So, I have not been shy about my experience with my MFA. Spoiler alert: overall, it has not been very positive. Despite being on track to defend my thesis this August (!!) and graduate this fall, I have very complex feelings about the program I completed. Namely: I do not feel like the MFA accomplished the goals I wanted to become a better writer, a greater expert on craft and becoming more prepared to take on publishing. Instead, it felt bogged down by elitism, hoop jumping and, frankly, by disrespect for genre writers; both in the program by the department and the university at large.
All of this has left me wondering: what do I wish my program had actually looked like? If I could build my own and actually succeed in restructuring the MFA, what would it entail?
So, let’s dive in and find out.
My Personal Experience
So, full disclosure: the only reason I am able to do an MFA program at all is because I am utilizing tuition assistance. Due to how low the salaries are for GTAs and GRAs, had I been trying to be a full-time MFA student, there would have been no way it would be possible. Graduate students don’t make a living wage.
In my program, we’re required to do:
- 12 hours of literature courses
- 6-9 hours of electives
- 12 hours of creative writing courses
Personally, my goals for the MFA were to:
- Learn more about craft and how to apply it better to my novels
- Feel more confident about the publishing industry and how to succeed
- Become a better genre writer
Even as I prepare to edit my thesis (the first act of my current WIP, a fantasy romance novel), I can confidently say that these goals were not met. And not due to me, but because of how the program is structured, what courses were offered, how genre writers are treated and university politics.
It’s been disappointing and disheartening, to say the least. Especially since a huge “perk” of MFAs are the “you have so much time to write” claim. Which I call bullshit. Because I was forced to take lit classes that didn’t serve me* and meet hours requirements that didn’t make sense, time was taken away from the writing I wanted to do. To do work for those classes.
*This does not mean that lit classes don’t have merit! But when the university only offers a certain type of lit class (cough white male 18th century English lit) every fucking semester, by gods. Give us something else.
Restructuring the MFA
So, I’ve been left wondering. What would restructuring an MFA that is geared towards genre writers look like? In my fever dream, I’d have a program that looks like this.
It’d be a 36 hour program, split into three classes per semester (at 3 credit hours each). It would require:
- 3 courses of workshop (9 hours)
- 3 courses on craft (9 hours)
- 3 courses on professionalization (9 hours)
- With the last nine hours including: one course for thesis work, one course that is an internship opportunity and one course that is a writing residency
Workshop options wouldn’t just be split by genre (fiction, poetry, screenwriting), as my current university does. They also certainly wouldn’t be limited to only one genre per semester (for example, I’ve taken poetry and screenwriting both, because there were no fiction options). And there would be multiple opportunities for novel workshops, not just short stories or collections.
Craft would encompass courses that are broad in scope (plot structure, genre rules and how to break them, etc.). But it would also offer courses that narrow in on specifics: worldbuilding, diversity and inclusion, avoiding ableist writing, etc.
Professionalization includes options on how to break into publishing (including different models, like trad, self and indie), of course. It could include courses on academia, PhD prep, teaching and pedagogy. But it’d also include other avenues, like courses to prepare for editorial work, freelance business building, honing copywriting and proofreading skills, etc.
ALL courses would rotate in theme, options and content, that are informed by surveying the current class of students in their interests, goals and desires. We’d have core faculty, of course, but visiting experts and faculty would be common and expected. So we can tailor the options to those who are in our program.
In terms of opportunities, I think it needs to be spread out more than just teaching. Not that teaching isn’t great. But, my current experience shows how much it’s geared for only one track: going on to do a PhD.
Teaching is used not only a way to get experience for that. Moreso, it’s used to exploit work for the entry-level courses that are not only required for all undergrads to take, so faculty can do other things. But also underpay graduate teachers as a result.
That final year, in my program, for those last three classes, would allow chances for internship experience (paid), whether in publishing or academia or another field of interest. It’d include in-depth mentorship for thesis work. And a paid writing residency so you actually have time to write, without strings attached, teaching loads or financial stress. It would provide avenues to tailor your transition year to actually meet your goals. Not just what we assume you want to do with your life.
Another thing that frustrates me so much is how we’ve been forced to return to in-person coursework. The first two years of my MFA were remote, due to the pandemic. But, as academia decided to ignore the pandemic’s continued reality, they forced us all to return in-person. It gives us no flexibility and no understanding. And, as someone who is job searching, limited my ability to search for jobs that would require me to move. Since completing it online was out of the question. Which forced me to pay for parking I otherwise wouldn’t have (since I carpool with my partner for my day job). And alienated against a disability that can, during flare ups, make walking impossible.
In my program, we’d have in-person and online options fully, with hybrid options for every class. Hell, it might be entirely virtual, if unable to find a university to host us. But, if at a university, that university would be accessible for multiple modes of moving (walking, wheelchair, etc.). Not as an afterthought. And it certainly wouldn’t require students (OR STAFF) to pay to park there.
Writing this post about restructuring the MFA has been extremely cathartic. But it’s also been extremely frustrating. Because I was able to dream of what my experience could have been. Imagine what it might have felt like, to be supported and believed in. To have my goals as a writer understood and met. To not be drowning in hoops, policy and dealing with instructors who believe genre writers as lesser. (No shot, my first fiction workshop was with a professor who was exactly like this. What a way to welcome a SFF writer to graduate school.)
Also, a caveat that, as a non-trad student, my experience is very unique. The things I label that missed the mark might be completely different from a student who was a full-time graduate student at my program. But the fact that non-trads are not catered to, at all? That does say a lot about the program. Especially when no one pivots to accommodate when you do have one.
Also, this article by Literary Agents Kate McClean offered some interesting perspectives! But, I also want to hear yours. If you completed an MFA, did you have a similar experience? Do you think I hit the mark or miss it entirely? What would you add, if you could dream up your own? Tell me in the comments and thanks for reading!!
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Lisa @ Bookshelf Fantasies says
I have no experience with MFA programs, but I am sorry to hear what a frustrating process your has been. Do you think your program is representative of MFA programs in general, or would another university have a program more in line with what you’re looking for? You do a great job of outlining what the ideal would be!
That’s a great question, Lisa. I’m not 100% sure. I want to say yes, it wouldn’t be surprising (as the MA program I attempted once before, at a different university, while not an MFA, had some similar issues/vibes). But gods, if the “ideal” existed, it’d be a dream.