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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events, live lit, readings

6×6

jessica thompson

Photo by Annalise Gray.

On October 9th, I was able to take part in a reading put on by USF’s MFA program. It’s called 6×6 (six by six, when said aloud), and the idea is that it features the creative writing of six graduate students and six undergraduate students.

It was super fun! I read “The Tooth.” Lots of positive feedback afterward.

jessica thompson

Photo by Colleen Kolba.

Reading reminded me how much I enjoy public speaking and how much I miss doing readings and storytelling. The Tampa area doesn’t have much of a live lit scene compared to Chicago and Denver. In fact, when I use the term “live lit” here, some people act suspicious and I feel like they think I made the term up. I’m hoping to help change that. First Draft, the live lit project I’m involved with out here, has some things in the works. Stay tuned.

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education, learning, mfa, teaching, writing

MFA Update

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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

How many MFA programs should I apply to? Which MFA programs should I apply to?

Although I’ve had a consistent curiosity about MFA Creative Writing programs for years, it wasn’t until October of 2013 that I, filled with inspiration and energy from a Lighthouse Writers Workshop course, decided an MFA was something I wanted to undertake  whole-heartedly and as soon as possible. My educational background is not in English or Creative Writing so I felt like an outsider unsure of how (or where) to make my way in. I had many questions, namely, How many MFA programs should I apply to? Which MFA programs should I apply to?

At first I figured I’d apply to 5-10 schools (not for any reason–I just thought this range sounded right) that were higher up on the MFA Creative Writing rankings list I’d found via Google and located in places I figured would be “cool” to live. As I did more research online, I realized that strategy was not the best and would most likely set me up for failure. There are many MFA fiction applicants who do not get into programs until their second, third, or even fourth year applying. I didn’t want to wait like that, so I created a new strategy.

Here are the factors I took into consideration while developing my MFA program application list:

Residency. The first decision I made was to go all in, meaning to a full residency program. There are many reasons to get a Creative Writing MFA, and one of mine is to begin a new career path. While I don’t know exactly what that career path will be, I want the experience of teaching in case I end up going the academic route. Most low residency programs do not involve teaching assistantships. I purchased the Poets & Writers MFA Guide, which indexes 78 full residency MFA programs. I printed out this list, grabbed a highlighter, and began the process of elimination.

(Note: Later, when I read other parts of the P&W guide more closely, I realized there are about 50 more full residency programs than those listed in that index. Because I hadn’t yet realized that, I only considered the 78 schools on the P&W full residency list. The full list of MFA programs can be found in the free P&W MFA database.)

Selectivity. The Poets & Writers MFA Guide contains selectivity rankings within it, with “1” being the most selective. Unlike many applicants, I do not view high selectivity as a particularly desirable trait. I am after a useful experience, not bragging rights about getting into one of the most selective schools. Also, the selectivity rankings do not explain why a school’s selectivity is high, and I do not believe high selectivity necessarily equals a better program. Selectivity could be high simply because it’s a small program and although they get an average number of applicants, they can only afford to accept two of them (or selectivity could be low for the opposite reason, as is true with Columbia). A great program could also rank low in selectivity because it’s in a location that not many people desire to live, so it doesn’t get as many applicants.

Because I wanted to get in somewhere this year and I know lower selectivity means a better chance of me getting in, I eliminated most schools on the list with a selectivity ranking of less than 50. (I did not eliminate those with no data, and I left UNLV in the mix although it ranked 37 because I really liked the sound of their program. Incidentally, I was waitlisted there and rejected from many more selective programs, which caused me to question my strategy a bit.) This helped narrow my list down a lot, cutting it to around 30 schools. After researching online and finding two past MFA applicants’ blog posts (one by Katie McGinnis and one by “That Kind of Girl“) and the Creative Writing MFA handbook blog, I decided to apply to 15 programs instead of 5-10. Later I upped it to 18 by adding 3 schools that do not charge application fees.

At this point I should remind you that I applied in fiction, which is the most selective of the genres due to the sheer number of applicants. It appears that fiction is at least twice as selective as poetry and creative non-fiction at any given school. If I had been applying in another genre, I wouldn’t have allowed selectivity to weigh in so heavily and I also wouldn’t have applied to as many schools.

Funding. Because I still have student loan debt from a previous Master degree, and because I want experience as a teaching assistant, I went through my list of ~30 schools and eliminated most of those that had ranked 70 or lower on funding. I think this brought my list down to around 20 schools. (I let UNO slide in because I thought their program sounded pretty cool and it was close with a rank of 81. I was accepted there but not offered a TAship, which I suppose shouldn’t have surprised me given the worse funding ranking.)

At this point, I inputted all of my potential schools into a spreadsheet. I made columns for the name of the school, the MFA URL, the length of the program, if they had a lit mag or not, if they required the GRE or not, their due date, their application fee, and more. The spreadsheet was indispensable and I don’t think I could’ve properly managed applying to so many schools without it.

Due date. Because I started late, I couldn’t apply to any schools with a December 15th due date. My GRE scores wouldn’t be available then, plus I needed the extra two weeks to get everything together. I think this eliminated a school or two. If I had to do it again, I’d begin earlier so such a meaningless factor wouldn’t have any effect.

Location (Sorta). Location wasn’t a huge factor, as my list was already pretty whittled down, but it helped me make some final decisions. I dropped one school because it was in a place I know I don’t want to live, and dropped another because of the high cost of living where it is located.

In retrospect, I wish I had allowed location to factor in even more. When I began receiving responses from schools in February, there were four schools that I found myself hoping would reject me. They aren’t bad schools, but they’re all in places that have harsh, snowy winters. If I’d been honest with myself about how much climate matters to me, I could’ve saved myself those application fees, or used them toward schools that might not have been less selective, but were in locations I prefer.

Program Info. My process was a bit different than that of applicants who spend months researching programs. I didn’t make program or faculty information a huge factor. As long as the school had a diverse, published faculty, a lit mag, a variety of interesting-sounding classes, and teaching assistantships, I figured I could learn a whole lot from it.

I didn’t do extensive research partly because I didn’t have the time, and partly because I wasn’t sure how useful it would be. Initially I contacted two schools asking for more info, but when what they responded with was essentially useless, I just stuck with visiting schools’ websites. There was no way I could read the writing of faculty at 15 different schools. Also, I don’t know that my enjoyment of a particular faculty member’s writing in any way predicts how helpful or supporting that faculty member would be to me as a professor.

One factor that did win points with me was the ability for students to take courses in other genres. I’m grateful I’m ending up at a school that offers this, and I look forward to taking both poetry and creative non-fiction workshops in addition to fiction.

You can see the full list of programs to which I applied in my post on how much it cost me to apply to MFA Creative Writing programs.

What else? 

After I had finalized my list of schools and started the application process I found more information that would’ve been useful earlier on: the Neurotic Writer’s Guide to Apply for an MFA, the MFA Research Project blogTheGradCafe Literature forums, and the Facebook MFA Draft group.

If you are a prospective MFA Creative Writing student, I hope this post helps you. I’m not suggesting my method is the best; I just want to share it. If I did it all over, I would’ve started sooner, made funding my top criteria, and only applied to places in locations with warmer climates. I would not have eliminated the most selective schools and would’ve applied to schools across the spectrum in selectivity. Although my approach was imperfect, it lead to success. I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be attending the University of South Florida in Tampa this fall. I can’t wait.

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