Saturday, December 18, 2010

Now I Understand Why I Signed Up for an MFA

Post by Trai Cartwright

Several years ago, I had the strange idea that getting a graduate degree would be the road to a new future as a writer. That was as detailed as that thought got.

I applied to MFA programs, was accepted, moved to Colorado and attended what’s considered a “traditional” MFA program – a real old school bricks-and-mortar deal, complete with teachers who’d been tenured before the first Bush was president, standing firm for the Ivory Tower standard of Literary writing.

It was, for me, an unproductive, unsatisfactory experience. Like a child, my only explanation of why it wasn't working came down to this: it made me feel bad.

So I transferred to something called a Low-Residency MFA – 14 weeks of online course work, tons of independent, self-directed study and writing, and two weeks at a Residency that could be likened to the most advanced, comprehensive, and exhausting writer’s conference of all time.

My new MFA has been a brilliant experience. In the words of my inner child, it makes me feel good. Really good. It makes me feel like a writer, like I have a shot at being really good one day.

Each day looked like this: breakfast, followed by a two high-level craft lectures, one general and one genre-specific (i.e., fiction, nonfiction, poetry, screenwriting). Lunch was served, followed by a three-hour intensive workshop with my fellow classmates who’d submitted, alternately, chunks of a book or screenplay. Each student was embraced for whatever it was they wrote (there was a range of genres presented, fantasy and Literary peacefully co-habitating and eating the Laffy Taffy together), and each student was given thoughtful, detailed, and appropriate craft and story notes.

I learned more about my own writing in that three-hour workshop than I had for years. It’s one thing to take generalized classes and adapt them for one’s own work, but it’s entirely another to have radically advanced minds have a go at it, without institutional agenda or ego-driven intrigue. It was like having ten mentors, all eager for me to succeed.

The afternoon workshop was followed by another craft lesson, then a break for dinner (which usually entailed gangs of writers going to ethnic restaurants and ordering too much beer), then a Reading and Interview with some fantastically amazing writer, each deeply published and deeply awarded and deeply invested in passing on their knowledge.

Then, if that weren’t enough, there were late night student readings around the poolside firepit, ideal for practice and community building. We laughed, we cried, we were in awe of our fatigue.

I had thought I only intended to earn a degree to qualify to teach at the university level, but this residency made me finally understand why I’m dedicating three years of my life to the intensive study of the craft of writing. I’ve always known that we each have unlimited potential but now I was collecting the tools I’d need to maximize that potential. Moreover, I learned once again that a writer’s community is everything – without other writers to be my champions, my heroes and my cohorts, this gig might not be worth it.

Turns out the real reason I wanted an MFA was to gather more tools, more capacity and more compassion so that I could join more writers around the fire. Who’s got a match?

What is it that makes you want to study the craft of writing?



Julie Hedlund said...

Beautiful post! I always wanted to be a writer because, well, I love writing. What I've discovered is that the writing community is even better than the writing! Such an amazing, supportive and creative group of people.

I'm glad you found the MFA program that nurtures you instead of depletes you.

S. Train said...

Amazing, chicka! Glad you had a great time.

Lynn Carlson said...


Thanks for the honesty. I had one interview with a woman who was "screening" for the MFA program at Univ. of Wyoming, and she acted like I was interviewing for heaven itself, and I was obviously not divine enough for her. Needless to say, I didn't apply.

Things tend to turn out, though. I've taken a variety of classes and read extensively about the art and craft of writing. I do it because I want to do justice to the stories that come to and through me. That's all. And that's everything!

Trai said...

Lynn, well spoken. Study it cuz you love it -- hang with the other writers cuz they're fun and supportive and dig what you do!

Here's a brilliant New Year's, all my fellow writers!

Name: Luana Krause said...

Congratulations on your MFA and thanks for sharing your journey. I totally agree about the community of writers. It's great when people "get" you.

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