education, learning, mfa, money, teaching, writing

MFA Halfway Update

I am officially halfway done with my MFA creative writing program. It’s been a wild ride! I’m giving an update because I’ve blogged about MFA programs so much before (whether or not to get an MFA, how much it cost to apply, what’s up with MFA creative writing rankings, where to apply, update after first semester). I’m not sure where to start, however. Most people who want to read about MFAs are those considering pursuing one, and I have no clue whether or not pursuing an MFA is a good thing for any specific person. It’s such an individualized decision, I can’t say “do it” or “don’t do it.” I can, however, ruminate on the positives and negatives of my experience.

Positives

I’ve been teaching writing to undergraduates and I’ll be credentialed to teach college when I graduate. This is the biggest difference between doing what I’m doing within an MFA program and doing something similar with writing on my own. I am teaching and I love it. Before coming to USF, I didn’t really know if I had an interest in pursuing an academic career. I am still not 100% set on it, but I’m open to it and think it’d be fun, challenging, and a good fit for me.

I’ve found an amazing community. This will probably be the biggest benefit of the MFA program. Before coming here, I was attending a weekly workshop and I had friends and family who would read and critique my writing so I wasn’t community-less, but my network was nothing like what I have now. I’m surrounded by people who are as motivated by and interested in writing as I am. My hope is that we stay in touch and act as readers for each other for years after graduation.

Just being in this environment is enriching and encouraging–the people I’m surrounded by regularly introduce me to new things and challenge me as a writer. My professors have given me lit mag and author recommendations based on my writing style and I finally feel like I’m finding my niche in the writing world, largely because of their help. Also, there’s no way I would’ve started weirderary and First Draft if I hadn’t met TJ and Colleen.

I’ve learned a lot. I had almost no formal creative writing instruction prior to this aside from an entry-level undergrad class I took over a decade ago so I wasn’t sure what to expect from an MFA program. I’ve learned so much about writing craft and technique, and about pedagogy and teaching practice. I’ve also learned very practical things, such as how to create a good CV and what to put in a teaching philosophy statement.

I got to move to Florida. I grew up in Illinois and adore it (particularly Chicagoland), but for most of my adult life I secretly felt shitty about myself because I knew that I’d wanted to move away and had never done it. Finally, at age thirty-two, I followed my desire/faced my fears and moved to Denver. I think that played a big role in me gaining the confidence to apply to MFA programs all over the country. I don’t know if I’ll stay in Florida forever, but I like it a lot and regularly feel grateful to be here.

I trust that I am “all in” as a writer. I know getting an MFA is not necessary and I admire workaday writers who are able to view writing as their true love and passion even though it is not related to their day job. For me, however, having an unrelated (or, I guess, only somewhat related) day job led to me feeling all sorts of insecurities about myself as a writer. I worried that even if I wrote on a daily basis, writing would remain nothing more than a hobby in my life if I didn’t pursue it as my primary career. Quitting my job, moving across the country, and focusing on an MFA program full-time proved to me that I am “all in,” and it gave me confidence in myself as a writer. I no longer question my commitment to writing or worry that it’ll get sidelined in my life or become something I never pursued as fully as I wanted to.

Negatives

My writing practice has suffered. My novel progress has stalled. I had a completed draft (actually a third or fourth draft) of a novel manuscript before coming here. The single most difficult part of being in an MFA program is knowing that I probably would’ve had that manuscript all polished up and sent to agents by now if I hadn’t come here. At times, I’ve resented class assignments, knowing my time spent doing homework could’ve been spent revising my novel. I’ve had to remind myself that I am becoming a better writer during my time here and, although my novel is taking longer to complete, it should be of a higher quality when I’m actually finished with it.

I realize that this difficulty is partially due to how I work–it’s not that I never have a spare minute to write; it’s that I prefer longer blocks of time. When I worked 9-5, I could work on my novel for 3-4 hours on weeknights, and upwards of 10 hours on weekend days if I wanted.  Now, if I have only one hour free, I tend to use it on other things because it doesn’t feel like a long enough stretch of time to be able to dig into my novel and do substantial revising. I’m trying to work on this, though, and get used to revising in 30- and 60-minute bursts.

