Sunday, May 30, 2010

What Other Options Are There?

I want to talk a little about writers’ conferences and non-graduate school writing programs this week. One thing that I kept thinking about as I was at the Writing Works Conference a few weeks ago was how a lot of the ideas that you’re made to explicitly think about at a writing conference are pretty much the same ideas that you study and discuss in formal graduate workshops. Many conferences also offer manuscript critiques with agents, editors, and successful writers.

And if these conference critiques aren’t quite enough for you, there are also a number of intensive workshop programs, which can span anywhere between a single weekend to a couple of months, during which time you participate in workshops and are also given ample time to write. You also are likely to become a part of a community of writers, as enrollment in these programs is usually kept quite small and you have nobody to interact with during the duration of the conference but the other writers.

In other words, these conferences and workshop programs offer many of the same benefits that MFA programs do, but for less of a time commitment (and for some people, less of a financial commitment, although most MFA programs offer teaching assistantships so that students do not have to pay tuition).

There are, however, a few key differences between MFA programs and these other routes. One is that, while an MFA program might be quite a time commitment, spending a lot of time in a program might be precisely what you need to bring you from aspiring to full fledged writer. I know I’m glad for having had three full years to devote to writing, and I don’t think it would be the same to devote a month, say, or a couple of weeks.

On the other hand, while most MFA students do not have to pay tuition, the three (or sometimes two) years that you spend in an MFA program are usually spent well below the poverty line. You get a stipend as a teaching assistant, but it really isn’t much. It’s enough to live by, if you can learn to live frugally, but for many aspiring writers it might be unreasonable to even consider living in poverty for two or three years. What if you have children to take care of, or perhaps massive credit card debt that you will need enough income to pay down, school or no school?

Another consideration is whether the degree itself will open any doors for you, personally. One of the big things you get from an MFA program is experience teaching, and teaching is really the only thing that I can think of that an MFA degree definitively qualifies you to do. If you want to be a college English teacher, then you should go to a formal program. Writers’ conferences and workshops can be useful in a lot of ways, but they will not prepare you for a career in academia. If you’re not interested in teaching, however, then it’s possible that an MFA program isn’t the right path for you. Teaching can be stressful and it can distract you from writing, but if you want to go to school for free, most programs expect you to teach. You may end up finding (as so many creative writing grads do) that your writing ends up taking a backburner to the time and energy you must spend learning to become a decent teacher.

There’s also, of course, the question of life experience. If you devote yourself to writing for three years and are mostly surrounded by other writers, you may not come out of the program with as much interesting stuff to write about as you would have had you been working a regular job and hanging out with regular people during that time.

I guess what it all comes down to is that I think MFA programs can be great, and I also think these intensive workshops seem great, and I also think writers’ conferences are great. Simply put, there are many ways to study and hone your craft. The real question is what will be right for you?


Justus said...

MFA programs are great, conferences are great, workshops are great--I'm sick of your negative attitude, Missy!

Ashley Cowger said...

I know. I really need to work on that.