As some of you know, I went back tofinish up my last residency for my M.F.A. degree in Creative Writing. Residencies are periods of time I have to be on campus for class. Most of the program is online.
This residency was pretty special because I got to present my M.F.A. analytical thesis paper! My paper is called “The Darcy Complex” and it’s this whole long dissertation on how Mr. Darcy, the character, is actually the blueprint of the modern day alpha male in genre romance as seen through plot structure and dialog. Austen’s character specifically influenced the alpha male archetype during the years 1995-2013 because of the release of the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 95 and Hank Green’s production of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries on Youtube just last year which spurned the interest. Austen is the grandmother of genre romance, you know, so it makes sense that Darcy would be so influential.
Okay, I can see some of you guys rolling your eyes, so on to what I really wanted to wax poetic about.
The problem with M.F.A. programs is that if you write genre romance, or genre anything for that matter, you get stuck with a bunch of people who have preconceived notions about the type of stuff you want to write. These preconceived notions can be hurtful, and after 3 years of hearing people insult the type of work you love, most of the time without even knowing it, your degree ends up more harmful than helpful.
That’s bullshit. I mean that very nicely, but it’s total bullshit that programs do that to writers, even unintentionally. I hate to say it, but my MFA program made me feel like an outcast, too, sometimes. However, I have great friends who were right there with me cheering me on so I wasn’t really that hurt by the end of my last residency.
So the question is, why would you want to get an M.F.A. in the first place? Well, there are a lot of reasons. But, if you are considering the degree, or if you’ve started your degree and you don’t know if you should continue, you should take these 5 points into consideration.
1. Make sure you know what you want to do with the M.F.A. Degree. It’s a lot of money and a lot of time even if you are doing a limited residency program. The actual M.F.A. is a way for you to teach collegiate level creative writing classes or an easier way to score an editing job at a large publisher, but take a hard look at the job market in your area before you think that the M.F.A. is an easy ticket to one of those career choices. Teaching jobs, especially creative writing teaching jobs, are very, very, very thin right now and publishing gigs start are almost zero dollars. If you have connections with your alma mater or you’ve already interned and your company wants you back, then go for it! Otherwise, make sure that schools in your area have these types of programs that you can teach at, or you are willing to relocate.
2. Pick a school that is not only affordable, but also has your genre. For example, if you want your MFA to include a travel component like I wish mine did, check out some of the international residency schools. If you want to focus specifically on romance, then check out Seton Hill University’s program that specifies on genre romance. Your best bet is to pick up a copy of the Writer’s Chronicle or Writer Magazine. They are FILLED with ads from MFA programs.
3. Check out the professors at the school. Make sure that they have significant Education or Publishing experience. You want to be in the hands of people who are going to teach you a lot in a very short amount of time. I got lucky: My first residency I was paired with two incredibly introspective and progressive teachers. My mentor Cecilia Galante was with me from the start to finish of my MA and MFA theses papers and she writes YA. She was in touch with the genre and the market so she knew what I was aiming for from the beginning. Not all the YA authors in my program were lucky enough to be paired with someone who understood their genre. Some of them specifically chose to go with someone different with the intention of getting a new spin on their work, but others had no choice. You want a diverse faculty so no matter what, you are the one making the decision of who you want to work with.
4. Go into the program with experience. I know it’s a weird thing to say, but try to gain as much information as you can from organizations such as SCBWI, RWA and local writing chapters like Liberty States Fiction Writers. Once you have all of the information you can possibly collect on your own, the mentors at school can help you refine the information and give you more that you can only get through the program. There is no point learning stuff from school that you could have Googled and figured out for yourself. Make the most of your time there.
5. Say Nay to the Nay-sayers. This is really important advice. Even if you pick a school that meets all of your awesome requirements, you are still going to find people with different opinions than yours. Publishing/Creative Writing is a really frustrating field and people sometimes like to share their frustration and be pessimistic when they really should be saying “Anything can happen as long as you work hard and use all of the resources available to you. You can succeed if you focus on making the book the best it can be, and listening to constructive criticism with an open mind. Your writing and career will take off but the key is to take in the set-backs and keep going.” Whenever someone brags about the National Book Award or how awesome small presses are (which they can be in certain circumstances), or how amazing this one literary book is, and you think that you don’t have awards, you want to try to get published with big publishers first and your book isn’t literary, then ignore what people are telling you and just smile and nod your head like you’re listening. But you don’t have to listen. Just focus on the good stuff you hear, like contest opportunities, open readings, and agents looking for manuscripts. You’ll be infinitely more optimistic and happier with your degree. 🙂
I know that was a lot more long-winded than I initially planned, but I wanted to be as thorough as possible. If you find my advice helpful, if you want to add something to it, or if you disagree, leave a comment and let me know!
It’s been real, kids. I’m off to finish up my bibliography! Still have to hand in that paper. Ugh. See you all next week.