Sunday, August 30, 2009

Group Motivation

My first semester as an MFA student was extremely difficult. I’ve touched on this before, I know, but I’m thinking about it more and more lately with my husband and some of his colleagues getting ready to begin their first quarter in their creative writing program. Around here anxiety is high, as you can imagine, and so is hope.

There were a number of reasons why that first semester was so hard for me, and a lot of it had to with that obnoxious artist’s ego that had to be completely broken down and smashed into as many tiny pieces as possible to be sure it couldn’t put itself back together. But one of the problems with going through that very necessary ego check is that you don’t feel very motivated to keep at it when you feel like a lousy writer, or when you realize that there are too many writers out there to count just as good as – or better than – you.

I hardly wrote at all my first semester in grad school, and the few things that I did write I wrote because I had a workshop deadline. I think this is actually quite common at the beginning of a program – and many creative writing students never break out of this funk. They spend their entire three (or two, if you’re an MA student) years only writing when they have to, only when it’s homework, and then they stop writing altogether after they graduate.

If I could go back and do it all over again, I think the key would have been to use that automatic community of writers that I got to be a part of to my (and their) advantage. This past week Damien and I had a little writing party at our house. We invited some people we’ve met so far from Damien’s program and then we did two half our writing sessions, each starting with a separate prompt. In between sessions we ate, drank, and were merry, as they say. It was very successful – a lot of fun and it got us all writing. At the end of the party everybody agreed that we should make a regular thing of it, that even when school is in session something like this would be a great way to keep everybody motivated and generating new ideas.

And all it took was for someone to organize it. Why not you? I have a theory that most people in creative writing programs desperately want to do things like this, but they often feel overwhelmed by school and teaching and everything and so don’t think to start a group themselves. That or they feel like it should be a given in a creative writing program that everybody is motivated to write just by workshop alone, or by knowledge that their thesis will eventually be due, and so they don’t think they need a writing group outside of school. But I think the professors in these programs are just assuming that students are meeting outside of school to write and workshop each others stuff. That the people in charge take it as a given that the program, alone, is not enough.

This sort of group can operate outside of a creative writing program, too. All you need is to find some fellow writers willing to do what they claim they enjoy doing – to write. While this is of course easier in a creative writing program because pretty much everybody that you know is a writer, it’s certainly not impossible in the “real world.” There are writing groups on the internet if you don’t know any other writers personally and you could easily set up a community writing group – just ask your local library and bookstores if you can put flyers up on their bulletin boards and windows. But I think the important thing is that if there isn’t something in place for you to join, you should take the initiative to start it yourself.

Writing is not an automatic function, like breathing, as much as we sometimes pretend that it is. Most serious writers engage themselves in writing communities to keep in practice and keep motivated. Maybe once you’ve got a publishing house that provides you with an editor you’ll be okay on your own, but until then you’re responsible for building or joining your own community. And trust me, it will be worth it.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

To MA or to MFA, That Is the Question

Something I’m sure we’ll be talking a lot about for the next while is the difference between an MA program in creative writing and an MFA program. What’s the difference between these degrees? Why is one a terminal degree and the other more of a gateway to a PhD? And how does a person choose between the two?

Let’s compare the requirements of Damien’s MA program to my MFA program. They’re pretty similar. While my program lasted three years, all the course requirements could be filled in less than that. Really, the extra year is to give you time to work on your thesis. Both programs require lit courses, workshops, and theory, and both require a creative thesis. And it’s the thesis, I think, that’s the key.

In my MFA program the thesis had to be a book length, publishable work. In Damien’s program, the thesis is much shorter – it does not have to be long enough to be a real book – but it must include a critical introduction. So maybe that pinpoints the difference between the two programs. The MFA is more of an artistic degree – the thesis is an actual book that you can then polish up and try to get published. It’s preparing you first and foremost for a career as a writer. The MA is more of an academic degree with a bit more of a focus on criticism, and it prepares you primarily for a career as a professor.

