (again, to take advantage of my advisor’s expertise in those forms). My main regret over my Goddard experience is that I was not able to explore as many different forms as I hoped to initially; while I certainly don’t regret completing a new novel, I do regret that I couldn’t do any work in play writing and graphic novel scripting aside from attending a few residency workshops. There just wasn’t time.

I found my second semester particularly challenging because I had to complete a teaching practicum. Although my writing workshop series was a success and I received a lot of positive student feedback and learned a whole lot about teaching, it was a tremendous sink for time and energy. As a consequence, I made less creative progress than I’d planned, although I was happy with the quality of the work I did produce.

But I had to catch up in my third term. I completed the bulk of my novel, but constantly wished I was getting more done. I found myself spending a great deal of time and energy on my critical work, and that unfortunately slowed my progress on my creative work. It was frankly an exhausting term capping three other exhausting terms; trying to stay on top of everything while I was in the program was incredibly stressful.

I worked hard to get my novel completed by the first deadline of my fourth term; it was ridiculously difficult but I succeeded. I got a lot of support from my husband and close friends during those difficult terms, and I’m not sure any of this would have been workable without them.

What I Learned in my MFA Program

People frequently ask me some variant of, “You were already a published writer before you became a student in the Goddard College MFA in creative writing program; did you actually learn anything new?”

The short answer is: yes, I certainly did. As with a lot of learning environments, you tend to get out of it what you put into it. Which is to say, if you’re not engaged and you only do the bare minimum to scrape by, you probably won’t learn much. But even if you’re already a fairly experienced working writer, if you try to stretch yourself to try new things and immerse yourself in your projects, you’ll certainly be a better writer at the end of the program.

There were specific, craft-related things I learned. The first is that I learned a whole lot more about literary criticism and improved my nonfiction writing game in ways that will continue to be useful to me. The second is that through my reading and writing I learned a whole lot more about the young adult genre; this is immediately useful to me in my adjunct position in the Seton Hill University MFA program. And the third thing was that I gained a much better grounding in African American literature and learned better ways of researching and portraying nonwhite characters.

But in my fourth term, I had an important creative epiphany. I finally realized that it wasn’t just my day job and paper-writing slowing down my progress on my creative writing: I had been battling chronic writer’s block since my second term.

I know of a lot of ways to break a block and was able to fight through to get my work done, but none of the many tactics I tried ever fixed whatever underlying problem was causing my slowdowns. And the fight was constant.

I mentioned my block in my cover letters when I submitted my novel to my advisor John McManus and second reader Susan Kim:

Overall, this novel has been slow going, and I’ve felt tremendously frustrated with myself at my pace. I’ve been struggling with writers block for most of the past year: I’ve been getting my work done, mostly, eventually, but it’s felt like a battle every time I sit down to accomplish anything, and I’m not sure why it’s been happening. (I don’t expect you to have any suggestions that will magically cure this; I only bring it up because it’s been part of my process.)

Because I didn’t ask for advice, John did not mention the block in his feedback and instead focused on my novel in his reply (“Congratulations on completing this draft of The Girl With the Star-Stained Soul, which easily ranks as one of the most fully realized and successful theses I’ve seen at Goddard or anywhere. This is deft, strong writing.”) Susan, however, did address my difficulty:

You have my sincere sympathy. Have you also experienced a similar slowdown when writing short fiction? If not, this might just be your subconscious suggesting that you no longer want to write long form.

Her remarks gave me pause. Could it be that my subconscious was fighting me over writing in a form that I wasn’t cut out for? That thought was far more terrifying to me than a thousand blister-eyed shoggoths. But if it was my reality, I had to face it. So I considered all my Goddard writing, and my freelance writing assignments … and realized I’d had to fight through all of them to one degree or another.

It wasn’t my novel … it was everything. My novel wasn’t more of a problem than anything else, other than that it required more sustained grinding through to finish than other things. And I’m certainly not running short of ideas for novels.

That night, I happened to read “Burnout, Creativity, and the Tyranny of Production Schedules” by author Elizabeth Bear in which she discusses needing to take a break from her writing career:

Between life stress and overwork, I hit a wall at the end of last year. I’ve been struggling with actually accomplishing my job for a while − hating to sit down at the computer, being avoidant, generally feeling not so much blocked as if every word was being taken off my hide with a potato peeler.

