Should I apply to an MFA program?
September 25, 2017 3:44 PM   Subscribe

I have been daydreaming about applying to creative writing MFA programs. Help me figure out if this is a terrible idea.

I am 31 and have been a public librarian for 5 years. I am good at what I do and have gotten consistent praise from supervisors, but I have worked at a series of small, underfunded and / or dysfunctional institutions where I've been consistently unhappy.

I need to leave my job and possibly this field. More to the point, my brain is stuck in quarter-life crisis mode and just wants to make art. Creative writing is my first passion and a central part of my identity. Based on thoughtful rejections from literary agents, I believe I'm writing at a near-professional level, but it's all I can do to write consistently outside work, let alone experiment or work on side projects.

I've been toying with applying to a fully funded creative writing MFA program. Now feels like the the right time: I have no dependents, experience living on a low income, and plenty of ideas and passion. I also think I'm at a point creatively where I would benefit from some outside assistance.

I write speculative fiction of a literary bent, and there are two MFA programs in my area that fund their students and have a genre-friendly professor on staff. My objective would be to spend 2–3 years polishing my writing skills and connecting to a literary community. I would also get classroom teaching experience, which could be neat. I have no expectation of an MFA leading to future employment, publication, fame, or really anything besides time to dedicate myself to writing.

Reasons this may be a terrible idea: I've been a job hopper due to frequent moves and a stint as a small business owner, and this will make my resume even more eccentric. Energy I'm spending on this degree might be better spent finding ways to improve my career, from finding a new job / career to working on my ability to navigate stress, anxiety, and difficult colleagues at work.

Should I apply? Have any of you taken a break from employment to pursue art? I would be especially interested to hear from folks who have done an MFA and whether they had a good experience. At this time, I am not looking for career advice.
posted by toastedcheese to Education (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I've been toying with applying to a fully funded creative writing MFA program. Now feels like the the right time: I have no dependents, experience living on a low income, and plenty of ideas and passion. I also think I'm at a point creatively where I would benefit from some outside assistance.
When I saw your question, I came here to say NO NO NO NO because I assumed you'd be seeking loans.

If you are ONLY looking at funded programs you could do without taking on debt, and nobody's depending on you to make a real salary, and this is something you need to do, then I don't see any reason not to take the plunge.

Later, when you have more familial obligations and whatnot, taking this kind of step will be harder if not impossible. Take advantage of that flexibility.
posted by uberchet at 3:51 PM on September 25, 2017 [7 favorites]

If it's full funded as in the stipend pays for your program cost and living expenses, I would go for it. If you have to go into debt for it, no way.
posted by GiveUpNed at 3:52 PM on September 25, 2017 [9 favorites]

As a middle ground, could you apply for writing residencies and use vacation or unpaid time to attend? Or look for residencies with a stipend?
posted by jrobin276 at 3:57 PM on September 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

doooooooooooooooo it. (I'm in an MFA program and you seem like you're in an ideal place to benefit from a program. Just stay strong and only apply to funded programs, ideally ones where the teaching load is manageable and you can take at least a semester or two on fellowship. There's funded and there's "funded," and if you're teaching three sections of comp starting your first semester, you're not going to get a ton of writing done.)
posted by pretentious illiterate at 4:08 PM on September 25, 2017

My instinct is to say, "No, just keep writing and try to get some short stories published in magazines or websites -- start small and and work your way up." But if you won't go into debt over this, I don't see a real downside, particularly because you may still be able to attempt to freelance while studying. If it's going to cost you money or force you to take on debt, I would instead spend 2-3 years building a portfolio and developing your own connections in the writing community.

