Why I heart my MFA Program

My last post was about my choice to pursue on MFA in creative writing. This one’s about which MFA program I chose and how I chose it.

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:

  1. You get to work one-on-one with a writing mentor (often one that you choose)
  2. You get to go to about 10 days of writing residency each year (which is more fun than summer camp ever was)
  3. You get to know an eclectic, encouraging group of people who are trying to do the same thing you are
  4. You have a lot of control over the books you read and the kind of writing you do
  5. You can manage your schedule and adjust when you do your work
  6. You don’t have to move!
  7. 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?

Me on the far right with a few of my fellow PLU grad students.

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.

10 thoughts on “Why I heart my MFA Program

  1. Sorry to have missed the previous post–looking forward to catching up on it when time allows. Thank you for sharing this! I love how straightforwardly and realistically you lay it out.
    I totally agree that (as per the P&W quotation) it’s not be-all and end-all, but for me at least, this program has been a lifeline this year. I wish we could get together more regularly, but thank goodness for social media, eh?

    • Thanks for the comment, Ela. And yes, I do wish we could see each other more often, but I also love how we represent different places and can develop good writing habits within the communities in which we live!

  2. My dear, you are such a conscientious, responsible citizen! You have to hear Imsande’s story of how she ended up at RWW sometime. Mine is less dramatic, but completely lacking forethought, comparisons, references to Poets & Writers.

    I’m so glad you came to RWW. And Ela, too! The people make this program what it is and I love the people, faculty and students, so much.

  3. Hi there. Thanks for your wonderful & humorous stories about choosing PLU, your publishing opportunity (Congrats! Wonderful! Glad to see the hard work paid off) and other thoughts & musings. You’ve inspired me to rethink some things & to consider writing a long vacant blog. I wish you fabulous luck in your future writing endeavors. And oh, your brief story description of your book caught my eye as I lived in Alaska in the 90s. Although I was quite an adult when I moved there (in my late 30s), your term “girlhood” reminded me of some wonderful friendships I made there with some truly fabulous ladies. Thanks for sharing & inspiring. Dee

    • Thank you so much, Dee! I know a thing or two about long vacant blogs. It’s such a struggle to keep up with all the writing and online interactions, but when I receive a comment like yours, my motivation ramps up! So much gratitude to you for reaching out. Yes, Alaska is such a part of me and like you, I retain many friendships from my time growing up there. Wishing you all the luck and happiness in your rethinkings and considering.

  4. Did you choose RWW in part because it’s a three-year program? Can you estimate how much time you put into your writing and reading each week? I ask because I’m trying to choose whether to go to a two or three year low residency program. I work full-time and so have limited time and energy to read and write.

    • Hi Lyn! I DID choose RWW because it’s a three-year program. I knew I’d need all the time. It’s tough to do any program and also work full-time, but it’s doable. Plenty of my peers did it, and I worked part-time for some of the program. I’m guessing I put in an average of 20 hrs/week, but that’s doing long days on weekends and reading during the week. Sometimes I’d do more if I had a packet due. I’m not a fast reader or writer. But I love the fact that you can set your own hours. I’d often write late into the night or go spend a day in a coffee shop immersed in my own fake world. There was just enough structure to keep my motivated and on task. You set up deadlines with your mentor and that helps accommodate your life responsibilities. Hope that’s helpful! Good luck!!

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