Tuesday, October 14, 2008

What an MFA Program Does to Your Writing Life

How long has it been since I posted about writing? And did so without posting about teaching? Without posting about workshop? Without posting wacky stories that demonstrate the blog as a storytelling form without actually commenting on the form? Probably a month: yikes!

I've been woefully off topic.

And yet I've been on topic at least for part of it, as I promised to blog about the MFA portion of my life as well. Which leads me to today's post: what an MFA program does to your writing life.

As I was leaving workshop yesterday the two people behind me were having a conversation essentially about course schedules and the amount of time they spend on writing. One is in her second year of the MFA and the other is in his third and final year. The woman in her second year was discussing the fact that she was taking nine hours this semester instead of the usual six to help stay on track for graduation. Such a course load is doable but rather insane if you're also teaching one or two sections of freshmen composition.

Then the guy said something that felt completely true to me:
Everyone says an MFA is 'time to write' but it sure doesn't feel like I have time.

If I had to break down the hours of my week the amount of time I spend on things would go like this:
  • Sleeping: about 56 hrs.
  • Cooking, cleaning, shopping, showering, etc.: 28+ hrs.
  • Time spent on internet blogs/forums/news: 16+ hrs.
  • Prepping for the one class I teach: 12+ hrs.
  • Reading for my Teaching Methods class: 7+ hrs.
  • Teaching: 4 hrs.
  • Writing (fiction in general): 3.5 (+/-) hrs.
  • Sitting in Methods class: 3 hrs.
  • Sitting in workshop: 2.5 hrs.
  • Reading/commenting for workshop: 1.5 hrs.
  • Writing that will actually contribute to my workshopped story: 1 hr.


It's a lot less like an MFA is time to write and a lot more like an MFA provides deadlines for your writing that you must make time to meet, if you ask me.

There are people who harp on MFA programs with the argument that you'd be more successful spending that money, not on a degree, but on renting a cabin in the woods for two years where you could write in solitude.

There are essentially three flaws in that argument. The first is simply the fact that if you want to teach then two years in the cabin doesn't do you any good so you need to get the degree and learn to teach.

The second flaw is that not everyone can learn by looking at others' books and then trying to write their own. Some people need to learn from others through discussion, and discussion requires individuals to talk to, mentors and teachers.

The third flaw is the implication that an MFA is lots and lots of free time. It's not. Because you're doing all that learning stuff at the same time as the writing stuff.

Now, don't get me wrong; this is where I want to be and what I want to do. I love teaching in the college classroom and I know I have to get another degree to continue to do that so I don't begrudge the time and effort this stuff takes -- but the writing life of an MFA candidate is really no different from the writing life of anyone working 40 hours a week; you're doing a full time job just keeping up with life and classes, and then you have to figure out how to squeeze in time for writing.

But the really great news is that in an MFA program, your full time job pertains to English and writing 80% of the time. It's not busywork, it's not laying brick, processing payrolls, adjusting claims or serving coffee. It's all about writing.

[That said, I think I may need to get a second job serving coffee to pay my bills. Sigh. So much for ending on a hopeful note.]

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