To MFA or Not to MFA
The first time I applied for admission to an MFA program, I didn’t get in, so I applied to the same program the next year and was accepted. I’m stubborn that way. It takes a whole lot of stubborn to be a writer. I’m thinking about all the folks who are right now applying for MFA programs, and I thought I’d offer some tips for what to do if you get in, and what to do if you don’t.
But first some general thoughts about this writing life you might be considering. First and foremost, get used to being rejected. “No” is the word writers hear most often. “No, thank you.” “Not quite right for us.” “This came close, but in the end we decided against it.” No to your submissions, to your grant proposals, to your applications for teaching positions or writers’ conferences or colonies. No, no, no, no. It can be hard to maintain your confidence in the face of so much rejection, but that’s exactly what you must learn to do. Get thick-skinned as fast as you can. You’re going to need the armor. You’re going to need persistence. You’re going to need to get over disappointment in a hurry and then keep going. Remember what Samuel Beckett said: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” Keep doing what you love. Keep writing, accepting the fact that it’s a life-long apprenticeship. Each failure takes you closer to where you want to be. Writing humbles us, but Lordy, it’s a glorious way to spend a life.
So let’s say you strike out with your MFA applications. I hope it won’t be the case, but the truth is only a small percentage of applicants succeed. Sometimes it doesn’t even have anything to do with your talents. Sometimes the people reading your applications make mistakes. It’s not a scientific process. It’s a process that depends on human beings, and as writers you already know that human beings are flawed, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that sometimes people who are evaluating the applications, no matter how thorough and conscientious they try to be, are just plain wrong. Accept that fact. Take comfort from it. Let it free you from the temptation to persecute yourself. No one’s “no” should ever determine a writer’s future. That future belongs to you.
An MFA doesn’t guarantee success. Plenty of people get the degree and never publish much at all. I’m trying to shoot straight here, no matter how painful it is. Still others labor and labor for years beyond the MFA before they break through, and when that success comes it’s marvelous, perhaps even more so because those writers have worked so long and hard to achieve it. As someone who teaches in an MFA program, I happen to believe that the time spent in one can enhance one’s chances for success, but, as I said, It certainly doesn’t guarantee a thing. If you never get into an MFA program, you can still succeed if you read closely, practice with persistence, and take any opportunity you can, such as attending readings and writers’ conferences or joining a writers’ group, to develop your craft. You can do all these things outside an MFA program. It really comes down to this question: How do you want to spend your days? If the answer is writing, and if the answer really matters to you, then go forth and prosper. Keep doing what fulfills you. Keep doing what you have to do.
If you’re fortunate enough to get an invitation to join an MFA program, here are some things you can do to get the most out of the experience that’s being offered to you. First, accept the offer with humility and respect, understanding that not everyone gets this opportunity. Check your ego at the door. Accept that you’ll have moments of success and moments of what will feel like failure. A sharp word by a peer in a workshop, a lack of praise from your instructor, no inside connections from those instructors to agents or editors, no consideration for nominations for fellowships. All of these things will make you wonder whether you really belong in this group of writers. But then you’ll write something that will bring words of praise from peers and instructors. Maybe you’ll even publish something or win something, and you’ll feel on the top of the world. You’ll be tempted to believe it’s all going to be Easy Street from then on. Whether you feel like you’re the worst writer in the world, or the best, never fall victim to the lows or the highs. Remember these lines from the Rudyard Kipling poem, “If”: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same.” Triumph and disaster can seduce you into thinking too little or too much of yourself. Again, check your ego at the door. Your job is to open yourself to learning. Give to your peers what you want for yourself, a genuine interest in making everyone better writers. Celebrate one another’s successes. You all have a small part in them. You said something in a workshop, maybe, or you recommended something for one of your peers to read. You’re a part of this group of writers, and, if your intentions are pure, you’ve done your best to help one another improve.
Finally, go to everything. Go to readings. Go to informal conversations with visiting writers. Go to conversations with editors and agents. Go to your instructors’ offices and talk about your work. I know it’s tempting for the introverts that most writers are, but you simply must avail yourself of every opportunity to learn more about your craft. You never know what might get said that will end up making all the difference for you.
In the end, whether you get into an MFA program or not, be a literary citizen of the world. Make the study of craft your priority, but only if it fulfills you—only if it’s essential to the person you are. There are plenty of other pleasant ways to spend a life, but if you’ve decided that writing is the only thing for you, then get strong, get curious, get involved, get moving. Do what you have to do to grab the life you want. Just be aware of the fact that there are always many different paths to the same end.
What a great piece to wake up to on a Monday, or any day. Thank you!
Thanks very much, Cathy! I hope the New Year brings many good words your way.
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Ahhh…I guest posted this month on Wendy Van kamp’s site, “no wasted ink,” on the same topic. As a current MFA student, I had a lot to say on the topic too, and my piece, “Workshop Woes” strikes a similar chord with some of your thoughts!
Glad to have your words, Lisa!
Thank you for these words which I stumbled onto via Twitter this evening. I just felt the first sting of rejection from an MFA program, and I believe I read your essay at the right time- I was ripe for inspiration and wise words! Much appreciated
Hi, Beth. I know that sting of rejection from MFA programs. It will hurt less. Keep on doing what you love to do!