The Writing: Should I get an MFA if...I want structure around my writing?

The Writing: Should I get an MFA if...I want structure around my writing?

Today I’m kicking off a series of answers about and around getting MFAs.

I tried to answer this week’s answer in one go and it ballooned into something longer than one of my Sunday letters (I hadn’t even finished). So, I’ll be answering this question in linked parts over the next couple of weeks that start with “Should I get an MFA if…”

Feel free to ask another question that starts with “Should I get an MFA if…” and I’ll add it to the queue for the weeks to come.

Today’s question: Should I get an MFA if…I want structure around my writing?

Answer below. I’ll be here for the next 45 minutes!

Image: “Page from Shi Zhu Zhai,” Unknown (Qing dynasty). Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper. White rocks tinged on the bottom from yellow to orange are clustered together in the middle of a spread, perhaps a mountain. Two oval, grey objects with pink centers, perhaps ships, are on the bottom left of the rock. Five other objects like these sail away or toward the cluster on the other side.

You should do an MFA if the structure is one you're creating for yourself.

Let me front with this: don't confuse an MFA for your own discipline and practice. Fill in the blanks here, but be real with yourself. Are you fresh out of twenty years of the K-12 and college ladder and used to having your next task handed to you on a platter? Do you think you need a master of some sort of tell you what to write? When to write? How to break a line? Where certain things start and other things begin? Prompts? Are you nostalgic for that first day of school and that crisp fall air? Because all those things will fall away again the moment you get your diploma. Your time is your life. Don't waste it delaying the inevitable day you'll (still) need to figure out how to write while surviving anyway.

If you're early in your writing practice, you should probably wait. Others' voices can end up muddying the waters of what you're trying to clarify on your own. You don't want to end up with work that's a Frankenstein of everyone's edit suggestions. You don't need a background in writing to get an MFA, but a lot of these programs don't offer sequential arcs like arithmetic going on algebra. You'll more likely be presented with, and attracted to, a course list of famous names, each with their own takes on writing, but as I said in 'How Do I Get Through My MFA Program?' (https://yanyi.substack.com/p/how-do-i-get-through-my-mfa-program), the best teachers are often not the most famous ones.

What can you do in the meantime? Give yourself flexibility and follow what feels right. Take a couple writing workshops (if you're low on cash, many offer scholarships or reduced tuition) and get to know what kinds of instruction work for you and what doesn't; build your confidence humbly. It will help. If you're lucky, you'll find some friends along the way. They are the ones who will really count down the road.

Now, if you're somewhat further along in your writing practice (e.g. you've taken your fair share of workshops, you can identify what in your writing makes it *yours*, and you've got those sparks of interest and regular practice that would benefit from more attention from teaching artists a little further along), yes, it might be time for you to consider a more formalized structure for your writing.

Manage your expectations and see any program you do as only one resource among many. While the usual MFA program offers time, attention, and community, your mileage will vary based on who the instructors are and the demographic backgrounds of the student body for the latter. Never join a program for a professor or a community: you may be in for a rude wake-up call or simply not click in the ways that you thought you would. If you move for the program, the setting matters—stepping back into majority-white parts of the US still put my on edge, for example. Having alternatives and back-up plans matter. The more options you have, the less trapped you will feel if things don't turn out in the ways you expected.

You will, at the very least, get some sort of healthcare, semester-based (usually) in-person study, and space and time to write (if you don't have to work—more on this later). Whether you achieve your goals depends on your initiative. There's no set curriculum: some programs require critical study while others focus exclusively on creative writing. I myself have gotten a lot out of taking cross-listed courses and having access to a research library.

For a change of pace, especially if you're working full-time, have childcare responsibilities, or are tired of semester-long workshops, you might consider a low-residency that gives you a formal, long-term advising relationship with a faculty member that culminates in 2-week residencies twice a year. This loose structure is a more intense version of what I did writing on my own with a full time job, and might be particularly beneficial if you need more flexibility in your schooling schedule and you have a strong sense of how you write but could benefit from focused attention. I've never done one, but I can see the skills that you hone with this model being useful after you graduate.

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