MFA-IL

At one point (last summer, if you want to get specific), I started an MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Hamline University.  I only ended up staying in the program for one semester.

It wasn’t because I hated the program (I actually enjoyed the crap out of it and highly recommend it), my leaving was based on a variety of factors of varying dubiousness.  Anyway, I read a couple of interesting posts about MFA programs recently (here and here) and I thought I’d post about my experience with this program and why I ultimately decided not to return.

*This is by no means a condemnation of MFA programs!  My experience was just one of many, and if my circumstances were different I would probably have stayed in the program.

1.  Cost. A lot of MFA programs allow you to teach, thus off-setting the cost of the program.  The low-residency model at Hamline didn’t have this option, at least not that I knew of.  When I calculated the cost before enrolling, I was off by a bit.  I didn’t factor in hotel/dorm stays, food, and travel expenses to the residencies.  Then the tuition started adding up pretty quickly.  I figured out that I had spent nearly $10,000 on just the one semester.  YIKES.  I just couldn’t justify going on to spend another $30,000 when I still had plenty of debt left over from my undergraduate degree.

2.  Focus. While the idea of deadlines was very appealing to me, since it ensured that I’d actually get things done, it ended up having a completely unexpected impact on my focus and drive.  My deadlines were in 40 page increments, and I found that once I reached 40 pages for the month, I stopped.  Homework done.  When I got comments back about my work, I studiously worked on revising the scenes, but I was severely limiting my view of plot and overarching structure.

This probably isn’t the case for everyone, but when I work in small pieces I end up stuck on the small details instead of the more important big picture.  After I quit, I started getting much larger chunks of writing done in shorter periods, and my revisions started considering the bigger picture a lot more.  I probably couldn’t have reached this point without that semester at Hamline, but I’m not sure if staying enrolled would have further narrowed my focus or if I would have reached this conclusion and modified my approach to the program.

3.  Anxiety. Oddly, this doesn’t refer to the workshops.  The workshops at Hamline were really the first non-intimidating workshops I’ve ever experienced.  Everyone was open, polite, and knowledgeable–not scary at all.  Public speaking, on the other hand….

When I discover public speaking is involved with any of my endeavors, educational or otherwise, I tend to find ways around it.  In my community college days, I opted for a lower grade just so that I didn’t have to present a paper to the class.  I also dropped out of a required public speaking course just before I had to present and transferred to a four-year school.  It’s a common phobia, but most people just get past it and do what they have to do.  Me–I’ve become adept at avoiding these situations.  The Hamline program requires public speaking on a couple of occasions, not to mention all the super fun optional public speaking opportunities.  When I started the program, I had decided to push myself out of my comfort zone.  I honestly did not leave the program because of the public speaking component, but it certainly didn’t help when it came to making pro/con lists.

4.  Cost. Did I mention that this program (like most MFAs) was really expensive?  When my husband and I calculated what our student loan payments would total if I completed the program, my jaw dropped.  It was basically a mortgage payment, which made sense because our total combined debt would be over $100,000.  The loan payments would mean less travel, more work, cheaper apartment, prolonging the start of our family, junkier car, and eating Mac n Cheese instead of regular food.

5.  Time. MFA programs require a pretty huge time commitment.  For the low-residency, it’s less, but I still would have to attend the 10 day residencies five times in two years.  There goes my vacation time (not that I could afford a vacation with the cost of tuition).

6.  Self-created self-discipline. Second to cost, this was a major deciding factor.  The brilliant staff at Hamline bring a lot to the table that I’m sure I couldn’t learn in books, but I decided that it is possible to learn craft from books.  And blogs.  And articles.  And reading in general.  I decided that if I dedicated myself to learning about writing, reading tons of books in my field, going to readings, and working with critique partners, and I still felt like I needed the MFA program after all that, then I would re-apply in a few years.

All that said, I do miss the program.  I met some wonderful people and learned so much.  I still have dreams sometimes where I’m still enrolled in the MFA program and I have to catch up on several semesters worth of work because I thought that I was no longer enrolled.  I wake up thinking I need to read at least a dozen books a day for the next few weeks.  They’re nightmares, really, haha.

So–Have any of you readers been in an MFA program?  How did you like it?  Did I make a horrible, horrible mistake in dropping out of the Hamline program?  Tell me about your MFA experiences!

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2 comments

  1. Jennifer Pickrell says:

    I debated on whether or not to get my MFA – the price was a major “whoa” factor for me, too. But another thing I worried about was that it would make me feel like writing was work, which isn’t something I’ve ever really felt before, even when I have had deadlines.

    • admin says:

      That’s a good point, too! I think some MFA programs probably do make it feel a lot more like work than play. While I was in school, it only felt like work because I had to turn in critical essays alongside my creative work. So, all the time I was writing creatively, I had to consider what critical work could come out of the creative. It was a good learning experience, but yeah, it did turn writing into work a bit.

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