But first I’d like to echo the article Poets & Writers wrote on the topic this past fall and say that my decision to attend a program and which program I chose are probably not what’s going to make or break my writing career.
“The secret to your success as a writer more than likely does not reside in the hallowed halls of an MFA program. No matter how many connections you make or how much good advice you take, the real work of being a writer is done not around the workshop table but in your heart and in your mind.” –Poets & Writers
I’m sure this isn’t news to anyone, but it’s become even more real to me now that I’m in an MFA program.
When I first started thinking seriously about the MFA, I imagined myself applying year after year, getting denied by top-rated writing schools, until a magical day when one of my dream schools–like Columbia or University of Oregon–finally came to their senses and accepted me.
The dream never went into much detail. I mean, it was just me getting accepted, going back to school, and becoming a famous writer. The end.
It got a bit hazy after that. And the dream never included my family. Was I really planning to move us to a college campus wherein they’d start new lives (with me being barely present) and we’d pay for it all with money we’d find buried in the yard? I’m writing fiction, not living it.
Once I got serious, I realized the logistics were going to be as tough or tougher than getting accepted into a program.
As a mom of a school-aged child and (at the time) a working person, I had limitations. My husband had his job, we had a house–our life was good in our community and none of us wanted to move.
So when I began researching low-residency programs, I got excited. I looked at a lot of programs, but ended up choosing Pacific Lutheran University (more on PLU in a minute).
First, some upsides of low-residency:
- You get to work one-on-one with a writing mentor (often one that you choose)
- You get to go to about 10 days of writing residency each year (which is more fun than summer camp ever was)
- You get to know an eclectic, encouraging group of people who are trying to do the same thing you are
- You have a lot of control over the books you read and the kind of writing you do
- You can manage your schedule and adjust when you do your work
- You don’t have to move!
- You generally don’t have to take (or in my case, re-take because my scores were so old) the GRE.
Probably the biggest downside to a low-residency program is cost. You’re looking at a total price tag of about $30,000 or more. Rarely are you given much in terms of tuition breaks, but some programs (like mine) have limited scholarships. Other financial aid is available, but I think it’s mostly loans. I had some money saved and because my program is spread out over three years, it’s easier than a two-year program to pay as you go. (There are other challenges to low-residency, but that’s a separate article–it depends on what you want to do with your MFA.)
So why did I choose PLU’s Rainier Writing Workshop?
Most people will tell you that when you’re sizing up programs, check out the faculty first. I did, but honestly, I wasn’t that familiar with the faculty at any of the schools. And, anyway, what I’ve observed while taking writing classes (within and outside of the program), is that the style of a person’s writing (or how extensively they’ve been published) has little to do with how well they can help ME as a writer.
And that’s what I care about.
So how could I find out if the faculty in a program could help me grow as a writer? Talk to students and graduates.
I had narrowed the field to three low-residency programs: Goddard, Pacific, and PLU. My criteria were a hodge-podge of ratings, recommendations from others, faculty, and location (you still have to pay for travel to get to the residencies).
I called and talked to the program directors and asked if I could get connected to grads or students in the program. I also started asking around to see if anyone had attended or knew anyone who’d attended these schools.
I finally ended up applying and being accepted to both Goddard and PLU, but chose PLU’s program. The program was a good match for me. I liked the people (faculty and program directors) and had the most in common with the PLU Rainier Writing Workshop (RWW) students.
The students and grads I questioned gave me straight answers and put me in contact with other people to talk to. They all talked about how supported they’d been throughout the process and how much they’d grown as writers.
It gets back to what you want to get out of it. I think low-res programs tend to work well for independent writers with a strong sense of self and a desire to find or hone their own unique writing voice.
Here’s what I wanted:
- To improve my writing without losing my distinct voice. I didn’t want to go through the “modern literary fiction machine.”
- Flexibility. Like if I decide to write YA, I wanted people and a program to support that.
- To have control over what books I read and my own writing experience.
- A well-respected, literary program, that wasn’t stuffy, snobby, snarky, or uber-competitive.
- Supportive people who were on the same team, trying to help each other be the best writers they could be.
I found all that and more at PLU. That’s why I love it.
In the end, getting better at writing is a solitary endeavor. It’s about spending the time with your butt in the seat writing your ass off.
But it helps to have someone waiting every month to read and comment on my work. Also it helps get me through the “dark times” when I can lament with a community of people doing what I’m doing. I’ve made tons of great connections and have learned as much from my fellow students as from the faculty. The other students and graduates are a huge resource when you get ready to publish.
For anyone who wants to know more about it, just leave me a question or comment!
A big shout out to all my fellow RWW-ers! You all are the best.