It’s really hard to be this busy. Moving forward, my workload should be a little lighter, but the last two semesters felt overwhelming. There was never a day where I didn’t have a long to do list (and never a day where I actually completed the list). I essentially spent two semesters feeling behind, stressed, and unprepared. I consistently completed work at the last minute and almost always felt as if there was too little time. I forced myself to continue to maintain a social life and do fun things alone such as watch movies. I realize this time could’ve been spent on school and maybe that would’ve helped me be less overwhelmed, but I refuse to live a life that has absolutely no leisure time.

I’m going to write a separate blog post about health in the near future, but I deal with fibromyalgia and other chronic health issues. One of my fears was that coming to grad school would trigger an illness flare-up. It did! I spent months running ragged, feeling awful, and on the brink of burnout and health disaster, which again is unique to me and I’m sure colors my view of the “negatives” of being in an MFA program.

It’s really hard to be this poor. I was/am also barely making it financially. This is difficult when being so strapped for time. I know I can do more outside work to help my financial situation, but that takes away from my writing and school work and adds to my busy-ness and stress. It also hurts my self-esteem and has caused me to question my decision to come here a few times. Many of my friends are in the getting-married-and-having-babies stage of life. I can’t afford to buy them nice gifts and that feels awful. I missed my cousin’s wedding because I couldn’t afford the flight, and was also unable to visit a close friend who suffered an injury because I couldn’t afford the flight. I knew going into an MFA program would involve financial sacrifice, but I guess I didn’t know the feeling of sacrifice would be so pronounced. It’s been a big challenge to focus on the positives when these types of things run through my mind on a daily basis.

I should note that this is also somewhat unique to my situation. I’ve never been great at managing money, and I entered into this MFA program even though I had a fair amount of debt and no savings. Because I already have a graduate degree, I am unable to take out student loans. I am not willing to make certain sacrifices I made last time I was in grad school, such as living with multiple roommates and going without a car. If I could do it over, I would’ve prepared savings in advance and paid much more attention to the financial side of programs when selecting which schools to apply to.

Sometimes I’ve felt like I’m doing this too late in life. I’m thirty-four years old. I already had a completed novel manuscript before coming here. I have a lot of “real world” work experience. While I’m not the oldest person in my program, I am often the oldest one who hangs out socially and most of my friends here are five to ten years younger than I am. Although I don’t place a lot of importance on age, I sometimes feel a little too old to be a poor grad student. I have to actively fight off that voice in society/my head that says I should be making more money by this age and that I should be heading up my own projects, not taking classes, at this age. The experience has been humbling and forced me to check my ego and cast aside society’s conventions about what someone “should” be doing in their 30s.

I’ve really had to embrace the “better late than never” adage. Sure, I wish that when I was twenty-five years old, worried I was in the wrong grad program, researching MFA creative writing programs online, that I had had the confidence and motivation to move past idle internet searches. I wish I had reached out to people in MFA programs and learned more and made the switch then, ten years ago, when I first wanted to do it. I wish that I had left Illinois then, when I wanted to do it. But I didn’t. That’s just not how my life happened. I guess it’s taken me longer than some to find my career path, to become aware of my desires and goals, and to muster up the courage to go for it. Instead of focusing on regret over not having done this sooner, I’m learning to focus on feeling grateful that I’m doing it now.

Conclusion

My biggest takeaway from reflecting on my MFA experience is that when you’re really living and you’re pursuing the things you want to pursue, life is going to be huge and hard and amazing no matter what. I think getting an MFA is like doing any other big, major life thing. Beforehand, it sounds great and you know you want it, but once you’re there, it’s hard and takes a lot of work and isn’t always fun, just like any challenging job, or marriage or parenthood, I’m sure. Still, I’m glad I’m doing it.

My biggest goals for the second half of my MFA are to enjoy it and feel grateful for it every day. In the first half of my MFA, I allowed my stress to take over more times than I’d like to admit and I often found myself wishing for time to pass, aka for the semester to end. I don’t want to live or think that way. Time is so limited; I never want to wish for it to pass more quickly. That’s insanity. That’s avoiding the present moment and literally wishing to be closer to death. My other major goal is to finish revising my novel, to stop wishing for the expanses of time I had when I worked 9-5, and to learn to jump in and take advantage of the small pockets that pop up at different times on different days.

