In the ongoing guest post series on Daily (W)rite, today we have writer Kelly Gamble holding forth on a topic that really interests me, to tell you the truth–this whole deal about an MFA.
So without further ado I’ll hand this over to Kelly:
You don’t need an MFA to be a great writer—let’s get that out of the way, as it seems to be the biggest debate point in writer circles these days. We all know this, we can all name at least twenty ‘great writers’ who had no training, blah, blah, blah. Okay, that’s done. To MFA or not to MFA is not the question.
I want to talk to those who have decided, for whatever reason, that an MFA is the path they want to pursue and are actively looking into the various programs available. Where is the first place you go when looking at programs? Their websites, of course, all of which are full of shiny things, and since we are writers, shiny things in general, distract us. They are all wonderful, but try to stay focused.
After you have been captivated by each programs residency locations, dazzled by their impressive list of faculty achievements and generally awed by their reported rankings and awards, you need to sit down and ask yourself a very basic question in order to evaluate which program is really right for you.
Why do you want an MFA?
1. I want to be a better writer: Of course, there is no guarantee that getting a graduate degree will make you a better writer. There are a number of books you can buy that will help ‘make you a better writer’ so why an MFA? Two of the most valuable aspects of being in an MFA program are the availability of workshops taught by the impressive faculty that dazzled you above and access to a community of writers, faculty and fellow students, who will be reading and critiquing your work. What workshops are going to be available during your enrollment? Of course they will all be pertinent to writing, but are there enough offered that will suit your individual needs? How selective is the program? (I think this is extremely important. Your fellow students will be critiquing your work, it would be nice to know that they have been selected based on their talent.)
2. I would additionally like to learn about literary theory: Some programs offer courses as part of their MFA that delve into literary theory. Is this something that you are wanting to learn more about? Ask the questions.
3. I want to write fiction and poetry: Do you want to experiment with different types of writing? Screenwriting, plays, non-fiction, children’s fiction? Short stories, essays, a memoir? Or are you more focused on one thing, say writing a novel. Are there opportunities to work in these other areas?
4. I want to teach: An MFA is a terminal degree. If teaching is something you are interested in, what courses are offered in pedagogy? Are there opportunities to student teach after a certain number of hours have been awarded? Having coursework and experience when you graduate will be extremely important when you start looking for a teaching position.
5. I want to work in a publishing related field: Believe it or not, not everyone in an MFA program believes that the rest of their life will be spent writing books and waiting for the next book contract. They are focusing on the ‘day job’ as well, and would like to do something in a related field. As with the other areas above, inquiring about workshops and courses on publishing is a great idea, but also, add this one to your list of questions: Does the program offer any assistance placing you in an apprenticeship or similar program?
6. I want to publish: Some MFA programs offer access to agents. This is a wonderful opportunity for you to pitch your work, if you are prepared. Do you have a pitch? A query? A synopsis? Does the program offer help or training in preparing these valuable bits?
There are several MFA programs out there, and it is important for you to evaluate them based on what YOU want to get out of the program. Make a list of questions not answered on their websites. Send emails, make calls, get specific answers. Talk to other students, past and present. Then make your list of prospective programs based on your personal goals and submit your best work with your application.
And enjoy the journey….
Kelly Stone Gamble is a freelance writer and author of Ragtown, a historical novel set during the building of the Hoover Dam. She will graduate in January with an MFA in Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University. Stop by her blog at www.kellystonegamble.blogspot.com to say hello, or follow her on twitter @KellySGamble