To MFA or Not to MFA, that is the Question

Today I have a guest post from Phoebe Darqueling, the fine mind behind steampunk blog For Whom the Gear Turns. Archaeologist, blogger, world traveller and general adventurer Phoebe is here to talk about the whys and wherefores of a formal education in writing. Over to Ms Darqueling…

The Write Stuff

I am a writer. Or at least, I think I am…

It has taken me a long time to really feel ownership of that word. I have a few different projects and jobs that I cobble together to make my life and the common denominator is writing. Yet, I felt like a poseur most of the time. It was only in the past few months, in fact, that I felt comfortable saying it was my occupation when the inevitable “What do you do for a living?” question came up when meeting someone new.

So why the reticence? First of all, I don’t actually make a living from writing. I have a blog that I hope to parley into a book, a novel I hope to finish and get published, and a seasonal job writing for a creativity competition for middle school kids, but that doesn’t add up to a “real” job. Secondly, I don’t have a degree in writing. It is hard to feel like I can claim a title when I haven’t been put through my paces, or gotten the external validation that a degree can bring.

I know, lots of authors don’t have a writing degree. It isn’t a prerequisite for success, and it even has the capacity to hinder a blossoming writer through excessive criticism. The internet is making it possible for many new books by indie authors to find an audience, so getting a superfluous degree can seem like a total waste of time and energy. But at the same time, I feel like it could be the right choice for me.

Working the System

The British and American systems work a bit differently, so let me lay down some facts for you. Depending on the university, a Master of Arts in the US can actually mean a person has failed. An MA is what people are awarded on their way to getting a PhD, and if they wash out of their doctorate the MA is what they get as a consolation prize. This convention varies by discipline, but in the Humanities this is often the case.

A Master of Fine Arts (MFA), on the other hand, is a “terminal” degree. This may sound deadly, but really it just means that it is always meant to signify completion of a program. Unlike British Masters programs which are done in 12 months, MFAs can last two-three years, making them a much bigger commitment. But, in order to teach creative writing or other English courses at a college with any amount of prestige a person usually must hold an MFA or PhD.

Personally, I love to teach. I cut my teeth teaching English as a foreign language in Bulgaria last year, so after dealing with a classroom of five-year-olds who couldn’t understand a word I said I think I could handle teaching at a college level. I’ve also been a writing tutor before, and I really enjoy working with people to create structure and add texture to their writing projects. My husband is an academic, so chances are that we will always be affiliated with a university once he finishes his PhD in History, and it isn’t unusual for them to offer lecturer positions to spouses of incoming professors as long as they’ve got the credentials. I’m not saying this would be guaranteed, but if I got an MFA it would open up the possibility.

Know Thyself

I already have a Masters of Arts in Museum Studies (one of the rare terminal MA programs) but even when they were handing me my certificate I knew I would probably pursue another degree sometime in the future. Frankly, I like school. I like deadlines and parameters. I like being creative and pushing the envelope, but I am most comfortable if someone else gives me the envelope to push against.

For instance, let’s say I want to make potato salad for the first time. First, I look up recipes, usually three but sometimes more. They’ve got exact quantities laid out right there for me, but do I follow any of them? Nope. I make something up. I use the research I do for inspiration and approximations, but what I have at the end is unique (and delicious).

For me, one of the most important things a degree program could offer is structure, like a recipe. But what goes in and comes out at the end would be all me. I may be assigned to write a short story about overcoming an obstacle, but I would be able to choose the obstacle, the protagonist, the time and place. In other words, I would get to choose my own ingredients.

The structure that I crave could easily drive other people crazy. They might rail against being told what to write and when, and this is a perfectly valid complaint. I, on the other hand, see it as a challenge. It would be an opportunity to write stories that I wouldn’t think to write otherwise. There would be topics to explore and forms of writing to try that I may not encounter just sitting at home on my laptop.

Don’t Callous, We’ll Call You

In the best creative writing programs, a large portion of a student’s time is devoted to attending workshops. These offer the chance for students to have their work read by not just their professors but also by their peers. This is followed by feedback from one’s classmates and discussion about how to improve a particular work. At their worst, these types of sessions can be heart-wrenching, especially for a writer who is unsure of herself. But at their best, they can be an invaluable tool in a writer’s development.

So far, I have shared my fiction with friends and family. They love what I write and have very little to suggest to make improvements. This may be good for my ego, but is it good for my writing? And furthermore, is it good for me as a person who aspires to be published? It is one thing to please the people who already love you, but quite a different story to win over strangers. Especially when these strangers are critics who build their careers on picking apart the work of others.

I’ll admit, the idea of having a room full of my peers take turns telling me what is wrong with something I’ve written is pretty scary. But at the same time, it is something I would have to get used to as a published author. Workshops can act as a means both to improve one’s writing as well to get practice taking criticism gracefully. Like riding a bike, listening to things you may not want to hear takes practice, but in time it becomes second nature. And if you don’t want to ride a bike, take the bus, but I for one feel that I am ready to take off my training wheels.

(Financial) Woe is Me

As I’ve already said, I don’t get paid to write. I love to do it, but unfortunately for so many of us love don’t pay the bills. As totally pragmatic and unromantic as it is to say, being enrolled in a degree program can also offer financial support. There are many programs in the US that fully fund their incoming students for the duration of their program, including summer stipends to allow them to keep writing even when school isn’t in session.

They usually do this through a combination of fellowships, grants and teaching assignments. Fellowships waive the tuition and fees, grants can help students travel and participate in workshops and conferences, and teaching makes up the rest. Teaching is not necessary in every program, but I see it as an invaluable tool for reflection. It is one thing to talk about something like narrative structure as a student in a class, but as a teacher a person needs to understand something so well that they can impart that knowledge to others.

Most importantly, the financial support provided by a degree program would allow me to write more. The teaching load would mean that it wouldn’t be full-time, but it would still be more than I currently feel I can afford to do. All I want is to finish my novel and move on to the editing stage, but the pressure to do something that makes money is mounting and my book is getting covered with pixelated dust on its digital shelf. If I am ever going to finish it and get it out into the world in a form I am proud to share I will need some help. As I don’t have any obscure relatives about to kick the bucket and leave me their estate, an MFA seems like a viable solution.

My other big writing project is a nonfiction book. To get this type of publishing deal, a person needs to carry a certain amount of social, commercial or academic cache. A formal degree could also be the boost I need in my resume to get the other book off the ground. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that my proposal will get accepted and I will get that most coveted of perks, the advance, but until then I have to seek other means of supporting my writing addiction.

The Next Steps

After weighing the various costs and benefits of an MFA degree, I’ve decided to go for it. For my personality and my situation, it seems like the right thing to do. So what’s next? I’ll have to choose the right programs to apply to, jump through their various hoops and go through the agony of waiting and probably rejection. Most programs only have a dozen or so spots open each year so there is fierce competition, which means I can expect at least some rejection down the line. So why put myself through all the potential heartache?

Because I am a writer.

Click on the image for more thoughts from Phoebe, and all sorts of steampunk fun.
Click on the image for more thoughts from Phoebe, and all sorts of steampunk fun.