I know some other MFA students and some MFA hopefuls follow my blog–if you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments and I will answer them.

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education, learning, mfa, teaching, writing

MFA Update

Hi, friends! A few days ago, a lovely (I’m assuming) man emailed me saying he’s found my MFA blog posts useful. Then, yesterday, Tony Pierce–the Blogfather himself–contacted me to say hi. Coincidence? No way. Direct message from [insert your fav deity] encouraging me to blog again.

It’s been a while, but I will not apologize. I’m busy. I’m in the thick of it. Half-way through the semester. It’s going good. It’s going well. It’s going great. I LIKE IT. The above emojis adequately represent how I feel on a consistent basis.

When I originally searched for MFA program information online, I found many blog posts about the application process, but not many posts from students currently in programs. I understand why–I’m busy, and writing about school just isn’t on my mind. Still, I want to hit you with an update.

What I’m doing, as a first-year MFA creative writing fiction student:

  • taking three courses: Craft of Fiction, Intro to Grad Studies, and Practice in Teaching Composition
  • teaching one course: First Year Composition
  • consulting in the Writing Studio ten hours per week

The amount of happiness I feel about all of this astounds me. I thought the giddiness of being here would wear off after the first week or so, but I literally walk around unable to hide a shit-eating grin the majority of the time I’m on campus. Craft of Fiction is my favorite class, which makes sense since I’m here to study fiction, but I also like the other two classes. That turned out to be a surprise, honestly. I thought they’d be boring requirements I’d want to rush through, but I’m learning a lot in each.

The in-class lectures from Intro to Grad Studies combined with our textbook readings have helped me gain awareness of why I am here, what I want to get from the experience, and where I hope to go next. The graduate program I was in years ago did not have a class like that. I wish it had; I probably would’ve realized the program wasn’t a good use of my time and the associated opportunity cost when it hit me that I lacked a clear plan.

The Practice in Teaching Composition course is for Graduate Assistants teaching Freshman Composition. In class, we discuss exercises and assignments the week before we carry them out in our own classes. We also read and discuss various pedagogies (teaching methods/theories). Although I am not able to implement it this semester, I am particularly interested in the community engaged pedagogy and hope to use it in my teaching beginning January. Community engaged pedagogy is essentially the method of teaching students through experiences with a community partner, which should also benefit the partner. I see community engagement as the link connecting my previous educational experiences with my current one.

Overall, my entire MFA experience is fantastic thus far. My classmates are all friendly and kind and already true friends. My professors are helpful and kind and interesting. The Writing Studio is fun and I’m grateful I received that opportunity. I hope to keep my Writing Studio appointment all three years. Florida’s nice. There are lizards everywhere. I do many of my readings while lying next to the pool.

Being in grad school isn’t easy, but I’m not drowning in readings, which is something I worried about after hearing MFA horror stories. My workload is manageable. I only exercise about once a week (compared to every other day before moving here) so that’s something I need to work on, but aside from that, I am not neglecting other aspects of my life outside of school. I sleep eight hours per night. I maintain a social life. I’m still revising my novel (albeit, more slowly). Still, it is graduate school. I don’t think an MFA is a good choice for someone with romantic notions of sitting around writing all day instead of working a day job. It’s a good choice for someone who likes school.

Since I am only half of a semester in, I don’t know that there is too much else for me to write about the MFA program at this time. If there is anything you think I should blog about–MFA-related or not MFA-related–let me know in the comments.

P.S. If MFA information is what you’re looking for, know that one of my classmates, Carmella, blogs regularly about her experiences as an MFA student at The Restless Writer. Also, MFA students who I (virtually) met through the Facebook MFA Draft group last year blog about their school-related experiences at The MFA Years blog.

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mfa, writing

What should I know about MFA Creative Writing rankings?

What should I know about MFA Creative Writing rankings?

1) They don’t exist any more.

[Update: To clarify, the overall rankings–the only rankings I’m focusing on in this post–don’t exist anymore. Individual rankings in terms of several criteria are still made available yearly here and here.]

2) When they did exist, they were probably really inaccurate.