I appreciate you are considering a lot of factors here, but the main one really is whether or not you'd be going into debt for this. Like, just because you have a weird resume isn't a good reason not to take a chance on something you dream about. Taking out a loan that you need to spend the next 20 years paying off is a good reason not to take a chance on something you dream about.
posted by AppleTurnover at 4:21 PM on September 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

I agree it's a good plan IF it's not involving any loans -- in any case, it doesn't hurt to apply and see what happens. That said, I would also do some serious thinking about what your longer-term plans are. It sounds like you don't believe the MFA will lead to a career change in-and-of itself. So, what is it you DO want to be doing on a day-to-day basis, that you believe you can find a job at that will pay you for your time? What steps do you need to take to get there? Maybe it's something you can combine with the MFA, or maybe it will take you in a different direction in terms of school/training/volunteering/networking/etc. But I wouldn't just ignore all of this for 2-3 years and expect the career change to magically drop in your lap.
posted by rainbowbrite at 4:23 PM on September 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Not an MFA but former grad student teaching Comp 101, which I suspect you'd teach some version of at first: the hours you spend on class prep, teaching, and grading are very mentally taxing, such that even if it's not 40 hours a week, you may still feel like you just never have enough time or mental energy to write. I wouldn't say "definitely not", but I would have it on your radar that if you already feel like you can never find time to write, that feeling may not go away. You could contact some students currently in the program and ask how they feel about the workload. ALSO bear in mind that grad students usually get the worst teaching times - MWF 8 am, for instance - and how well you are able to roll with working writing into your schedule even if your schedule is very weird.
posted by nakedmolerats at 4:24 PM on September 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

Based on thoughtful rejections from literary agents, I believe I'm writing at a near-professional level

Without meaning disrespect to your writing, kind words from literary agents don't necessarily account for much. I'd suggest continuing to write and focus on short stories and keep writing until you've got some paid submissions to some of the markets that buy short speculative fiction like Clarkesworld, the Escape Artists family, etc. After you're established with that, then consider the MFA.

Have you looked at seeing if you could take an extended period of unpaid leave from your current position so you could attend something like Clarion West (and maybe tack on a couple weeks afterwards to spend just writing)? If you can swing it, that's a less extreme way to take your writing to the next level without spending years on an MFA. (And Clarion is targeted for your genre.)
posted by Candleman at 4:53 PM on September 25, 2017 [7 favorites]

I came in to say the same thing as jrobin276 and Candleman: don't forget about short writing residencies and/or short MFA-like seminars. If you don't get a yes from the funded MFA, focused writing time in the company of other artists is incredibly valuable too.

I'm not trying to steer you away from grad training if you want it (and to put my bias on the table, I'm a working artist without a terminal degree – in a discipline where having a terminal degree is so totally assumed that strangers regularly just address me as Dr. Pierson). I'm pointing out that something I also hear in your post is a desire for really focused writing time, which, as a few people have pointed out, you don't necessarily get in a grad program funded by a big teaching load.
posted by kalapierson at 5:33 PM on September 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Do it. If you're just looking for writing time, shoot for a fully funded studio program (only CW courses) where your teaching load is never more than 2 courses per semester. Ideally 1-1 in first year.

As mentioned above, there are also really fantastic residencies and conferences that can kick your writing up a notch. I don't know that much about speculative fiction, but believe Clarion Writing Workshop may be the most respected in the sci-fi/speculative fiction world.

Good luck!
posted by Miss T.Horn at 8:53 PM on September 25, 2017

Yeah, go for it! Also, if you end up in academia, you might find yourself drawn back into the library world on that end of things. Working in an academic library is very different than a public library. The positions can be tenure-track and come with a heap of perks, including protected writing time. Something to think about! But overall, having an MFA could only help such a position down the line.
posted by LKWorking at 7:46 AM on September 26, 2017

Thanks for the kind and thoughtful responses so far! The recommendation of contacting current students about the teaching load is a good one.

Taking an unpaid leave to do something like Clarion is impossible at my current position, although I suppose it could be possible if I switched to non-public sector work or took a break between jobs.
posted by toastedcheese at 3:57 PM on September 26, 2017

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