BY LISA MARIE BASILE
The MFA debate can get pretty silly, no? Is it pointless? Is it overpriced? Does it regurgitate the dreaded borg-hearted MFA voice? Maybe, maybe, and maybe. There are just too many variables to consider.
I used to daydream about perfectly articulating my disdain for the MFA. It’s been four years since graduating, and the reason I disliked my program has become clearer and clearer to me. It took me four years of separation to see it, and I'm glad I didn't commit opinion to paper before now. Where I used to solely blame the program I can see my own flaws. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t take enough time to learn about myself before MFA. I was in a relationship that affected my concentration. But it was also not what I expected, save for a class or two. I didn't feel challenged, and I felt like the stronger writers suffered at the hands of people who weren't sure what they were doing there (paying money to kill time, essentially). I’m also in debt – tons of debt, debt that no one talked to me about, and debt I imagined I would magically – or easily – pay off.)
Getting an MFA is a personal decision, one that is dependent on internal goals. Some people want community, while others want to be able to teach. Some people want to put off working. Some people work 9-5 through their MFA. Some people breath writing. Some people think of poetry as a hobby. There are so many things pre-MFA candidates should think closely about – how the program will serve them, how the program may harm them, and how others in the program play a part in the whole.
I asked a group of 39 people on Facebook what they wished someone would have told them before they went into MFA, and it started the conversation you see here.
Is it worth it?
“Stay true to yourself, be prepared to have your heart ripped out, and find people whom you can emulate and who will encourage you. Take what you want and leave the rest.”
“Follow your guts. In my case, my MFA was one of the best, most genuine things I've ever done for myself, and it's worth all the crazy debt.”
“Don't expect to be taught how to write. That's not how it works.”
““It doesn't usually lead to a job, a book deal, teaching or anything realistic.”
“Don’t do it.”
“With the MFA, you get what YOU put into it. The degree itself doesn't mean very much, but if you take your work seriously, write like a madwoman, give it your all, it DOES pay off. You have to give yourself permission to do this and to do it with your gut, heart, and head. You'll work long hours, yes, spend them writing and reading and networking and falling in love with the craft and the process. I started my MFA in 2007 and graduated 2011. I needed time to "steep" and mature, so don't beat yourself up if you need more time, too. I grew immensely as a writer in those years, but it wasn't just because I had inspirational mentors or fantastic feedback or a wonderful environment or even time and space (I worked full time throughout to avoid debt). I grew as a writer because I put in the long hours and hard work. It takes gumption and this crazy idea of believing in yourself.”
“Other people don't always take it seriously, and sometimes that can feel discouraging. I think for myself, I had to realize that this was my work and my experience, and it took me time to come to that conclusion as a writer. Sometimes, other students wouldn't give decent feedback. And honestly, sometimes I was guilty of that too. Ultimately, it's about making the best of your environment you're in, and figuring out how to thrive and get the most out of it as possible. It's a personal thing. And once I figured that out, I was much better off.”
Should I focus on publishing during my MFA?
“I think my MFA mostly paid off in me learning how to write, how to take myself and my craft seriously. You can certainly publish without an MFA, but I was in an environment that encouraged and celebrating submitting and publishing. So there was that motivation. It felt awesome to tell my advisor each time a piece got picked up! My mentors would often suggest places to send my work, too, so that helped. But it really wasn't about publishing. It was about being a part of a writing community that was supportive (for the most part), encouraging (for the most part), and to have a group of readers to challenge me and my work to develop and get better.”
"I won't lie. It fucking bugged me that very few people in my class knew how to submit to literary journals. By the time you get to Masters level you should have a clue, I think. You're coming in to hone your work, not learn to read a submissions page."
“People get obsessed with ‘having a book.’ Publish when it’s right. Not because you’re in or post-MFA.”
“As far as getting published/sending work out, that was not something that was stressed or even talked about much in my program.”
