Career: So you want an MFA?

MFA in kvetching: the truth about writing programs

Published April 2, 1999 1:16PM (EST)

When I look back on the two years I spent as a graduate writing student in New York, I wish I could say that I spent most of that time writing. In fact, what I recall spending a much greater amount of time doing was worrying.

Of course I, and the rest of the students in my program, spent many hours each week laboring over our stories and book manuscripts, discussing one another's work and listening to lectures on books and the writing process. But we also spent at least twice that much time freaking out. We called each other on the phone late at night, huddled anxiously in the hallways after class, dawdled in cafes, smoking cigarette after cigarette. Over and over, we asked each other, and ourselves, the same questions: Would we ever get published? How could we meet the right people, the people who could make it happen for us? How could we set aside enough time from our jobs/spouses/children? And how were we going to pay the electric bills so we could keep our computers on, not to mention the subscription fees for Granta, the New Yorker and the Missouri Review?

Naturally, these were issues we'd been concerned about long before we'd joined the program -- but somehow, becoming graduate writing students seemed to give us a renewed sense of panic about them. Suddenly, it wasn't just that we'd chosen to pursue a calling we all knew was elusive, risky and about as defensible a career aspiration as selling Venezuelan sweaters from a blanket on the sidewalk. Now we were also running up huge student loans and spending our precious evening hours back in the classroom -- for what?

What we'd realized, of course, was the trickiest thing about graduate arts programs: They can't promise anything. Unlike graduate degrees in law or medicine or business, completing a master's degree in writing wasn't going to guarantee us a higher level of income, a more highly esteemed professional position or even respect from our friends. In fact, it had dawned on us, we could all excel in our writing classes, graduate with honors and then find ourselves in exactly the same place we were when we started. Only poorer.

This reality hasn't kept thousands of writers from sacrificing their savings, their time and sometimes their careers to take part in the graduate writing programs popping up at universities all over the country. I imagine these people must be after the same things I was when I joined my program: a network of people familiar with and compassionate about the struggles of writing; honest feedback on my work; ideas and discussions that would motivate me to write more diligently; and professors who would help me with contacts in the literary and publishing worlds.

In truth, despite my anxiety, I did find some of what I was looking for in my writing program -- but not all of it, and none of it was handed to me. So for all you fellow scribes who are contemplating taking the plunge and enrolling in a graduate writing program, I've compiled a few guidelines that may help you decide whether doing so is right for you -- and how to get what you want once you're there.

1) Try not to compare yourself to your classmates too much. Graduate programs attract all kinds of writers, from people who've yet to send their first story out for submission to people who already have agents and are negotiating book contracts. The thing to remember is there will likely always be people whose work is more impressive -- and less so -- than yours. If you're a seasoned writer, be humble; if you're a novice, have faith in your own craft. No matter what your level of achievement in the field, you can all learn from each other, if you let yourselves.

2) If you want individual attention, go out and get it. Most professors who teach in graduate writing programs are very busy people -- they may be working on books of their own, writing articles for magazines, teaching at other colleges or raising families as well as instructing you in the classroom. So expecting them to pursue you when it comes to talking about your writing can be, well, unrealistic. If you want an instructor's time, take advantage of his or her office hours, or if that's not possible, get his or her home phone number (you are entitled to ask for this) and schedule a meeting off campus at a bookstore or cafe. You may feel that, given the amount of tuition you're paying, you shouldn't have to be so dogged about hunting your professors down. But think: If they can hook you up with an editor who might publish your work, or make an important observation about a piece you're working on, isn't that worth buying them a cup of coffee?

3) Give the sort of feedback you want to get. If you'd like to have your peers edit your work thoroughly and effectively, pay careful attention to theirs. Anyone who gets back a paper from you covered with comments and insights will feel rotten returning yours without the same.

4) Understand that there are going to be people you don't like. Writers, for the most part, have egos like helium balloons: inflated, but easily punctured. When any group of such people are thrust together -- especially to engage in the pursuit they care about most -- things can get ugly. There may be some writers whose work offends you. Others may not get your work, or may be callous in commenting upon it. So once you've sussed out who's who in your program, don yourself a little light armor. Listen to everyone, but only take seriously those people whom you feel can really understand you and help you with your writing.

5) Remember, no guarantees. Whatever you have to do to resign yourself to this, do it before you write the first tuition check, or apply for the student loans. Otherwise, you'll spend the duration of your program feeling pressured -- and not many of us can create great art under those circumstances. Try to convince yourself that, no matter what happens or doesn't happen after you graduate, time spent pursuing something you love is never wasted. Even if it's expensive. And if you manage to do all these things, and still find you have regrets sometimes -- well, take solace in the fact that you're not alone. Worrying, after all, is part of what makes you a writer.

By Sarah Gold

Sarah Gold is a graduate of the nonfiction writing program at the New School for Social Research.

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