Last fall when I first began researching MFA programs, the rankings confused me. As I searched for information in MFA-related blogs, forums, and Facebook groups, I kept finding other potential 2014 applicants discuss where they were applying in terms of “high-ranked” and “mid-ranked” programs.  I then found 2012 MFA Rankings: The Top Fifty on the Poets & Writers website. Since this was in 2013, I assumed those were the most recent MFA rankings available online for free and that there were other, more recent rankings in the print version of Poets & Writers magazine.

Wrong.

It turns out that 2011 was the last year Poets & Writers ranked MFA Creative Writing programs. (To clarify, they were labeled “2012” because they were marketed toward the fall of 2012 applicants, but they came out in 2011 and used data from 2011 and earlier.)

I will repeat the point of this post since clearly there are many applicants out there still holding misconceptions.

“MFA Creative Writing Rankings” do not exist. No one has ranked MFA Creative Writing programs since 2011.

Why don’t the rankings exist any more?

Remember the blogs and Facebook groups I checked out to get MFA information? Lawyer-turned-poet Seth Abramson polled potential applicants like myself in those exact  same groups and their responses determined the rankings. Yes, for real. The rankings were based on a non-scientific blog/Facebook poll of potential applicants who were probably visiting those sites in order to find information themselves. (Read the P&W rankings FAQ for more info on the methodology.)

Because the rankings essentially identified program popularity, not program quality, and because the methodology of the data gathering was clearly not scientific, a whole bunch of creative writing professors and administrators complained in an open letter and there was a lot of bad press. Poets & Writers responded with their own open letter defending the rankings, but then did away with them anyway. They don’t exist any more. (P&W does continue to publish all the other MFA program information as before, minus the rankings.)

In 2011, the New Yorker asked, Should MFA Programs be Ranked? Slate ran an article titled MFA Rankings: Why the Poets & Writers MFA Rankings are a Sham. Best American Poetry was even harsher, with Poets and Writers MFA Rankings: Garbage in, Garbage Out. Best American Poetry ran another post that ended with an appeal to MFA programs to pull advertising from Poets & Writers for as long as P&W kept running the rankings. (Best American Poetry was still so bothered by the rankings that they wrote a satirical article about them for April Fool’s Day this year.)

As I already mentioned, and perhaps most importantly, the New York Observer ran an open letter signed by ~200 creative writing professors and administrators arguing that Poets & Writers cut the rankings. Here’s a quote that sums up their main point pretty well:

To put it plainly, the Poets & Writers rankings are bad: they are methodologically specious in the extreme and quite misleading.

The signatories represent a wide range of schools. The list isn’t just a collection of academics at “lower-ranked” schools who were angry about their programs’ positions on the list. Many “top-ranked” universities are represented. It appears that almost across the board, people in the creative writing field agreed that the MFA rankings were both factually wrong and harmful.

The logic behind the online poll was that applicants are unbiased (compared to professors or existing students) since they are not yet associated with any MFA program, and that they are knowledgeable since they are researching programs. I understand the thinking, but as an MFA applicant, clearly see the flaw in it. It just doesn’t make sense that the people searching for information online (like me) should become the providers of that information, especially when their opinions are largely shaped by the information that is already available online, i.e., existing rankings.

From what I witnessed, many 2014 applicants who were active online formed their initial opinions of MFA programs and their applications list based on past rankings along with “Honorable Mentions” and “Underrated” lists. You can probably see how circular and hype-centric this could quickly become–new applicants decide to apply to “top-ranked” programs. They’re polled. They report where they’re applying. Those programs remain top-ranked. Sometimes an “underrated” program highlighted in an online list joins them.

If the MFA Creative Writing rankings ceased to exist a couple of years ago, why are you writing about them now?

I’m writing this post in hopes it’ll come up in searches for “MFA creative writing rankings,” and will help prospective MFA students understand the history and bigger picture I wish someone had clearly laid out for me when I began my research. Although there are bits and pieces of information online, I didn’t find a single post outlining everything I’ve put here.

People already in the MFA scene seem well aware of the rankings’ history, but newcomers are clearly not so aware. I saw several 2014 applicants comment online in ways suggesting they were making application decisions based on the 2012 MFA rankings and were not very aware of the surrounding controversy, or of the fact that the rankings had been ended altogether.

