Last week, I was invited to speak about writing and education at the California Writers Club of San Fernando Valley. Preparing for the talk gave me the opportunity to think more about MFA in Writing Programs: namely, if writers should get one, what kind of writers should get one, and how to go about getting one.
My decision to get an MFA in Writing was both natural and spontaneous. Now, I was also preparing for the CMA exam when I was pursuing an MFA. So, I was kind of juggling between the two. I’ve been writing creatively as far back as I can remember, and I’ve wanted to be a writer for about that long as well. But despite my desire to become a published author someday, I didn’t give much thought to graduate school. By the time I reached high school, I knew that I’d be majoring in English but that I’d probably pursue some other career while writing in my free time. I was realistic enough to know that most writers couldn’t support themselves through their work alone. I thought about becoming an editor for a publishing house or maybe a literary agent.
However, after graduating college in 2009, I realized that finding an entry-level job in Los Angeles with my BA in English Lit was going to be a lot harder than I expected. The economy was terrible and the job market was encountering major changes due to the crash and the ever-increasing and unpredictable rise of technology. Because I wasn’t able to find a full-time job, I began to give more thought to an MFA program.
Being in grad school would give me a chance to focus on my writing, complete the memoir I’d been dreaming about writing since the age of 12, and qualify me to teach writing at the college-level. Although teaching hadn’t been high on my list of potential job opportunities, I was lucky enough to land an internship teaching creative writing courses at a retirement community toward the end of my undergraduate studies. That experience showed me how much I enjoyed helping others find and share their stories.
At first, I applied to a few traditional MFA programs around the country just to see what happened. Unfortunately, I wasn’t accepted to any of the three programs I applied to. I know now that three is a very small list and MFA programs are incredibly competitive. Iowa Writer’s Workshop, for example, is harder to get into than Harvard Medical School with a 1-2% acceptance rate. When preparing for my next round of applications, I decided to put more consideration into low-residency MFA programs.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the low-residency format, these MFA programs are more geared toward writers who have families and jobs that would make relocating and studying full-time difficult. Since I was only in my early to mid-20s, I didn’t think that this format applied to me. But I soon realized that a low-residency program would give me a lot more freedom and flexibility than a traditional program. I could stay in Los Angeles and continue looking for work if I wanted to. I wouldn’t have to uproot my life and put everything on hold to get the degree. Low-residency programs are mostly done from home, with two 10-day residencies on the school’s campus each year for two years. At those residencies, you get to meet other students and the mentors you’ll be working with, attend lectures and writing workshops, and go to readings and parties.
The disadvantage of low-residency programs is that most of them don’t offer much, if any, scholarships or funding. Many traditional programs don’t offer this either, though, and the ones that do tend to be Harvard Medical School-level competitive. I spent a lot of time weighing the pros and cons, examining my financial situation and options, trying to decide whether it would ultimately be worth paying out of pocket and through loans for an MFA in Writing degree, I even visited websites like https://www.sofi.com/student-loans-payoff-calculator/ in order to find out how much money I’d pay monthly.
It was a tough choice. But my dream was to become a published author, and I wanted to be qualified to teach writing at a college level so I could pursue teaching as a career path. I also longed to find a tight-knit literary community that I would be part of and would continue to be part of for the rest of my life. The MFA seemed like the best way to accomplish all of my goals.
I ended up at Antioch University Los Angeles’ low-residency MFA program and graduated in December 2014. It was a long journey to get there, but ultimately, I’m so glad that I arrived. I left the program with new friends, a finished manuscript, a tight-knit literary community, and a degree that allows me to teach writing at colleges and universities. I feel prepared to embark upon the next stage of my journey where I look for teaching jobs and submit my manuscript out for publication. I have no regrets.
In my next post, I’ll talk a bit more about MFA programs, the admission process, and provide links and resources that will help you decide if an MFA is right for you.