Was the MFA Worth It? (spoiler alert: Yes!)

My phone pinged this morning with a text. The first words out of my mouth were, “What’s that? The airline telling me my flight’s cancelled?”

Turns out….

That’s the power of putting words out there.

So here I am, in the airport with a long layover, feeling grateful that I’ll be home by the end of the day after some rerouting (they really ought to give booking agents a box of tissues at the front counter, shouldn’t they?) with a little time to take stock.

I finished up my MFA in writing for children and young adults a few days ago and I suppose it’s normal after a graduation to ask, “Was it worth it?”

In a nice circular story-way, this was exactly the same question I was asking before I started.

(Spoiler: the answer for me is a resounding Yes!)

About four years before I entered my MFA program, I’d decided to try the DIY-MFA approach, because at that time the “is it worth it?” question was a matter of time and logic. How could I spend so much time and money on something I couldn’t put into tidy pros and cons when there were conferences and workshops and critique groups? The DIY approach was the right decision for a while.

I learned, I got into some better writing habits, and I began to build connections. For a while, it seemed like DIY was the answer.

Then I hit a wall. I knew I had made progress, I was getting feedback, but I wasn’t sure how to get to the next level.

I’d been considering the MFA program from afar, but one day, in a critique group, I read a revised chapter one of my friends wrote after her first semester at VCFA and the difference was astonishing. Granted, she’s a very gifted writer, but to see what a semester of focused work had done with her writing was the proof that pushed me over the edge of maybe into probably.

I started talking to other graduates, interviewing the programs, and asking more questions in an effort to flesh out the pros and cons. I was stuck between two worlds – my head’s logic and my heart’s full-throated-cry: This is what you want!

I took a deep breath and applied. I knew I wasn’t going to get up at 4 a.m. like some grads did, quitting work to “make room” wasn’t in the cards, and I wasn’t sure where I was going to find the time in my busy working-mom-wife-daughter life, but I figured I could always quit.

That idea – I can always stop – was the security blanket I needed to get in the door.

I didn’t stop.

There were times when it was really hard. I said no to a lot. My family did without me while I was holed up reading and writing. Things I enjoyed – cooking, arts, travel – were all put on hold as new things took their place.

I worked. I read. I wrote. I made a million trips to the library. I used all my vacation time to go to school.

I struggled to find the hours, I panicked over deadlines, and I rode the ups and downs of feedback, trying to find the words and learning how to read and think like a critical writer. For the first three semesters, I knew I was learning, but it still felt like I was juggling too many balls and some sadistic clown kept throwing more at me. At any moment someone was going to realize I was an imposter juggler.

The advantage of being stubborn is you keep juggling.

There’s a reason there are so many clowns in a clown car. Clowns need friends and there’s nothing quite like being part of a big, loud, wonderful community of writers who want you to get better and better. They’re there to hold you up and cheer you along. They understand because they’re learning to juggle too.

Writing is a road that asks you to try and try again, but you don’t have to be alone while you practice.

It was during the fourth semester when I got my unexpected proof that yes, this was worth it. I set out to write one book for my final project, but a couple of weeks into the semester, while I was walking my dog after a yoga class, the novel I’d been so frustrated with pre-VCFA plopped into my head like a gift.

I knew how to fix it.

I switched projects and suddenly, all the balls were flying. I could see my way through the feedback I’d gotten two years earlier and I realized what had happened: I’d learned how to write.

Here’s my confession: I had one writing class in college – the one they make all the freshmen take – and other than that? Nothing. Conferences, yes. Workshops, yes. But the focused attention to line and word? Structure and craft? Nope. That takes time and attention and an MFA is nothing if not a crash course in attention to the details.

It’s amazing how I’d always wanted to be a writer, yet I’d managed to avoid learning how to write.

Was it worth it? Yes.

Here’s why:

  1. Writing is a skill. I learned to do it better.
  2. Writing is a solitary act, but learning doesn’t have to be. There are people out there who know so much, who care, and who will open their hearts to you. This is a gift. The focused attention of one advisor every six months was a gift without a price tag.
  3. Going deep is how you find the heart of anything. Go there. It’s scary, but it’s the only way. Trust me.
  4. Writing is a conversation, be part of it. There’s too much out there to learn it all, but the conversation, the sharing, the inspiration – it’s all exponential when we get together.
  5. Your writer friends understand. Find them. They will hold you up when it’s hard. You will hold them up.
  6. Nobody can tell you the answers. They can show you how they find theirs, they may hold a lantern out for you, but you have to find your own answers. See #3.
  7. There is never a right time, there is only now. When you decide to do something, it’s the right time. Don’t worry about how you got here – all that was research. Enjoy now.
  8. Nothing is perfect, but everything you can dream can be started, reimagined, improved, and set aside. Sometimes, what you think is wasted effort is just proof-of-effort. Or it’s learning. Or it’ll come back some time when you don’t expect it and you’ll be grateful you took the time. Just try.
  9. When you fill your glass with what you need, the things you don’t have a way of spilling over the edges and disappearing. That’s okay. You still have a full glass.
  10. We have to choose. There’s a time when the world is an open road, when everything’s an option and no answer is right or wrong. Then, there’s a time when you know you must do something and you choose a path. Committing to a life’s calling is not a matter of pros and cons, spreadsheets, or logical, economic factors. Those things matter, but at the end of the day, I’d rather not be looking back wishing I’d used my heart instead of my head. I made a choice and I’m glad.

If you were hoping for a spreadsheet and factors to weigh and consider, I’m sorry. I don’t have it.

But after two years, what I do have is a long list of books I’ve studied, essays I’ve written, a critical thesis exploring a craft subject near and dear to my heart, several unfinished novels, one newly completed novel, and two years of experimentation, play, exploration, and eye-opening moments. I also have a new understanding of who I am, what I need, and how to make room for that in my life.

That’s worth everything.

I’ll follow up with some more specific posts about particular skills and craft elements that I’d really like to share here, but for now, I’ll close with a quote that seems particularly appropriate for the next stage of this journey:

“This above all; to thine own self be true.”

-William Shakespeare

Posted on Saturday, 25 January 2020

Filed under MFA, writers life

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