MFA Proving Ground

You might be asking, “why did a genre writer who doesn’t want to teach decide to get an MFA?” That is a question I asked myself a few times (especially when I was struggling to find a thesis director), but the truth is that for me, an MFA wasn’t about starting an academic career, and it wasn’t about the degree. It was about framing myself to take the plunge to be a full-time writer.

My decision to pursue an MFA grew out of a desire to change my life. I had moved in with my parents after a divorce and while my job was in publishing, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. I wanted to write, but abandoning financial security was terrifying, not to mention that at the time I was fighting through such extensive creative and confidence roadblocks that I was certain to fail if I went it alone.

Which is why an MFA program was perfect for me.

An MFA program would provide the structure I needed to get serious about writing. I would write a novel! I would be a daily writer! I would write 5 or 6 hours a day! I would write 2,000 or 3,000 or 4,000 words daily! I would be utterly prolific!

Okay, perhaps some of those ambitions were a little naive, but the MFA did provide structure—I am highly motivated by good grades, after all. Academic success was a familiar motivator, wholly removed from the fear of publication and hunting for an agent, so as I wrote, the fear of producing content melted and changed. The more I wrote, the more I felt I could write. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself because in the first semester there was actually very little writing and a LOT of reading.

Reading to Write

While the program I attended at University of Central Florida is workshop focused, there are still a number of literature classes to take and books to read. And from someone who had been working 50-hour work weeks and trying to salvage a failing marriage, it had been a long time since I’d read more than ten books in a year. I was going to have to read ten books a semester. For one class. Eep! The first year was an adjustment, which meant that while I was writing, it was in no way daily or prolific. I wrote the drafts and revisions necessary for class requirements but I didn’t write much beyond that, and I didn’t write regularly.

At the time it was frustrating, but as I accepted my situation I came to understand the benefits of the mountain of reading. It helped me get back in touch with analyzing literature to be able to extract ideas and skills to use in my own writing, and—the big one—it taught me to manage my time and to read regularly again. Reading regularly as a writer is important. You don’t have to read a book a week, or anything else as crazy as the expectations of an MFA program, but reading regularly—within your genre, out of it, and books on craft—is important to developing a writing life.

A Writing Life

After a year and a half in the program, after getting more comfortable with the pressure of writing for my degree and more confident about my ability to write on demand, in January 2016 I started writing every day. It was a “commitment” I usually made and ignored, so when I accidentally discovered that I’d written daily that first week, I challenged myself to write daily for the rest of the month. Imagine my delight when I succeeded! Then I decided to do another month. And another. And then the year.

Over the next year, writing daily, I completed a novel for my master’s thesis. I wasn’t writing 3,000 words a day (I’m still not), and there were plenty of days when I wrote only 300 words a day, but I wrote daily, I had a schedule for completing revisions, I had a full-time writing life, and—most importantly—I had an idea of how to translate what I’d done during the MFA into a routine that didn’t include the safety-net motivation of an academic setting.

Could I have achieved this without the structure of an MFA program? Maybe, but I honestly don’t think so. The program allowed me to build confidence in myself while testing out the waters of being a full-time writer. It provided external motivation that wasn’t as nerve-wracking as other external motivation (needing to pay bills and eat, among them). I could quit my job and dedicate myself to full-time writing because I felt like I was working toward something else (a degree)*. The MFA program was a proving ground, and of all the lessons I learned, the ones about how to organize myself for a writing life were the most valuable.

*I should note that I had funding that covered tuition, health insurance, and a stipend, so my MFA pursuit was relatively risk-free. Not everyone has that luxury, so I don’t think an MFA is for everyone. School is expensive, yo.

4 replies
    • Alli
      Alli says:

      It was a journey to get there and to figure it all out, but it really did help me get where I wanted to go. I think it’s important for people to figure out a path, even if it’s not the path others would take or not the path they expected to take.

  1. Katie
    Katie says:

    I still cannot comprehend writing every day for a year. Maybe I just can’t imagine a life so stable that it allows for that? Or maybe I just don’t know how to force just enough stability myself. I don’t think a program is right for me (and, well, I can’t afford to give up work to do it anyway), but I’m impressed with you. I know you know it but I wanted to say it here for the internet to know, too.

    • Alli
      Alli says:

      There were days when I had to be stubborn. I remember one day in like, February, when I had been on campus for events starting around 12pm and didn’t get home until 11:30pm, and all I wanted to do was sleep. I actually was in bed when I realized I hadn’t written, and I had a moment when I considered, “Does it really matter if I don’t write?” I decided it did, and I think that day made all the difference.

      (Daily writing is not for everyone, though, just as MFA programs are not for everyone. Also, I boggle every time I look at the number of consecutive writing days—I’m almost at 500!)


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