How important are having mentors and support?
“You aren't necessarily going to meet your mentor because many of the professors are juggling multiple classes/jobs/writing. Which isn't personal, of course, but because many universities and colleges don't hire these professors/writers full time, everyone's priorities and energies are stretched too thin. And that was highly disappointing for me because that's primarily why I went.”
"As I was finishing the program, sometimes I felt like another mentor in the classroom, which helped me develop my own teaching abilities. I think this helped me become a more understanding teacher, too. I also learned a lot from my peers who were more advanced than me. I was able to see the difference between my peers who were thriving and those who were floundering. I wanted to thrive, so I did what they did and made friendships with them.
“[The mentorship element] is especially an issue nowadays, with many writers teaching in multiple programs. And with it being a 2-3 year thing, even one sabbatical can mean not connecting.”
“That it's okay to disagree with (and ignore) a mentor's critique/edits if they don't know what's best for your work. To know that sometimes your mentor DOESN'T know what's best for your work, and to trust your instincts (and peer review ) in those cases. Especially peer review...at the end of the program, you're all going to be MFAs, which is often the same degree held by....yep, your mentor.”
“My conversations about my poems during the semester were all one-on-one with my mentor. So much better than the round table discussions during undergrad. We had workshops for a few poems during residency, but the bulk of my poems were discussed only with my mentor.”
“If you get paired with a mentor with whom you don't work well, the semester might end up being a bust. I saw that happen to a couple of folks. I was fortunate that it didn't happen to me, though some of my semesters were more productive than others.”
“I had lazy professors sometimes. I remember one poem I wrote and submitted for a class that I never got any feedback on and numerous that got tons of feedback. It sucked sometimes. Other times, I'd get feedback that was clearly the professor wanting my work to be something else than I intended. You have to deal with a lot of imperfections because no program is going to be perfect. You have to seek out good feedback from writers you trust. Again, that's sometimes going to fall on your shoulders. It took me 5 years to realize that. It ultimately comes down to being responsible for your own learning and growth. There are no mentors who are going to come in and do the hard work for you, no program or environment that's going to magically make it all come together. To be a writer, that's in your lap and your lap alone. On that note, we all need different things to thrive, so it's a matter of knowing yourself and knowing your own personal needs as a writer and human being.”
“Other writers can be mean and aren't often supportive. You have to find your own support and remember that in the end you are competing, so some people are just going to be mean. Don't take it personally. Literary bullying exists but can be shut down.”
“We also had a very new professor who tested her class out on us and we were all unhappy to have wasted a semester on that – though the learning was strong – the class itself was all disjointed. The class after us got the benefit of our comments and ideas - we never got anything (even thanks)."
What's the talent pool like?
“MFA programs admit students based on potential, not based on current level of talent. I had this expectation that I would see strong writing and receive excellent feedback from my peers and it was initially frustrating for me. I had to learn on focusing on the quality of my own work rather than worrying about the quality of others.”
"A lot of copycats."
"In an MFA program, you might not be with a group of writers at the same "level" as yourself, but I think there's something to learn from that experience as well. "
“I think a lot of people end up doing the MFA right out of undergrad, or almost right out of undergrad. For a lot of them, it ends up being a really expensive way of "finding yourself."
“In my experience, in terms of the larger gestalt of the whole thing, it created a sort of giddy, youthful culture of self-exploration. That ended up being both really positive, and sometimes really negative. But in terms of the workshop culture, I often felt as if our discussions were just total anarchist free-for-all. Like anyone could say, "I feel like…" or "This doesn't work for me," and not actually offer a craft-based explanation. I'd often walk away from workshop discussions more confused than I went in. On the other hand, in retrospect, that made me a stronger writer, because I had to learn to really trust my gut.”
“Impostor syndrome is normal. Learn from the writers you're jealous of, borrow their techniques and see if they work for you or not, don't waste time being jealous of them."