“Yes!” I thought. “A potato peeler! That’s what this has felt like! Every single word!”

I read on, and she discussed how, after attending a critical peer workshop, she became hyper-critical of her own fiction and nothing she wrote ever seemed good enough to her. Invitations to write for new projects gave her a spike of anxiety. Her situation and reactions all seemed gut-churningly familiar to me.

But I also realized that if I continued to be successful, I will have more and more fiction projects … but I wouldn’t have graduate school to juggle on top of it. If I became very successful, I wouldn’t necessarily have to manage a full-time job on top of my writing career. I am fully aware that surviving purely on freelance income can become a special hell of stress and uncertainty; Bear found herself in the throes of burnout as a full-time fiction writer without a day job and adjuncting to attend to.

That said, took her cautionary tale to heart. I realized that I needed to be better about saying “no” to projects that will cause more stress than they are worth in terms of creative expression, payment or prestige. I needed to be better at attending to my own health needs, whether that is my mental health or physical maintenance activities like going to the gym as often as I should. If I don’t, my work and everything else will suffer.

Was Pursuing an MFA Worth It?

Given the insane stress of being a full-time graduate student on top of a full-time job and my existing freelance obligations, the natural question people ask is, “Was it worth it?”

One of the things that most creative writing programs advertise as a feature is that each student learns about his or her individual writing process and presumably becomes a better writer as a result. My writing process was not a mystery to me before I started the Goddard College MFA program. I understood how to build an organic plot from character conflict, how to create voice, how to generate narrative tension. I knew how to brainstorm far more ideas than I will ever have the time to turn into stories and novels and poems. Which is not to say that my prose was above reproach; there’s always room for improvement. And my feedback from my Goddard advisors was reflective of that: my first drafts are decent, solid work, but there are always ways they could become even better. So I push forward, always trying to approach the unreachable, wholly subjective elements of perfection.

But I’ve come to realize that my writing process and my creative process are two linked but different things. It’s an important distinction. And while my creative process wasn’t entirely a mystery, the troubles I encountered in my final terms indicate that clearly I had a much less firm grip on it all than I thought I did before I started my MFA work.

My struggle with writer’s block highlighted the aspects of my creative process that need more attention to prevent slowdowns. Certainly, I still need to produce work and press on even if my muse appears to have stood me up on a given work day … but I can’t treat myself as a fiction production assembly line. I can’t treat myself like a machine that needs kicking if it starts faltering. Percussive maintenance might work for a stuck valve in a gasoline engine, but mental beat-downs are just going to make me resent my work.

And if I resent the work that is uniquely mine, the work that only I can do, the work that speaks to my reason for existing more than anything else in the world, where will I be? I will be stuck. I will be miserable.

I have to trust in my own creative process to facilitate my writing process. The writing process isn’t always joyful, but the joy is there, and I can’t forget to embrace it. There are a thousand easier ways to make money and earn a living. I have to find the reward in the writing, not in the having written. I can’t be so focused on the finish line that I forget to experience the journey.

But aside from learning that valuable lesson, was pursuing an MFA at Goddard worth all the work?

In my case, yes, it was: I achieved the major goals I set out to accomplish and I produced a lot of good work that I have either sold or expect to sell. The program was a good (but not perfect) fit. It was life-changing experience for many of my classmates, but not for me; Clarion was that experience for me, and I knew going in that I was unlikely to experience it again. In short, the program met my expectations and exceeded them on some levels.

And the key for me was that I found funding through CIC.edu and didn’t have to go into debt for my degree. I wouldn’t have pursued it otherwise. The cost of paying for the program out of pocket — roughly $9,000 per term — would have absolutely been a deal-breaker.

If you can find funding for or feel you can afford an MFA and are prepared for the possibility that the degree may not improve your employment prospects, an MFA is worth considering. I definitely think that the Goddard program helped me become a smarter writer and better teacher in ways that I probably wouldn’t have accomplished on my own.

2021 Update: It turns out that for my entire life, I’ve had inattentive-type ADHD. I was diagnosed in late 2018, a bit over a year after I made this post. Since then, after much trial and error, I found medication and new strategies that work well for me. My writing productivity has much improved, and it turns out I can write novels just fine.

The upshot is, ADHD was a huge factor in the difficulties I had during my MFA. So, if you see yourself in any of the struggles I chronicled above, you might see if you can get tested.

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