Confessions of an MFA Dropout…Who Eventually Finished

Aya MFA gradI have been loving the MFA conversation this week. The fact that I get to weigh in last feels almost like taking a test where I’ve been able to look over everyone else’s shoulder…

In my 20s, I began a low-residency MFA program–which shall remain nameless–in New England. It had an all-white faculty, and a focus on literary fiction. Although I was writing literary fiction at the time, it was a terrible fit for me in many ways.

Looking back, I can see how I didn’t know the right questions to determine whether an MFA program was a good match for me. I applied because it was prestigious, which I thought meant “good.” And when I got in, I just assumed I would like it. My first semester was uncomfortable. My second semester was a disaster.  I was a writer of color from the West Coast, raised in a tradition of political activism, and accustomed to creative spaces run by women. The program was dominated by an authoritarian male leader. Many of the faculty used what they thought of as tough love. I considered some of it to be abusive. The faculty also included many men who made sexual advances toward younger female students. I dropped out.

From time to time I would go onto their website and see if that same director was in charge. As long as he was there, I refused to go back. While I wasn’t directly propositioned by any of the faculty, I realized years later–after the statute of limitations had run out–that my experience in the program fit the sexual harassment definition of a hostile environment.

The alienation of many writers of color in MFA programs is well-documented. In response to these challenges, workshops like Cave Canem, Kundiman, and Voices of Our Nations Arts or VONA have emerged as creative writing retreats that serve the needs of writers of color. While these writers workshops and retreats aren’t as long and intensive as MFAs, they have competitive admission, stellar faculty (many of whom teach at MFA programs) and provide the same intensive experience as a low-residency MFA retreat. They just don’t have the follow-up semester. I’ve been a fellow at Cave Canem and a participant in VONA’s workshop and residency program. Both helped my writing immensely, and they showed me what a supportive and powerful writer’s community could look and feel like.

Nearly ten years after I dropped out of my MFA program, I found myself teaching creative writing at the university level. In order to get a raise and have a more secure job, I needed to finish my degree. I learned many things in this process. First of all, MFA programs are very stingy with transfer credits. Generally, they want you to attend both years in their program. I didn’t have the money or the time to start over, but I did find a few programs which would consider taking my transfer credits.

With the benefit of hindsight, I knew which additional questions to ask. I was working on a spy novel at the time, and needed a program that didn’t frown upon genre fiction. I wanted a faculty that included strong female leadership, people of color, and progressive values. I ended up at Antioch in Los Angeles, a low-residency MFA with an explicit commitment to social justice. I was incredibly happy there. And after I graduated, I eventually did get that raise and that more secure job.

tiana mfa weddingBut here’s what I learned in the process. Picking an MFA is like getting married. People act like you have to be married to be happy. You don’t. Also, would you marry someone just because some guide to partners said they were great? I hope not.

The MFA is the terminal studio degree in creative writing, but it isn’t the last word. At the beginning of this week, Louise shared her wonderful experience with a strong writing community outside academia. I would give the same advice for marriage that I would for an MFA: Don’t just pick someone or someplace that looks good on paper. Think about what you need in this relationship and pick the partner or partnering institution that will support you thriving.

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Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, My Brown Baby, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, and she has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She is the author of the children's picture book PUFFY: PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR DEFIES GRAVITY. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in 2016. For more info, go to ayadeleon.wordpress.com.

This article has 5 Comments

  1. It’s great that it worked out for you in the end, and I think the analogy of marriage is very good. The entire institution isn’t for everybody to begin with, and some of the ones that look very good from the outside can actually be non-nurturing or even abusive.

  2. Yes! I know a well-published and well-respected writer of color who found his MFA so toxic that he wrote short stories he didn’t care about for critique while he carefully guarded his beloved manuscript from his teachers & peers. He teaches at an MFA program now & does it very differently from the one he studied in…

  3. Fabulous final word, Aya. I think one thing none of has mentioned with respect to the MFA decision is the benefits of age. I’m certain my MFA experience would have been far different had I attended in my impressionable 20s rather than in my 40s. No matter how insecure I felt as a new writer, I had a lot of confidence in myself as a not-so-new person, and that helped me evaluate the teaching I received in a more critical and healthier way. It sounds like your experience was similar, in that with a few more years notched on your belt you had the wisdom to look around and decide what kind of program you needed.

  4. I love the comparison to relationships–some can lift us up, and some can do some damage! A wonderful way to end our week of sharing educational histories. It really shows that there is not just one path.

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