In Support of the Low-Residency MFA Program

There’s been a fair amount of discussion on the Ball this week about MFA programs, and we Debs represent a diversity of experience on that score. Of course, the way each writer refines her craft reflects her own academic, financial, personal, and life considerations, and I think one of the virtues of a blog like this, with five different voices (plus commenters!), is that it gives readers a breadth of experiences and opinions to compare. I myself attended a low-residence MFA program, and I’m going to share the five reasons why that choice was right for me:

(1) I was 44 when I started it, with a family and obligations that wouldn’t allow me to take classes at a local university, much less decamp for two years to a distant campus. The low residency program allowed me to work when my schedule allowed (even if that meant breaking out the Mountain Dews and Tater Tots that fueled my college all-nighters).

(2) Twice a year, I got to tell everyone who depends on me to bugger off for ten days, because Mommy is going to go hang out with 80 other writers, poets, and teachers to talk about nothing but writing for 15 hours a day, and every night she will listen to inspiring, provocative readings and then go drink wine and dance in a barn.

(3) I met people from many different backgrounds, from ages 22 to 75, whose perspectives on the world ranged from sunny optimist to bleak nihilist. They all cared passionately about their craft, they all provoked and challenged me, and some of them have been my trusted readers for years. That writerly community is something I would have taken years longer to build on my own.

(4) I hadn’t written fiction since high school, and had taken no writing classes in college. I was stuck on page 50 of my novel, and with the rapid progress I was making through my fifth decade I didn’t feel I had the luxury of time to hone my craft on my own or through one-off classes and workshops. I felt I needed an intensive program that would help me learn the craft of fiction more quickly.

(5) I had to write 25 pages every month for two years! No excuses! (As you may remember, deadlines are very important to me.)

Again, I would never say an MFA, low residency or not, is something every writer needs to have. The posts of my fellow Debs this week attest to that. Nor would I say that most, or even half, of what I learned about writing came from my MFA program. But I do know this: I, personally, would not have written my novel without the structure and support that program gave me. I would have spent the rest of my life revising those first fifty pages, and I would have died with them still on my laptop. Maybe they would have been better, but there would never have been fifty-one of them. Ever.

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After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

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This article has 9 Comments

  1. Heather, this is so inspiring. I totally relate to needing that structure–I’m the same way. And I’ve always wondered about the low-residency MFA programs. It sounds like yours was the best of both worlds!

  2. I didn’t know there was a such thing as a low-residence MFA program; what a great option. Establishing structure, discipline– whatever you want to call it– is surely the greatest challenge for writers. Look at me now, writing this long comment instead of revising 🙂 But I have an idea– we should recreate #2 w/o the MFA part. Maybe not 10 days, but a long weekend of Debs writing during the day and barn dancing at night sounds awesome.

  3. I had never heard of a low-residency MFA program either. It’s great that that’s an option.

    It illustrates a point that I was thinking about yesterday, which is that I would imagine that all MFA programs are not the same (in terms of schedule and in terms of content).

    The interesting thing about the MFA “stigma” is that as far as I know it only applies to writing. I have a friend who’s a ceramic artist. She has an MFA, and I don’t believe there’s any negative associations there. Her work is very individualistic, and I gather that was not discouraged at all.

    In terms of the “is it necessary?” question, I guess one approach would be to make a list of your top ten all-time favorite writers, and then try to find out how many of them had MFA degrees.

    1. I had never heard of low residency MFA programs, either, until a friend mentioned she was going to apply for one. I looked around, and it seemed like the perfect thing for me. There are a lot more of them than there used to be, too; I think they’ve figured out there’s a market out there — “older” writers looking for an MFA they can do mostly from home.

      I think the “is it necessary” question is so personal, and it may come down to a question of how do you learn best? Do you do well figuring things out on your own? Or do you work better in a group, with guidance from teachers? For me it was definitely the latter, but then I had seven years of school already (undergrad and law school) so going back for more school was practically a gimme.

      1. I’m kind of the opposite. I came from a background of being a musician, in a band (a long time ago now), and I really wanted to try following ideas to their end points without having to explain why they were good ideas (because I had a hunch the ideas were good, but no reasons that I could explain).

        And some of the ideas that were the most instinctual have been the ones which readers have responded to the best.

        But I agree, everybody has to find out what works for them, even if nobody else in the world does it that way.

        I wrote a blog post about that a while ago:

  4. Anthony, I loved your blog post, and I totally get what you’re saying. Doing a structured program, whether it’s an MFA program or a novel incubator like Grub Street, will by its nature interfere with the improvisational exploration of ideas — whether artistic, literary, or musical. It will also force peer review into the creative process (through workshops, etc.) at points when the material and the artist might not be ready for it. I think these are real, undeniable detriments that everyone has to weigh against the benefits that such a program offers them. Such an interesting discussion!

  5. Your thoughtful comments point out how a mid-career writer with family obligations can carve out time to achieve goals and dreams that might have a chance to flourish in a structured academic and social environment. Congratulations on your debut novel!

  6. This was a great post, Heather, on an important topic. Is the MFA necessary for everyone? Probably not. Will your writing improve significantly if you choose that route? Without question..

    For me, getting the MFA was about validating to myself that I had it in me to write. It was a challenge on every level. The process of earning the MFA (and attending Bennington) changed me forever. The experience was one of the most significant of my life. I met people there who impacted me in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

    Congrats on your novel! It deserved to be published. I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

  7. Thanks Sharon and Kathy! The best thing that I got from my MFA experience was the inspiring writers I met there. I wouldn’t trade it for anything!

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