MFA TAKEAWAYS THAT CAN'T BE MEASURED
MFA takeaways that can’t be measured.
THERE are some aspects of a graduate writing program that cannot be quantified—qualities that don’t fit neatly on a spreadsheet, facets that can’t be summed up on a university website or in an application packet. These are the elements of a program that MFA graduates might hold on to even more tightly than their diplomas—the skills and lessons, experiences and connections they’ll carry with them for the rest of their writing and publishing careers. We asked several poets and writers from around the country to discuss some of the more intangible benefits their MFA programs provided.
“The sheer volume of feedback I received during my MFA years—astute suggestions, but oftentimes conflicting— trained me to develop and trust in my own instincts. I had to feel out what feedback to heed and what to push aside. I learned not to write by consensus.”
—Jenny Xie, New York University, 2013
“My MFA program gave me the unshakable belief that I deserved to call myself an artist. That’s what gave me the courage to reshape my career and free time to make fiction writing my top priority. I also found my agent, James Fitzgerald of the James Fitzgerald Agency, through a friend in my program.”
—Jonathan Vatner, Sarah Lawrence
“In any creative cohort and its offshoots, there’s an opportunity to find both lifelong readers and revisers, and the writers you will turn to throughout your life and career.”
—Hannah Sanghee Park, Iowa
Writers' Workshop, 2010
“I learned just how many seriously talented people are writing today. Though I maybe didn’t realize it at the time, this instilled a kind of fear in me, a fear for which I’m actually very grateful, because it pushed me to realize just how much hard work and determination and persistence it was going to take to make any kind of serious work.”
—William Brewer, Columbia University,
“I didn’t have an undergraduate degree in any form of literary study, so my MFA program allowed me to cultivate a talent that was burgeoning but underdeveloped, with personalized, one-on-one mentorship with established writers. It also immersed me in a culture of likeminded geeks who breathed, ate, and drank writing for two years before facing the harsh realities of the literary world, so I was able to build up a body of work that I’ve been able to revisit, revise, and publish while engaging in other career pursuits.”
—Sean Kevin Campbell, Sarah
Lawrence College, 2011
“My MFA program gave me the confidence to be playful in my writing, to experiment and take risks and be comfortable with the potential for failure.
“My MFA program gave me the confidence to be playful in my writing,
to experiment and take risks and be comfortable with the potential for failure.”
This playfulness has given an energy to my writing that I haven’t found elsewhere.”
—M’Bilia Meekers, New York University,
“During my time at Colorado State University, some friends and I launched a surrealist writing group called the Minions; we held readings and events, published chapbooks and zines, and even found a way to distribute our writing in a tampon vending machine. Core members of the Minions went on to start the Normal School, the journal through which my literary agent eventually discovered my work—including a personal essay that he helped me expand and publish as my memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld (Graywolf Press, 2014).”
—Justin Hocking, Colorado State
“I made connections with people—peers and mentors—in my MFA program that I would not have otherwise made, and there was an enormous benefit in committing time and energy (and even a certain amount of money) to my writing in a structured and formalized way. And yet I earned my MFA fifteen years ago, and it was a different landscape than it is now. Since then I’ve learned of other avenues and opportunities that rival the MFA experience but without the degree—emerging writer fellowships, for instance, and low-cost mentorships with established authors. An MFA can offer invaluable benefits, but it’s not the only path to find them.” —Wendy C.
Ortiz, Antioch University, 2002