“Writing is like exercise. Make sure you’re giving yourself the best tools possible so you can continue working and improving.” –Sarah Foil
I first got the idea that I wanted to be novelist when I was in fifth grade. I had a teacher fall in love with a fable-esque short story I wrote and told me I should be a writer. I took that advice as gospel and threw out my idea of being a dolphin trainer (although sometimes I wonder if that would still be better career choice). When fifth grade Sarah Foil looked out on her future, she saw writing in a secluded office all day, reading amazing books, being an international bestseller, going on book tours. In my mind, I was going to graduate with my undergraduate degree in Creative Writing, immediately get a book deal and become a full time writer. Surprisingly, things didn’t work out that way.
To me, at this age and even on to my college years, the thought of an MFA program, spending two more years in school, delaying my writing career and spending more money on tuition, was ridiculous. Many writers and even published authors still share this thought, regardless of experience level or age. Our community has this attitude that writing is an innate talent that you either have or don’t have. It can’t be taught and there’s no value in pouring thousands of dollars a year into reading and writing exercises that you could do on your own. While it’s true that some people will always have a predisposition to art while others have to work much harder, the idea that investing in your future of a writer is wasteful is something we need to stop perpetuating.
Here’s the problem: writing, and art in general, is not a genetic trait, like being able to roll your tongue or being double jointed. Think of writing as a form of exercise instead. If I substitute the word “running” for “writing” when I talk about my career this is how it would translate: When I was in fifth grade I knew I wanted to run as a career. I ran from time to time and watched other people run a lot. In college, I ran track and even bought a gym membership. But I didn’t want to continue to spend time and money on my running career after college. I wanted to go straight to the Olympic running team. That sounds kind of crazy, doesn’t it?
Olympic-level runners have trainers. They have a team of people who watch and critique them. They challenge themselves and set new goals. They don’t graduate college suddenly at the top of their field. They continue to work. Moreover, if you’re not running and pushing yourself every day, you’re not going to get any better. You’re going to come back to that track and find it more daunting and terrifying than ever. Joining an MFA is just like hiring a professional trainer, which was a difficult idea for me to accept even after I was accepted into the program, but I got much more out of it than I could have planned for.
Here are some things you’ll get in an MFA program that would be hard for you to come by outside a program.
- Mentorship– In my program I was able to work with professional, published authors one-on-one every semester. I could tell them what was easy for me, what I struggled with and what I was hoping to gain from my experience. This mentorship was essential in improving my writing.
- A Community– I joined possibly the best cohort (or class) that I could have asked for. These are people that I worked with through every step of the way. I didn’t read everyone’s manuscripts but we all knew that we were going through the same struggle and were there to support support each other when we needed to.
- Regular Critique Groups– This is probably the most valuable thing you can gain from joining an MFA program. You can submit a chunk of writing every round for critique and get feedback from fellow students and mentors. Sure, there are online communities you can join and if you’re lucky there’s local critique groups available to you, but I struggled with these options before my MFA program. In general, I find online critique groups too impersonal and critical. People seem to forget that the point of critique is to encourage people to improve their work, not discourage them from writing all together. In a face-less online environment people find it too easy to brutally honest. The imperson critique groups in my MFA program were the exact opposite: constructive and tough, but also encouraging.
- Craft Workshops– You know how it feels in school or college when you have a teacher who just loves what they do? They talk about their work, no matter how mundane it is, and you’re drawn by their enthusiasm. That’s what a craft workshop feels like. You have these professional writers get up and talk about something as simple as the construction of a sentence, but by the end you’re rethinking the way you write.
So, my message is this: consider an MFA program. Don’t be like me and think you’re too good for professional help. My writing has made a complete transformation from three years ago when I finished my graduate degree. I look back on the work I did then and can literally see the difference. My writing is more condensed, my language is more mature, my character are deeper and my plot has more meaning than I could have imagined.
Even worse, don’t think that you’re not good enough for an MFA program. There are hundreds of programs out there. Sure, some are limited to published authors only. Some only accept ten people a year. But for every one of these exclusive, elite programs, there are twenty more that would love to have you in their community. If you’re not already a full time writer, you don’t even have to worry about quitting your day job. You can join a program like mine, the Mountainview MFA, which is Low Residency so you can be part of an in person community but still make money and support your family. A number of new online-only MFA programs are also available, which are a great option for those of us without the means to travel.
If at the end of this post you still feel like an MFA program isn’t for you, that’s okay. Maybe you have more growing to do before you’re ready to move on to a graduate degree. Or maybe it will never be a good fit for the path you see your writing career going. That’s okay. Just don’t forget that writing is like exercise. Make sure you’re giving yourself the best tools possible so you can continue working and improving.