My friend Anita is in the process of getting her MFA degree and recently we had a conversation about our experiences. Perhaps you're considering an MFA? Perhaps this will help. Find full links to Anita and her books at the bottom of the page!
TINA: I want to know more about your MFA program. Can you tell me what it is about?
ANITA: My MFA is through Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania. It takes a few years to earn the MFA at Seton Hill. During each semester, I take a couple classes long distance. One of the classes is always writing based, so students complete at least one novel by the time they graduate--I'll probably get a few done. Twice a year, all the MFA students go to Pennsylvania for about a week. We take classes and critique each other's work and meet with our mentors. It's a great time. I missed my last residency, because I was hospitalized. It was such a bummer to miss it.
Where did you earn your MFA? Did you learn a lot through your program?
TINA: I went to the creative writing program at the University of Minnesota. It is a three year program and what I loved about it was the teaching assistantship. I spent three years teaching undergrads lit and comp and loved the experience. I learned a ton and much of it was about teaching. I also think workshopping in group settings where you get to hear others respond to a piece of writing that you are also engaged in critiquing is one of the most valuable learning experiences I have ever had. I really miss it now that I am writing full length books. At the time I was writing non-fiction essays. I had a lot to learn.
I am very curious about a "writing based class." Can you tell me how they work?
ANITA: I'm jealous about your assistantship component. My program doesn't offer anything like it, but I guess it would be hard to do, since I'm several states away from the university!
The writing-based class involves writing approximately 60 pages per semester. The pages are written in increments and shared with a mentor and a couple students/critique partners. I have learned sooo much from my mentors. They've truly helped me improve my writing. I look at things I wrote before the program and cringe. My critique partners have also been great. I learn as much critiquing their work as I do reading the critiques of my work.
Do you see any negatives about MFAs?
TINA: And I'm jealous that you are doing the program now with your family-life and writing-life so well established! I think I would have gotten so much more out of the MFA knowing then what I know now (because I would do it again in a heartbeat!).
I guess that is what I think I missed with the program -- what it actually means to establish a writing life. I think the program really eased me toward an academic-life rather than what I needed to learn -- to write through thick and thin and to love it even when it was thin. Sometimes you have to be stupid and say things wrong and write in cliches to get to what is creative and new. But the judgement that is so inherent in academia really stopped me short of that.
Your class sort of seems to be the antithesis of what I'm talking about. Writing so much in a semester seems like it would really push you to produce and not be at all precious in your writing. It might be the antidote to the academic strain toward comparison and expected outcome.
What do you think? Are there other drawbacks you see?
ANITA: It's actually stipulated in my program that the work our critique partners see should not be "finished" work...you can't turn in something that's already published, for example. The designers of the program want people to see the benefits of critiques. Having said that, we don't turn in junk, either. We want our mentors and critique partners to be impressed with us...because we all want that validation, don't we?
Also, I took a module (this is basically a one-shot class) during my residency that talked about writing while living a full life. We discussed "obstacles" to writing (things like other careers, children, housework) and how to work around those obstacles.
There is a balance that must be achieved with the MFA--listening to the critiques, but maintaining your unique voice. It's a struggle. And it's hard to hear when your writing isn't working. That's always tough.
You sound like you miss the MFA work. Maybe you should go again. :)
TINA: That class sounds great. Those designers are smart!
I do miss school. And it's the validation I miss. There is something so justified about having the school work to do.
The trick with the degree I hold in my hand now. You'd think I'd find justification with this MFA I earned. I finished the program, I got in, someone chose my work and yet I am not satisfied.
Publication has that same draw. Validation. Suddenly writing is a real job. Someone saw enough worth in your work to put it out there in the world. But, like the MFA, publication is not going to be as validating as I expect it to be. So again there is the balance. Balancing expectation with outcome.
An MFA program is not going to make life easier for anyone but it will provide a lot of built in structure for getting the work done and getting feedback and making writing connections. All those things are valid in themselves. I would love to have that life to do over.
One of my challenges is I wasn't writing fiction during my MFA so I have taught myself a whole new genre since then. On my own. Not to mention I was going to school back when the internet was hardly anything. I envy your experience of knowing exactly what you want to do AND having the blogging established and social media to help you out. But...I have to keep moving on to the next thing: publishing my books in some shape or form and taking my teaching experience into other teaching opportunities.
How do you balance it? You have much going on with promotion of your two eBooks, a nano novel on the way, your school work, critiquing, blogging, your column, not to mention family life which has way too many facets to count; how do you do it all?
ANITA: Regarding validation: I'm not always successful at this, but I'm learning to VALIDATE MYSELF. It's pretty simple, saying "Anita, you are awesome." I don't know why I'd want anybody else to do it, when, frankly, I'm the one I really want to hear it from. See, when I wanted to hear it from an agent or editor, it was just so that I could, in turn, tell it to myself. Now, like with epubbing, I'm skipping the gatekeeper and going right from the person who needs to send the message to the person who needs to receive it: Anita to Anita.
Regarding doing it all: I don't. My husband helps with so much (you sound like you've got a great husband, too) and my kids are a big help. Sometimes my kids get the short end of the stick, but I tell myself that if they see me working on something that's important to me, they'll find their own passions when they're adults...things they'll want to put time and energy into.
Here's the thing: I love writing. And I have days when I think I suck at it, but then there are those really wonderful days when I tell myself, "Anita, you're awesome." :)
Good luck to you, as you find your way in publishing. And thanks for having me at your blog!
TINA: The pleasure is all mine! I have loved your blog since way back and always benefited from your wisdom! You make an excellent point about who we really need to please with our writing. The books are better when we write for ourselves. And thank God for good husbands! And children too. You absoluteley are a marvelous working role model for them.
Thanks so much for this conversation and I can't wait until I can read your YA eBook!
Check out Anita's blog, middle grade blog, and her buy page. I've read both her kids eBooks and they are totally worth the purchase (they are a bargain at 99 cents!). A Scary Good Book is a great kids mystery with an even better protagonist, perfect for those Trixie Belden lovers among us, but if you're more into aliens, laughs and high-stakes adventure, give Earthling Hero a try!