To MFA or not to MFA?

Vermont College of Fine Arts
Writing for Children & Young Adults

 

Perhaps this is a strange question to ask on a blog dedicated to MFA graduates of VCFA, aka THE place to get one’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. But, as a writing instructor, this is a question I’m asked fairly frequently, usually at the start of a new class. Besides, it’s my 10-year anniversary of graduating with my very own MFA and I’m wishing I was on campus to celebrate!

There are many reasons to seek a MFA in creative writing. Personally, I was coming to the writing world a little later in life and wanted to jump-start the process. I’d been trying to write on my own, with the support of SCBWI for about five years. I knew enough to know how much I didn’t know. I was a classroom teacher and also liked the idea of teaching writing to adults.

When I asked my classmates for their reasons to enroll in the VCFA MFA program, here are some of the replies:

“I wanted the credentials to teach at a college level.”

“To have access to mentors, so I could become a better writer in a shorter period of time than I would struggling on my own. “

“I wanted the opportunity to study the craft of writing, really focus on it, without having to also worry about querying and publishing. It was a way to immerse myself in the craft part.”

“I dreamed about going there for years. When my daughter headed off to college, I entered. I wanted to improve my writing faster than I would have on my own, build connections with other writers, and find a way to not miss my children.”

In considering enrolling in a MFA program, here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  1. DO I WANT TO BE A BETTER WRITER?
    1. NO. This is a fine, acceptable answer. Carry on! As you were!
    2. YES. On to the next question…
  2. DO I WANT TO STUDY THE CRAFT OF WRITING? This means studying the nuts and bolts of writing, the workings behind the curtain. It requires reading reading reading, thinking critically, and articulating one’s discoveries.
    1. NO, I just want to write. Carry on! Write on, but skip the MFA.
    2. YES. On to the next question…
  3. DO I HAVE THE FINANCIAL MEANS FOR THE PROGRAM? This is a tough question, but an important one. There are more than one way to pay for a MFA, including scholarships, grants, fellowships, loans, etc. It’s important to know it’s expensive to go to graduate school (and there are expenses beyond tuition) and there is absolutely no guarantee you will earn it back.
    1. NO. That’s okay! Look to take classes locally or online. Read craft books and blog posts. Attend conferences and workshops. Study published books on your own.
    2. YES. On to the next question…
  4. DO I HAVE THE TIME TO DEDICATE? AM I WILLING TO WORK ON DEADLINE? Some people need “school” as permission to take the time to write. Fact is, you are going to have to hunt down that time and conquer it–and everything takes longer than you think it will, even when you think it will take longer than you want it to.
    1. NO. Keep searching for those minutes. Start small and build, get yourself trained. It’s like exercise!
    2. YES. On to the next question…
  5. DO I WANT (AND CAN I EMOTIONALLY HANDLE) RECEIVING FEEDBACK ON MY WORK? Even the most encouraging feedback can be tough to receive at times. An MFA program will provide intense, personal, in-depth, demanding, challenging feedback from both your teachers/mentors and your peers.
    1. NO. I get it! For now, keep writing and try to find readers your trust. Receiving critiques is a skill, too. You can get better at it. But, also, do know if you can’t handle the feedback from this kind of program, you may not be ready for the world of publishing.
    2. YES. On to the next question…
  6. AM I WILLING TO INVEST IN THE WORK OF OTHERS? Being part of a MFA program requires commitment to fellow students, both in workshop settings and throughout the semesters in other ways.
    1. NO. It’s important to be honest and know one’s limits. There are emotional and intellectual challenges to these kind of working relationships. You may want to work more directly with an agent or editor.
    2. YES. On to the next question…
  7. AM I WILLING TO TOLERATE LIFE-LONG FRIENDSHIPS AND A SENSE OF BELONGING TO A COMMUNITY?
    1. NO. Good luck! If you’re involved in the world of writing for children and young adults, these might sneak up on you anyway.
    2. YES. If you’ve made it this far, you just may have found your answer! Come to VCFA!

 In reading interviews with various VCFA alums, the description “life-changing” is used over and over again. Because it’s true. And also because the experience is too intense, too profound, too personal to get into in a public forum. We must appear to be professional, after all! If you’re considering taking the leap… you have been warned! See more from the VCFA Launchpad.

More questions? Other suggestions and points to consider from fellow alums? Let’s discuss in the comments!

Sarah Tomp

VCFA Alum July 2007

Proud member of the class, “The Unreliable Narrators.”

4 thoughts on “To MFA or not to MFA?”

  1. L. Marie says:

    Thank you for this post, Sarah. A number of people have asked me about whether or not an MFA is “necessary” (especially knowing that I went to VCFA, but they don’t necessarily want to go). The questions you asked above are good ones to ponder.

    1. Sarah Tomp says:

      Oh, good! It was necessary for ME, but it’s definitely not for everyone.

  2. Lyn Miller-Lachmann says:

    I had two published books before VCFA, but my two biggest reasons for going were: 1) my editor and mentor passed away suddenly before I felt I was ready to venture out on my own, and 2) I wanted to teach writing at the college level. I didn’t realize at the time how important it is to have a writing community, and I think in the end that has been the most valuable thing coming out of my experience at VCFA.

    1. Sarah Tomp says:

      Thanks for sharing this, Lyn. I too have been pleasantly surprised at the community bonus!

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