Is the MFA Worth Your Time and Money? One Poet’s Advice

Unknown Bennington ‘Commons’, Bennington College

In 2009, I got my MFA in poetry from the Bennington Writing Seminars, a low-residency program (one of the first established) at Bennington College in Vermont. I was 36, homeschooling an 8 and a 10 year old in a rural state, the primary caretaker and homemaker while my husband supported us financially with his own creative career.  I had been writing seriously since my undergraduate days, had published in some small literary journals, placed in a few contests, and had compiled and submitted a chapbook; a finalist in a few contests before my enthusiasm for it petered out and I stopped submitting. In short, I was writing, but in fits and starts and without much focus. I had always intended to get my MFA, the terminal degree in poetry. I applied to a couple full-residency programs after getting my BA, but they were the best of the best, I was a fairly undeveloped poet and I didn’t get accepted; within five years I had two small kids to distract me. I’ll say upfront that the MFA price tag wasn’t a deterrent. My husband was happy to support my further education, believed in my talents, and, most importantly, we could afford it. This isn’t a luxury everyone has. There are many, many talented writers who would probably choose the MFA, but can’t justify the cost or just plain can’t afford it. Several of my Bennington classmates were stretched thin paying tuition. My classmates were a diverse lot, not as culturally diverse as some other schools, a fact which Bennington is working to change. Ages ran the gamut from early 20’s to early 70’s, writers with several books under their belts to recent BA graduates, writers from all over the country and a few from other countries. We came together twice a year for a couple weeks of intense workshopping, attending lectures and readings til’ we dropped (at least I dropped: daily naps), meetings with teachers and of course, dance parties and poets vs fiction/non fiction baseball games. I don’t know why the poets had to go it alone. We’re no good at sports! The residencies were intense, challenging and a ridiculous amount of fun. The five to six months in between each of us spent back in our daily lives, caring for families and working jobs, with the addition of a whole lot of writing and reading. So, why didchoose to get my MFA and was it worth it?

WHY?

A commitment to my craft and myself as a poet.  (instead of saying ‘mommy wants to write’, I could say ‘mommy has to write. For school.’)

The next logical step in my evolution as a poet. (I hadn’t yet written a book-length manuscript and felt a little lost at the prospect)

– I had reached a plateau. (Though I’d been writing and submitting pretty seriously since my early 20s, read and studied avidly, and considered myself a ‘poet’, I also sensed I was spinning my wheels, needed to expand my insular writing world)

It was a challenge I had to take. (A 34 year old stay-at-home mother of two, living in rural Maine, may feel a bit insecure when contemplating a workshop with Major Jackson, April Bernard or Tim Liu, not to mention giving a 40 minute lecture you expect them to sit through and hopefully enjoy.)

The poet/teachers. (Critics of MFA programs like to suggest that MFA graduates have unfair connections in the poetry world because we studied with prominent poets who are also judges in contests, etc. I wanted to study with these poets because their work is great and I hoped they would impart some wisdom. The poetry world is very small, hang around for a while, or attend one AWP conference, and you’ll have similar connections. I’ve never submitted work to a former teacher, but I have enjoyed a broader network of poet friends.)

WORTH IT? (Definitely, but not for the obvious reasons)

Met great people (I’m still in touch with MFA friends, I can’t imagine never having known my classmates. My world was expanded by my peers most of all)

Wrote two books! (My first published collection began as my creative thesis. I revised, it morphed, but the basics were written and developed at Bennington. My critical thesis and lecture were based on a 19th century diary I found at an antique store in my second semester. I went on to publish the transcribed diary with  my own research and critical writing)

Hold an MFA (For better or worse, it’s the name of the game: I have an MFA! Yes, I paid for it, but I also worked hard for it and transformed into a more full-fledged writer in the process)

Gained confidence (Not just in my writing, but as an individual apart from husband and children. Women of all interests and backgrounds know how it is to become identified almost wholly as mother and wife. No matter our talents, it just happens, and the only way to change the balance is by stepping out the door and assuming your individual identity)