[Editors note: Experiment with voice. DO NOT PUBLISH WORK THAT MIMICS PEOPLE'S WORK.]
“I was 20 when I started my MFA. I was too young. My work was undisciplined and really unfocused. I didn't understand what it meant to be a writer. I actually started the program in hopes of earning a masters degree so I could teach the "good" high school English classes, but my goals changed and matured as I worked my way through the program. I began to see writing as a part of my identity rather than a means to an end. Again, I grew immensely, and I think it was mostly personal.”
How important is the critique element?
“I have an MFA from Hollins University. It's very difficult to find people who know how to critique. A good critique requires the reader to understand what the author is trying to accomplish and then offer suggestions to help, placing it within the larger framework of similar pieces. Many workshop readers focus on what they want the piece to be, rather than what the author is trying to accomplish.”
“Many others admitted may have never been in a workshop before. There is a lot of variety in level in terms of writing and critique ability. Form your own writing circle and get out in the community with non-academic writers to keep yourself humble!”
“I think a good MFA program will help hone those skills – how to critique and how to be a better reader. Writing reviews, I learned, was one really fantastic way to go about doing that.”
“Don’t freak out if someone in your class always gets fantastic feedback while the rest of you are confronting your demons. That has a lot to do with the aspirations of everyone else being pinned on one style, and obviously, the harsh critique is better for you, like kale or broccoli. Doesn't mean you enjoy it.”
“Pick your friends and thesis group carefully and as early as possible. Keep the critiques as honest as possible and try not to fall for the star writer and fawn with the rest of the class and professors. That helps no one.”
Did diversity and class issues affect you?
“I often felt alienated coming from a poorer background, and class issues definitely played a role in the program.”
“There were very few non-white students during my three years, but we were pretty evenly split between men and women (the poetry students were mostly women). The majority were way under 50. At 29, I wasn't considered one of the "kids."
“The majority of students were under 25 and it was a big dating game in the first year.”
“I only had white men as poet mentors (profs and visiting writers). I got to work with a woman with nonfiction briefly. In workshop, it was overwhelmingly white. The few POC students expressed feelings of isolation – and often, these students had horrible experiences in workshop with people not understanding the work or what the author was attempting.”
"I felt like I was alone. The majority of people were rich white kids."
What about low-residency programs and finding time to write?
“Do plenty of research about full vs. low-residency programs. When I was applying (around 2010) there seemed to be a stigma attached to low-residency in that you could never get the same attention and access to faculty help that you could from full residency. Looking back, I don't think that's true–you're going to be doing 99% of your writing and revising on your own in any case.”
“It used to feel like a low-residency program added an asterisk to your degree. But now, low-residencies can be an excellent option, in some cases offering access to faculty that might otherwise be out of reach. The residencies that anchor each term, at least in our program, are an outstanding resource.”
““I'm not sure what the answer is in work vs. writing, because it's really STILL something I'm trying to figure out. I wrote during my lunch hour, after coming home at the end of the day, during the weekends, etc. Almost every ounce of m spare time was spent reading, writing, researching and submitting. I was kind of obsessed.”
“Be careful of "free ride" rhetoric if it really means underpaid teaching job that prevents time for outside employment. I worked full time through my MFA at a nonprofit, but that ended up being a better professional set-up than if I'd gone with a program that offered full funding in return for teaching undergrads”
“Kids, job, husband – full time wasn't an option for me. Though if I'd known about fully funded programs (never heard of grad school without debt, until after my MFA), I might have found a way to make it work”
How awful is the debt?
“Unless you have parents paying, you are fucked. People don't tell you that. And then you wonder why some MFA kids breeze through while those of us work jobs and pay debt and have little time to write."
"You will be in debt for decades afterward. That's a high price to pay for what essentially comes down to confidence, perspective, craft, and community. In retrospect, for me, it was worth it. I would not have been able to build those things on my own. But I don't think it is worth it for everyone.”
