The In­tan­gi­bles


Poets and Writers - - Features -

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

Col­lege, 2011

“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.”

—M’Bilia Meek­ers

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

Univer­sity, 2002

“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

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