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Was an MFA worth it?

Updated: Apr 5

Deciding to go to a graduate program is no small decision. It takes time, money, and a real passion for what you're going to study. I decided to get my MFA partly because I love school and writing, and partly because I wasn't ready to face the real world. When I first applied to grad school, I didn't get in– anywhere. I was devastated as, up until that point, I had the ridiculous fortune to never really fail at anything. I'd only applied to two undergrad programs and got into both, I finished my bachelor's cum laude and just kind of assumed I'd get into grad school. It was a swift kick in the ass to find out I wasn't good enough. Whether it was my GRE score (which was mediocre at best) or the fact that I didn't have a single publication to my name, the fact remained that I wasn't good enough.

I'm not sure if I wanted it so badly because I knew it would help me further my writing or because I had never really been rejected and just couldn't stand that idea, but I took the next year and submitted work everywhere I could. I retook the GRE three times, and in the end, I applied again to four programs. I only got into one.

The creative writing MFA program at the University of Tampa was a low residency program. Meaning, I only had to show up on campus for lectures ten days in January and ten days in June, then do the rest of my work online with a mentor one-on-one. I didn't even know that when I applied to the program, and was kind of disappointed when I found out, but I wasn't about to take another year and get rejected by the programs I really wanted, like the one at FSU.

Those ten days on campus with lectures, readings, workshops, and fellowship were everything I loved about school. I've always thrived in a classroom, discussing work with other students, or taking notes on lectures. It was my happy place. I still love nothing more than learning something new, which is why I love writing conferences so much. In those ten days in January and June, I would stuff as much knowledge as I could into my brain and hope it would last me through the five months until I got to go back. The in-between time wasn't nearly as fun.

The work we were assigned in the months between sessions was all decided upon with your mentor in those ten days. Usually, you turned work in once a month, with a certain page count towards your creative project and a formal paper on a reading list assigned. It was cool because the work was highly individualized. I read books specifically to help me with my brand of storytelling, and yet, I still felt like I was missing out on that formal education.

When I talk to other people who did a more traditional master's program, I start to feel inferior almost right away. Did we both go to accredited programs that met the state requirement for the rigors of an MFA program, yes. Did they have hours logged in the classroom analyzing works, workshopping pieces, and building relationships with peers that I didn't have, also yes.

When it comes down to it, I guess the basic answer to the questions posed in the title of this piece is yes. I do feel that my master's program was worth it. It allowed me to work on my novel. It gave me the ability to teach writing at the collegiate level. Plus, without the program, I never would have met my current writing group, which continues to give me the strength to keep writing. Overall, it was a very good experience. I just wish I had held out for something different.

Low residency programs are great for people who are working full-time jobs, have children, or anything else in their life that doesn't allow for a full-time education. I wasn't in that position when I went to grad school though. I wanted to be in the classroom, I wanted to have piles of homework that made me stay late in the library. Much like with my earliest publications, I was too naive to know any better and too anxious to hold out for something better.

My MFA program was closed in 2020. Not because of covid, but because there wasn't enough interest in it to keep it going. We were still fully accredited, and the mentors were top-notch and eager to teach, but there weren't enough students enrolling. When people ask where I got my MFA I feel a sense of embarrassment sometimes, like I need to explain that it was still a good program, it just doesn't exist anymore. Much like the early pieces of work I published. They were good stories, but the magazine folded and closed.

If you're thinking about going to grad school for an MFA, I think it's really important to ask yourself why. I went because I wanted to be able to teach at a college, and because I wanted to hide from the real world just a bit longer inside the halls of academia. I got part of what I wanted, and am now left feeling unsatisfied by the rest. I was so desperate for somewhere to take me, that I didn't care if it wasn't exactly what I was looking for. I don't regret it one bit, I'm just still hungry for the rigor of a classroom. I'm eager to enter a discourse breaking down a text. I want to learn the ins and outs of publishing from a teacher who has several novels published.

I've thought about trying to go back for a doctorate in creative writing, but that's seven years of my life I don't think I'm willing to give up. With a baby on the way, a job I really love, and a whole life ahead of me, I'm no longer looking to hide from the world. Instead, I'll have to satisfy that itch for knowledge by going to lectures and conferences when I can. I'll keep writing this blog and teaching my classes, hoping for new insights as I try to squeeze every bit of knowledge I gained into bite size pieces for other people. If you want to go to school to get better at writing, I think you should, but know you don't have to. You can work on your craft in any number of ways. An MFA is a good tool to have, but it doesn't make you a better or worse writer than someone who doesn't have one.

Since leaving school I've continued to realize it's all about the effort you're willing to put into your work. My degree hangs on the wall behind my desk because it reminds me that I put in the work to earn it. It reminds me I am worthy of teaching, and sharing insights into writing, but I also know that it's just a piece of paper. It isn't going to do my edits for me. It isn't going to be an automatic in with an agent or a publisher. It's a tool and if I want it to work for me, I have to continue to find new ways to use it.

My with all of my mentors from UT

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