Thursday, October 1, 2009

to MFA or not to MFA

"The MFA in Writing gives you community and support and skill to become a great writer and not much more. Only get an MFA if you can deal with digging yourself out of debt!"
"You're asking someone for advice who chooses to have a low income and low job security in exchange for more time to write. I just finished paying off my M.F.A. loans this month, eleven years after graduation. Was it worth it? Absolutely."
"Studying writing, to my mind, is not frivolous. But neither is it necessarily practical. I think you're going to have to decide this one in your own heart."
Well, the jury is in! I'm applying for an MFA in Writing. I've done my research, sought the advice of those who have gone before me, even considered other options  (i.e. applied for an MA in Education with emphasis in Teaching English as a Second Language from SSU -- the cheaper, closer, more 'practical' option to pursue my love of language, teaching and cross-cultural communication.)

But my heart keeps singing MFA! MFA!

Options: I've considered 'limited residency' programs across the country but realized I thrive on consistent human contact: reading aloud, live critique, spontaneous conversations that don't happen over the internet. I spend enough time interfacing with a computer screen and increasingly cyber-based relationships.

I also looked into a program that focuses on creative (or narrative) nonfiction (nature/travel/memoir/essay/literary journalism) but decided I'd benefit from cross-genre influences. Unfortunately, SFSU and UC Davis exclude nonfiction, and other schools only have MA programs in English. I want the studio degree where writing, and reading as a writer studying the craft, are the focus. I'm quite happy shacking up with my partner in a cottage on her parents' sheep farm, so moving out of the area isn't within reach.

We have a winner: University of San Francisco (USF)!

I attended their orientation last month and the tuning fork vibrated at perfect pitch. Everything the panel of 4 (directors, professors and former student) said during the two hour meeting resonated with my entire being. One professor spoke of "the redemptive power of writing that transforms challenging or tragic life events into beauty". The recent student called the program "exhilarating".

A new professor said students are "charged up to write, finding their best work in a community of writers", rather than demoralized by the competition. There's enrichment (events, publications, readings, lecture series) and professional development ('teaching creative writing' course / ta-ship). Finally, there's the appeal of an enduring literary community in San Francisco.

For now, even the prospect of digging myself from $35,000 debt for a dozen years does not prohibit me from following the path...

Next steps:
  1. Schedule interview & class observation(s)
  2. Request updated recommendation letters
  3. Write 3-5 pg. statement of purpose (self-reflection as a writer; writing goals; why USF; introduce my writing sample)
  4. Decide on 10-15 pg. writing sample ('show voice, vitality & gift for language')
  5. Send completed app, transcripts, financial aid forms, etc.
Do I still have doubts? Of course. (Is my writing strong enough for acceptance? Am I disciplined enough to write/read/comment at least 20 hours/week plus 10 hours of class/commute time? Do I need another year or two refining my list of unfinished/unpublished works before this intensive focus? How will I balance grad school with work, relationships, farm chores?)

But, as a friend says:
"I really believe strongly that you owe it to yourself to do what you love. The turning point is having the maturity and self-discipline to follow through and do what it takes, and the self esteem to know that you are worth it."

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