To MFA Or To Not MFA, That Is The Question

Whenever someone asks me how I weathered the isolation of the pandemic, I proudly announce, “I wrote a book.” I admit I didn’t accomplish that feat without support. A little over a month ago, I completed the Memoir Incubator program at a well-known writing center in Boston, and as a result of the experience, I completed a first draft. While I expected the rigor of the eleven-month program, my lack of formal preparation and real world writing experience put me at a deficit. Surrounded by authors, journalists, and Ivy League grads, my Boston College education and advanced degrees in Education gave me little credibility. It might have been in my head but I felt like a second class citizen. Whether or not my perception mirrored reality, I saw myself as inferior, unskilled, and remedial. In my exit interview,” my instructor said, referring back to the beginning, almost a year earlier, “You were a little wet behind the ears.”

I won’t sugarcoat the situation. Every minute was a struggle. The thought of quitting nagged at me and required a lot of “put on your big girl panties” self-talk. I showed up every week, panicked, overwhelmed, working overtime to learn everything thrown at me, all the while writing new words and editing what I had already produced. I had applied and been accepted to this competitive program, and I spent months wondering how I got in and what made me think this was a good idea. 

Now on the other side of “the year that was,” I realize how much I gained from surviving the experience. I learned how important writing was to me, enough so that I was willing to bare my incompetence to this accomplished group. I latched on to the techniques and ideas shared by my instructor and guest authors, and employed the ideas to improve upon what I had written. I re-wrote–a lot. I learned how to read critically and offered constructive feedback in editorial letters. I have been able to apply what I learned in my college counseling business. My own essays are stronger and I’ve had a few pieces published. Still, I sense something is missing. I scooped up the crumbs of information as they were scattered before me but I needed the whole story, in one place. I craved something comprehensive and focused, with a bonus of credibility and credentials. 

When I float the idea of another graduate program, a Master of Fine Arts, to family and friends,  the reactions are mixed. My husband, Tim, anticipates retiring in about a year and a half. He fears going into debt for another degree, especially at this point in life. I have sheltered him from the actual tuition costs of the MFA program until I figure out a combination of IRA withdrawals, loans, and cash. Of all the stumbling blocks, this is the biggest. I am not young and spending this money now is an enormous gamble. 

My son didn’t mince words. A writer himself, he said, “What the hell do you want to do that for?” It was an honest, impulsive response but as we discussed the possibility, he said, “I get it, Mum. The days of the Bukowski types are over. There are few who make it on sheer talent.” We discussed the reality of the writing community. Our shared experiences in stand-up comedy came to mind. Comedians laugh loud and affirmingly for their fellow comedians in a pretentious way. Similarly, writers cheer each other on and puff each other up. While connections within the discipline help, in the end, talent combined with a curriculum vitae full of residencies, publications, and advanced degrees in writing affirm potential and help pave the way to success. I only wish that someone would recognize my Bukowski-like way with words without needing all the superfluous trappings to back up my raw talent (my apologies to Charles…).

Another writing friend initially reacted similarly, and like my son, shifted her thinking. After questioning the prudence of an MFA at this point in my life, she reaffirmed my son’s observations. It’s a tough field. I started to think, I really do need to do this. The idea intrigued and terrified me. 

When I applied to the no-residency, fully online program at a school in western Massachusetts, I submitted a very overworked excerpt of my manuscript, a personal statement, and my transcripts from my undergrad and two prior grad programs. In a few weeks, I received a call to schedule an interview via Zoom. Having conducted enough interviews in my career as a manager, I knew the meeting went well. A week later, I received a tentative acceptance pending forthcoming recommendations. 

As the university awaits my decision, I examine my conscience–what do I really want for my future? I read an article about a seventy-year-old man who became a veterinarian so that he could help the dogs he rescues. I googled to find inspiration from other older students. I found a ninety-year-old man who earned a doctorate in Economics, and a one-hundred-four-year-old man who swears you’re never too old to learn. 

I also searched for drawbacks. Another negative lies in the age discrepancy between “the old student” and the rest of them. I won’t delude myself into believing my “wisdom” will be welcome. I’m a dinosaur and of another generation. Will my age be a distraction? I am most comfortable in my writing groups with my peers who look beyond age and look to craft and ideas. Will my obsession with being the oldest distract me, as well? Will I discover a fountain of youth while immersed in a youthful environment?

An MFA is a huge commitment of time, money, and effort. I question whether I need to invest any of those things to get to my goal. And, truthfully, what is my goal? I grind out words and revise. Then, I will write more. Will these exercises ever end up as a polished book–refined by an editor, represented by an agent, and published by a small press? Is that what I even want?

In the next few weeks, I foresee myself asking these questions over and over again. I acknowledge how far I have come with the proper instruction, guidance, and mentoring. I imagine my quest to improve will not end anytime soon. I will explore my options and make the right decision.

One thing will not change–I will keep on writing. 

One thought on “To MFA Or To Not MFA, That Is The Question

  1. I always wanted to write as well, still do, but lack motivation and confidence. Wanted to write children’s books. Got some help books after graduating from university. Took a couple creative writing classes at our fine arts school in Haliburton at the college there. Like you felt inferior and too old at that time. ….Anyway still write poems not as clever as they used to be, just for family Birthday, graduations , Christmas, etc. …..keep growing with what you have learned and keep connected with the writing circles you have. You are very talented and I love reading your blogs, even your FT posts. …..Have I mentioned my writing friend Patricia Sands? She wrote her first book. “The Bridge Club” at age 65 and has a series of I think 4 books about life in Provence where she spends a lot of time in Antibe ( not during Covid). Her news letters are very interesting as well, if you want to look her up just for info. She is Canadian living in Collingwood, ON. Whatever your decision you make about your MFA there are still lots of other avenues to follow and nurture your love of writing. Good luck with your decision. Sounding like a mom… I am almost 20 years older than you. Lol .. Press on!!
    Cheers! Lois

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