Rewriting the Script: Creating a Customized MFA Program
Have you always wanted to work your way through an MFA program, but because of time/money/life constraints, it’s never been a reasonable path for you? Maybe you’ve tried the MFA route, but it didn’t work for you. Or, perhaps you’ve gotten your MFA, but you still feel like you missed out on learning the things you really wanted to learn. A customized MFA may be for you.
The Traditional MFA
Going through a traditional MFA program can be life-changing, certainly. Many writers first meet their lifelong writing partners during those years. Some discover mentors that change the course of their writing lives. Still others stumble upon authors/genres/styles they might never have sought out on their own, forever altering the way they write.
But, that’s not always the case.
The MFA program I attended was lovely in some ways; in others, it made me want to rip out my hair. I was the single mother of a young child, and I was shy, so hanging out with classmates was, shall we say, difficult for me. I knew them inside the classrooms, but once classes, teaching and my office hours were over, I had to head to my son’s daycare, whip up something for dinner, play with tiny plastic dinosaurs, help him brush his teeth, try to get all my reading done while he refused his bedtime, and somehow find the creativity to write what was due the next morning. Not an easy task. While the other students met and discussed what they were reading and writing, I was begging a five-year-old to, for-the-love-of-everything-holy, pick up his toys.
That wasn’t the only stumbling block. There was a particular professor who, curiously, either disliked me or disliked my way of writing, and she made her disapproval known during workshops. My classmates couldn’t understand it, and I was at a loss. What had I done? Was it my writing style she so disdained? Was it something about my personality? We all wondered, but she never let on. So, in addition to the stress of dealing with balancing school, work, and a high-strung child, I had to mitigate the sinking feeling in my stomach that arose every time I timidly entered (or, really, even thought about) her workshop.
On top of that, money was an issue. I took out loans, worked part-time (full-time during the summer) and used food stamps, but it was never quite enough to cover my expenses. There were times I couldn’t afford shampoo or toilet paper. Still, when I was done, I was nearly $40,000 in debt.
And what had I learned? Well, I discovered several favorite writers that I still read today. I learned that I could force myself to produce even when I felt completely dry simply by using a few tricks (such as Random Words). I learned that writers like to feel that they’re in a distinguished and exclusive club. And I learned that, for me, getting an MFA was a waste of my time, money and effort.
Maybe you have family obligations. Maybe you have a job that’s inflexible and wouldn’t allow for a traditional MFA. Maybe you couldn’t afford to attend a program without taking out loans, and the thought just doesn’t sit right with you. Whatever your reason, sometimes a traditional MFA is simply out of reach.
The Customized MFA
A customized MFA is just that: customized. It takes into account every facet of your life: your time, your money, your brain’s ability to focus and work, your interests, your reading and writing styles – everything. It’s tailored to you, to your life, to your abilities and aspirations. You can work around all your essential obligations, you can spend as much or as little money as is comfortable, you can take whatever length of time you want, and you can tailor your reading and writing to the goals you want to accomplish. It won’t be the degree that’s usually required to become a teacher or professor, but if your reasons for wanting to pursue an MFA are focused on experiencing and learning, on reading and writing, and you’re comfortable taking a DIY route, then this might just be the perfect route.
A customized MFA can be as expensive or as inexpensive as you want to make it. In fact, it doesn’t have to cost anything at all. Libraries – and inter-library loans – can be your best friends. Other ways to save money include purchasing books from community book sales, used book shops, and online used book retailers. You can read and write at coffeeshops or diners, of course, but you can just as easily spend that time at your kitchen table or nestled on the couch. You can attend writers’ conferences and workshops, or you can gather with other local writers and meet at the library.
Creating Your Own Customized MFA
Embarking on a customized MFA takes time, effort and a lot of thought, but it can be the best decision you ever make when it comes to your career as a writer. Over the next several weeks, I’ll be posting articles to help you design and implement your own DIY MFA.