I have no issue with Seth Abramson or Poets & Writers, and am genuinely grateful for his research and their publication. I’m glad they decided to end the rankings as I agree with the signatories of the open letter, but I don’t want this blog post to be misconstrued negatively. I purchased The Poets & Writers Guide to MFA Programs pdf, which largely consists of data collected and compiled by Seth Abramson. That guide and P&W’s MFA database formed the basis of how I chose which schools to investigate further as I whittled down my list of where to apply. In a future post, I’ll write in detail about how I chose my list of schools.

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mfa, writing

“Should I get an MFA in Creative Writing?”

“Should I get an MFA in Creative Writing?” is a phrase I’ve searched before, maybe dozens of times over the years, as if Google were a magic eight ball that could instantly dictate my major life choices.

I don’t know whether or not you should get an MFA in Creative Writing, if you are considering it. To MFA or not to MFA is a personal decision entirely dependent on your values, situation, and goals. Last fall I decided to go for it and applied for MFA Creative Writing programs in fiction. I’m sharing how I came to this decision in hopes it’ll help someone who is interested in the MFA, but dealing with uncertainty.

It’ll improve my writing. This is the number one reason I am getting an MFA. For years I doubted the benefit of an MFA because it seemed as if everywhere I turned great writers were spouting off about how creative writing can’t be taught. In the fall of 2013 I took a writing course at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. In the first two weeks I made more progress on my novel than I had in the entire past year. Maybe the classroom/workshop setting doesn’t work for some people, but it is amazingly effective for me.

My MFA desires stood the test of time. In 2005 I entered a Master of Urban Planning and Policy program. Almost immediately I felt frustrated because it left me no free time to read poetry and fiction and write creatively. I began researching MFA programs online, but the idea of dropping out of one  Master program to apply to another felt totally insane. I’d already had people in my life act like I was flaky for pursuing public policy after studying psychology as an undergrad. I bought into the idea that I needed to just stick with something and stop jumping around. When I was still interested in MFA programs in 2013–eight years later–it became obvious that my desire was real and not just a phase or flight of fancy.

I know I’m not trying to avoid “the real world.” There are many twenty-somethings who go to grad school not because they’re really passionate or driven in their field, but because grad school is less awful than having to work a 9 – 5 day job. That might’ve been part of why I went to grad school the first time around. Since then I’ve spent several years in “the real world” and have figured out how to make it work for me (I find doing varied work from home is best). This time I am certain I am going to grad school in order to pursue something I love rather than to avoid something I hate.

I believe it’ll help my career. I write “I believe” because it is definitely a faith. Google the phrase “MFA Creative Writing useless” (minus the quotes) and 723,000 results come up in .35 seconds. Unlike other graduate degrees that prepare students for specific careers, the MFA in Creative Writing does not. Yes, it technically qualifies you to teach at the college level, but I recently read the dismal statistic that <1% of MFA Creative Writing graduates land full-time teaching positions. Maybe I am arrogant and delusional, but I believe that if I really want to be part of that <1%, I eventually will be. (Arrogance and delusion can turn into self-fulfilling prophecy, right?) The way to get a decent teaching gig as an MFA is to publish a book, and I’m already working on that. If I decide I don’t want to be in academia, I’ll still want to do something reading- and writing-related, and having an MFA can only help me be qualified and make the connections to bring that into reality.

The time is right. I’m not married. I don’t have kids. I don’t own property. My health is good. There’s nothing tying me down to any specific geographic area. I used to think I never wanted to get married, have kids, or buy a house, but recently I’ve begun to reconsider. I still don’t know for sure, but I might want some of those things five or ten years from now. Sure, you can get an MFA while married or after having kids, but I bet it’s much more difficult. I want to pursue an MFA now, while I can devote all of my time and energy to it without having outside responsibilities.

It is in line with my values. Getting an MFA in Creative Writing is not a wise financial decision. Because the degree does not guarantee any sort of career, it can’t be viewed as an investment that will pay off monetarily. Even if you get a “fully funded” offer, you’ll probably have to use some outside funds to get by. Your tuition is waived, but there are still fees, books, and living expenses. The living stipend is generally <$15,000. I had to think long and hard about this reality before making my decision. I realized I value taking risks and pursuing my dreams more than I value being financially secure.

I’d like to point out that I have not yet started an MFA program. It’ll be interesting to come back to this post in three or four years and see if my decision was on point.

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