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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