Learned to trust my voice and judgement (This is a big one because the major criticism of MFA programs (like this and this) is that they produce cookie-cutter writers, ‘MFA writers’. I can see this happening more readily to fresh BA graduates in their early 20s, entering the atmosphere of a full-residency program. I don’t know how the MFA would have changed me as a young writer. By the time I reached my mid-thirties, my voice and style were pretty distinct and I was an adult with responsibilities and a life outside of writing. I had also workshopped quite a bit as an undergraduate and at conferences. So, what happened to me and my attitude toward criticism and advice in the workshopping process is the polar opposite of the frequently lobbed criticisms. I became more confident in my writing judgement, more sure of my voice, better able to discern when criticism would be useful for a particular piece or when I should discard it, this extended to my ‘famous poet-teachers’ as well. If I felt a criticism or suggested change was unwarranted I became a tad inwardly belligerent and determined to figure things out my own way, in my own voice. I honestly can’t imagine how an MFA program could produce a certain kind of writer. I can’t write a good poem unless I’m excited about my subject, the form, something aural that’s happening. No program of study can package and sell that.

So, is the MFA worth your time and money? In most cases, I’d say ‘yes’. For someone with a home-based lifestyle, the time spent away from home with other writers, doing what I love and learning, was invaluable. I would do it again 100 times over.  Plus, I believe that education of all kinds is eminently worth your time and money. But, if you don’t have the money or the time for a two or three year MFA program, that doesn’t mean you can’t be a writer, that you’ll be missing an essential element. There are plenty of people who don’t want or need an MFA. The MFA is a fairly recent invention; Walt Whitman got by just fine without one, as did Emily Dickinson, though she did have a room of her own, servants, and no potty training to distract her.  The MFA isn’t going to make you a writer just like running camp won’t make you a runner. I’m a radical homeschooling mother at heart so I say: go to poetry readings and literary/book festivals, read poetry old and new, read fiction, read Poets and Writers Magazine for publishing opportunities, advice and to learn about the business, just read everything (sometimes I read clock repair manuals),  check out local writing workshops (they’re often free or inexpensive and not your usual fair), work on a small literary journal or start one of your own, and of course write! Write, write and write some more, and be adventurous in your writing, experiment, test your voice, try out different styles, use writing prompts, make up your own writing prompts. Treat poetry like painting. Try painting too! Try quilting, photography, dancing and chair caning. Be creative willy nilly, that at least is free. So I guess my advice is this: If you can’t afford the MFA for any reason, get inventive, hack the MFA!

5 thoughts on “Is the MFA Worth Your Time and Money? One Poet’s Advice

  1. Very inspiring and beautifully written. I admire your tenacity to follow through with an MFA. As a mother approaching the empty nest years, (my 20 yr old son is away at college and my daughter is junior in high school) I sort of wish I had another identity to put on..I’ve mostly known myself as wife and mother for these last 20 years. Reading this inspires me to re-discover parts of myself that I haven’t been able to focus on. Thank you!

  2. Jenny, it’s funny, I was just thinking the other day how that process of individuation seems to be a continuous one. I can so easily stagnate in the familiar, sticking to the routine because everyone still needs me and it’s often easier than pushing, doing something new. I’m in the same position as you are, but my oldest is 17 and still at home. I don’t know how it went so fast. You should go to the Squam Retreat in New Hampshire one of these summers, they also have them in Rhode Island and Connecticut. Lots of women being creative and crafty, a few men too, but the collective female energy is both inspiring and comforting. Thanks for this thoughtful response, nice to know there are others consciously approaching lifelong growth.

  3. Yes, I’ve considered doing a Squam Retreat. A friend of mine took a photography workshop and loved it! It is cross county for me..Ive never traveled so far alone, without the family family in tow. It is exciting (& slightly bittersweet, my babies grew up so fast!) that a whole new space is opening up for me now that my kids are older.

    I just read this article form last week. Maybe you’ve already read it..maybe it’s the reason you wrote the above blog post? Anyhow its relevant to your post.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/education/edlife/12edl-12mfa.html?_r=0&assetType=nyt_now

  4. I don’t think I’d be traveling cross country for a retreat either. I stick to my neck of the woods. I’ve come across this article but not read it in full. I’ll bookmark. Thanks!

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