When I was considering enrolling in an MFA program the question most asked was “Why pay thousands of dollars for something you can learn on your own?” At the time, pride responded with, “Because it’s something I’ve wanted since I was a child,” and I dismissed all the nay-sayers. Fulfilling a childhood goal was not the only reason I chose an MFA program; first was to work with established authors in the field and second, connections. Yes, obtaining an MFA would be expensive and yes, there is no “pay increase” once the degree is earned, as say one would with an MBA or JD. If one were to look at an MFA as solely a way to increase their net worth, then yes, it might not be worth it, but as I’ve just completed one year of my program, I have to say the benefits outweigh the cost.
I am currently enrolled in Antioch University Los Angeles’ Low Residency MFA program. The program has a 10-day long residency twice a year and then the rest of the semester is small group/one-on-one with a mentor. I chose the Low Residency option because I love my job and didn’t want to take two years off (especially right now for teachers). Low Residency programs are growing rapidly across the country as the technology for distance learning continues to become more sophisticated and user-friendly. Many people who might otherwise not enroll in a traditional MFA program due to outside circumstances, are finding they are able to achieve the same level of education through the Low Residency option.
I, for one, happen to agree with that assessment. While going back to school full time would have been nice, the fact remains that after two years I would have to return to work and then learn how to balance working and writing full time. As Steve Heller, AULA MFA Department Chair said last week, Low Residency students are already learning how to write full time AND carry a job/family, etc. This fact, for me, is profound. Teaching is a demanding job and my writing suffered. I would participate in NaNoWriMo, but it is only one month out of the year. The frenzy that is NaNo is exciting, but it does not teach the time management skills that most writers need to learn. Within one year at Antioch, I’ve got a writing schedule down. I’ve learned how to juggle teaching middle school students, train for a triathlon, and still manage to get in quality writing (and reading) almost every night. This writing schedule will last me well after I graduate next year and on until I write the next Great American/Best Selling novel.
Lastly, the one thing an MFA program is supposed to do is to push, er I mean train, you to become a better writer. I always believed I was a talented writer before going into the program, but I realize now that I was just a writer with potential. I am not putting myself down in any way; I can just see how I’ve improved in one year. The past year I’ve been revising a novel that I feel would not be in the shape it is in now if weren’t for my mentors. Sometimes I was mad at them for pointing out errors and sometimes I was extremely thankful for the questions they would ask about my novel. It wasn’t until I started a new short story that I noticed the difference. And, even after having that short work-shopped last week, I’ve been able to make the writing in the story even stronger. Writing groups can help a writer become better; do not get me wrong, I love my writing group. However, that extra push and encouragement my mentors gave me, I know took my writing to level I don’t think I would have achieved on my own.
So, the question…to MFA or not? If you are thinking about an MFA, disregard the nay-sayers and follow your instincts. Research programs, think about what would benefit your lifestyle and your writing. Then, apply. You won’t regret it.