“Don't pay for it. Get a free ride, or as close as you can. Do your research! I had an almost-free ride—but I still didn't have nearly enough to live on. It was the loans I took out for living expenses that ended up fucking me over.”
“I thought taking out the max amount of government student loans to live off of was probably a bad idea…but it turns out it was a completely idiotic idea.”
“Yeah I was told that adjunct live was rough but I had no idea that it is completely unsustainable.”
“Find out if they offer teaching grants or editing grants, also? Some might offer a handful, but those might be really hard to snag.”
“I'm faculty at a BFA program and give a talk on this each Fall. My first bit advice is not to do an MFA because you want a teaching job. I speak frankly about the job market and over-saturation. For those still interested, I urge them to look for well-funded programs and consider both the size of the program, TA/RA opportunities, and how the faculty/coursework line up with their writing goals. Ultimately, I tell them applying is a part-time job, and it's worth it to really do the research. I also suggest they consider geography in terms of cost of living. I do my best to help them navigate the field and suggest some programs that people I know have had terrifically nurturing experiences with.”
“You will be in debt until you are old and grey and may not even get any teaching experience - make sure you ask about that (if you want to teach) and always look for a program that offers a full or partial ride with teaching opportunities.”
How do you stay true to your voice?
“The MFA Voice is a myth; it’s not all-permeating, but there are trends, and they are obvious.”
“My worst and best experience happened in a workshop -- I am a feminist poet, and my early work interrogated sexuality as a means to talk about gender inequality and sexism. Well, one day, I read my poem aloud in workshop as we oft do, and a male student blurted -- "Katie, why do you only write about sex? I mean, there are other things to write about, or is that all you think about?" And everyone laughed, including the professor, who agreed with him. I felt so embarrassed -- they were missing the entire "point" of my writing about sexuality. We were then in the same class studying a poem that had sexual themes, the same student blurted out -- "I bet Katie wrote this poem." So embarrassing. I could have stopped writing sexy poems. I wanted to. I wanted to curl up under my desk and hide, but in the end, I learned from that shitty experience to toughen up. I learned that people aren't always going to "get" your work. I learned that it's ok to have obsessions and to write about them obsessively. I kept writing about sex! That day in class I learned so ridiculously much about the way the world works -- about shame and about gender roles and about being strong regardless of it all.”
Do you get burned out?
"You may get burned out and not write a line for two years afterwards, and if you do, it doesn't mean you'll stop writing. Seriously I wish someone had told me this. I felt like a complete and utter failure when I just did not want to write - actively had an aversion to it. I'm back in the saddle, and all the happier for it, but knowing that was a possibility would've made a huge difference!
“I was totally burned out for a couple of years, and really resentful about the whole experience. I did not realize how much I had learned in my MFA, or how rich and nuanced my education had actually been, or how ultimately positive it ended up being for my career, until like three years later.”
“I worked the entire time during MFA (9-5) and it felt like I was just exhausted afterward. Ironically, having space gave me my voice back and revived my love of writing. The MFA took something from me, something that prevented me from really writing well. It was the focus on popularity and fitting in that prevented me from blossoming. This is an issue. But after getting away from all those too-cool-for-school kids I really found my way as a writer. But I did learn how to talk about poetry.”
Lisa Marie Basile is a NYC-based poet, editor, and writer. She’s the founding editor-in-chief of Luna Luna Magazine, and her work has or will appear in PANK, Thrush, Ampersand Review, The Atlas Review and others. She's also written for Hello Giggles, Bustle, Bust, The Establishment, The Gloss, xoJane, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and The Huffington Post, and other sites. She is the author of Apocryphal (Noctuary Press, Uni of Buffalo) and a few chapbooks. Her work as a poet and editor have been featured in Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, The New York Daily News, Best American Poetry, and The Rumpus, among others. She currently works for Hearst Digital Media, where she edits for The Mix, their contributor network.