But the interesting thing is that both degrees prepare you for both fields. They would have to, wouldn’t they? Because you can’t really make a living off of writing, but at the same time if you’re getting a degree in creative writing it’s because you want to write. In my MFA program I always felt like they didn’t prepare us enough for careers in the academic field – giving information about conferences, for example, and how to get scholarly essays published, what a career as a teacher entails (besides teaching) and how to get your foot in the door, all of which it looks like will be covered in Damien’s MA program.

But I suspect if I had gone through an MA program I would have felt there wasn’t enough preparation for a career as a writer (having to write a book length work for your thesis seems to me a huge difference from being allowed to turn in a few short stories, essays, or poems. If you’re doing a complete book the process in many ways mirrors the process of working with an editor to get a book published. The MA thesis to me is more reminiscent of a portfolio you might hand in at the end of a single creative writing class).

So I suppose there is a difference, but it’s slight enough that maybe the real question shouldn’t be do you want an MA or an MFA but which individual programs are going to be the best fit for you? Which programs have the instructors whose work you respect and who you would like to work under? Which programs allow you to teach creative writing and which only allow you to teach composition? Which programs have the better track records of people finishing and getting good jobs, and finishing and getting books published? Which programs have you heard good things about? Which programs did your favorite writers graduate from?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Value of the Degree

After a month and a half long break, MFA/MFYou has set up shop in beautiful Athens, Ohio. For those of you who have been waiting for what may feel like centuries for a response on a submission, we have every intention of getting through the backlog and sending out some responses soon. In the meantime, our newsletter is back on schedule.

I wanted to talk this week about the value of the MFA degree itself. It’s something I’ve often derided, feeling that the experience is valuable in that it helps you become a better creative writer, but the degree itself is essentially worthless in any real world applications because the only thing it qualifies you to do is teach, which not all creative writers are interested in doing. And even if you do want to teach, like I do, you may need to publish at least one book before you’re a real contender for a tenure-track full time position.

But all of that was speculation based on my understanding of the degree’s value and the experiences of other people that I know who graduated and then had a difficult time finding any kind of full time employment. Now that I’m no longer an MFA candidate but actually a holder of an MFA degree, and I am, for the first time, looking for a job as an MFA, I’m revising my opinion regarding the worth of this degree.

Before I moved to Ohio I sent out my CV and cover letter to four different community colleges in the area. I had low hopes for finding anything because I didn’t know whether they would consider my experience as a TA sufficient, but I figured it was worth a shot. I requested to be considered for adjunct work, if any was available at any of these schools. Three of the four schools responded to me while I was on the road. Two of those schools offered me two courses each as adjunct, and one of the schools is actually considering me for a full time position. Before I got into town, I already had a job interview scheduled for the full time position and was in touch with the department chairs from two other schools about possibly teaching adjunct if I don’t get the full time position.

I’m comparing this with other people’s experiences right now, trying to find work in these hard times. Even though I read on the MLA website that the average adjunct English instructor salary comes to about $11/hour (shamefully low!), it’s actually not a bad position to be in – being qualified for a specific career. One of the department chairs I was speaking with told me that it’s very difficult to find qualified English instructors and I’ve heard that with the economy in the slumps more and more colleges are turning to adjunct faculty to level out their budgets. Not a very well paying job, no, but a job that’s in high demand.

In addition to that, my fear that finding full time work would be impossible at this stage is proving unfounded. I made it all the way to the final interview stage for this full time position, and while I may not get the job (I probably won’t know for another week), it’s important to remember that I wouldn’t have even been considered for it without my master’s degree.

I think part of the MFA-is-worthless attitude comes from wrong expectations that graduate students sometimes have regarding their career path. I think a lot of people in grad school want to move directly into cushy, full time positions as creative writing faculty after they earn their degree but, like in any field, you have to start at entry level and work your way up.

I enjoy teaching composition and I enjoy teaching early level lit courses. Creative writing is fun to teach, too, but in my experience, composition is the most rewarding because of its more diverse range of students and the more vital nature of the material being taught. An MFA degree does qualify you to teach comp at a community college – it qualifies you to teach full time if you can find an open position. It’s true that if you want to teach in a graduate program or if you want to teach in a creative writing program specifically, you’ll probably have to get a book published first, but if you really like teaching there are plenty of other options out there that an MFA will open the doors to.