Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How Do I Choose an MFA Program?

Choosing to move past the "lone ranger" stage of writing and on to an MFA program can be a big step forward for any writer.  But it does represent major changes in terms of the time and effort you dedicate to your work, and you want to make sure you choose an MFA program which fits your needs as a writer.
What Are the Best MFA Programs in the United States?
It seems like a simple question, but it's not.  Just as each writer is different, so too is each MFA program.  This blog post is taken from my answer to Which MFA Programs Are Best? on Facebook Questions.  Granted, my basic answer was "I recommend Hopkins," but that kind of answer is too simple.  Choosing an MFA program depends on finding the right balance for you personally.  Here are my thoughts on what worked well for me, and how you might apply this to your own MFA search:

No Two MFA Programs Are Exactly Alike
I just finished my MFA last year, and I think it's hard to apply a cookie-cutter approach to which is the "best" creative writing program. Each creative writing program is different, and each one has it's advantages and disadvantages. I certainly rank my MFA from Hopkins as one of the best - the Atlantic Monthly Still Ranks JHU in the Top Ten. Rankings, though, don't reveal everything.  It's been a very good experience for me as a writer and as a teacher of writing, but not all of my classmates have been as enthusiastic about the program.

This, I think, is natural. Creative writing is a very personal journey, and the school that's right for one writer won't necessarily work well for you. Before you seek an MFA, you should ask yourself whether or not that's the right step for you. Although the MFA does provide very helpful guidance for your writing, it won't necessarily provide the life experience or subject material necessary to round out your work. I'm somewhat glad that I had a break of six years between undergrad and my MFA - I took a variety of online workshops and attended residencies that I wouldn't have tried out had I gone straight to the MFA. But it is a very personal decision, and I've written one article on how to tell that you're ready to move on from distance workshops and begin the more intensive training of an MFA.

What Style Does the Program Emphasize?
For my own writing, I feel that Hopkins has been a particularly good place. Our program emphasizes traditional storytelling, and I needed that foundation in order to balance out my more experimental writing. My professors here were both open to my work and able to provide very concrete tools to help strengthen my stories. (To get an idea of how traditional narrative structures can help with, say, science fiction or fantasy, I've posted all my lesson plans for the science fiction course I taught over Intersession. You can take a look at TheHuman.12Writing.com)

Program Size and the Variety of Coursework
The Hopkins MFA is also a smaller program than most other top-tier programs, so we don't have as much variety in the course offerings. Given the heavy creative writing emphasis of my undergraduate degree, I felt the program helped broaden my understanding of literature - others with a more traditional undergraduate course load of Shakespeare and Modernism and Continental Literature might find that Hopkins doesn't offer enough literature. Basically, you enter the program, and your courses are set - you take the same classes with the same classmates for the time that you're here. It's nice in that each professor teaches the topics he or she likes best, and you can honestly their enthusiasm. On the downside, though, there's little variety (for example, no poetry courses for fiction writers, and vice versa.)

As a fiction writer, I've been able to join the poets for an informal workshop outside of class, but this has been entirely dependent on my classmates. One advantage to a larger program is that you're more likely to find a group of classmates with similar interests, and so I imagine it would be easier to bounce ideas off peers who enjoy your work. With a smaller program, though, you do learn to see your work through the eyes of readers who wouldn't have necessarily read it if they had their choice of genre, and that helps give a broader idea of how your work fits into literature as a whole.

Do You Want to Teach While You Earn Your MFA?
Another area to consider is the teaching load you're looking for in a creative writing program. Hopkins requires us to teach an undergraduate class during each semester of graduate school. I felt this was a strong selling point - I've always considered teaching a potential career path, and I'm glad I could combine it with my first-choice job of creative writing. Even after a few semesters, I wasn't entirely sure how much I wanted to teach - it wasn't until my second year that I truly began to see the role that teaching played in my development as a writer. I'm actually applying to PhD programs now because I really want to continue down this route, and I think the PhD will give me a much stronger foundation for teaching advanced courses. (to get an idea of my teaching style, you can visit my Introduction to Fiction and Poetry Blog. I've been posting my lesson plans for this semester on the site, so it's updated fairly often.)

Yet many of my friends haven't been as as enthusiastic about leading their own classes. Teaching undergrads while also working on your workshop stories and your thesis makes for a lot of work, and I wouldn't necessarily recommend Hopkins to someone who didn't have at least some interest teaching undergrads. For me, working with undergrads has been one of the highlights of the program - but I also served in the army for five years, and I worked at summer camps during college, so I'm used to working with students in that age group. For many of my classmates, Hopkins offered their first experience in front of a classroom - and I'll be honest, we don't receive quite enough training for that. You learn to teach by writing your first syllabus, typing out your lesson plan, and really just walking up in front of that class. It's a bit scary at first, but definitely worthwhile - especially if you think you'd like to teach writing as a career. (If not for my desire to teach, I'm not sure I'd be applying for PhD programs right now - you can write anywhere, but it's hard to find a university teaching position).

Can I Answer Any Questions About Creative Writing MFA's?
I know this is a pretty long answer, and I hope it proves helpful. Please feel free to message me if I can answer any questions. And feel free to continue browsing the main writing website, 12Writing.com. I never update it quite as much as I'd like, but I'd be happy to write any articles per request.


max den said...

amazing post

Rught Bilodeau said...

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