7 Gifts an MFA Gave Me that Changed My Writing Life
I hid brochures for MFA programs in my bottom desk drawer. Every few months I’d take them out, page through, dream a little… Until finally in 2009 I enrolled in Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. The program took two years of concentrated study at home, and for 60 days, spread over five residencies, I lived in the Twin Cities, away from children and family. It was a significant investment in time, energy, never-over-abundant funds, but now, five years after graduation, I can say without question, the MFA was worth every dollar, every hour in the MSP airport, every frantic trip to the library to pay my fines so I could pick up yet more holds. Hamline’s MFA gave me far more than I spent (or bled) to earn it. Like…
1 An MFA filled my toolbox with New Writing Tools and showed me how to better use the tools I already had.
Was I pounding in nails with a screwdriver? What could I do with a jigsaw? I learned about psychic distance and filters, I re-learned plot and characterization and so much more. Could I have broken through my plateau on my own? I’m not sure. Maybe, with enough time and enough reading. And if an MFA only provided tools, then I might question the value. But the MFA gave me more than a single workshop or another book on writing. It gave me more than tools.
Pre MFA my reading was all over the place. I’d go to the library, check out books based on recommendations or labels on the spine: Oh, Mystery! I want to write a mystery, too! As if I were looking through the lens of my DSLR set to manual with the focus ring turned the wrong way, all the world’s books looked the same. I never knew what new books were worth reading, or what old books were true classics I couldn’t live without.
2 An MFA provided Focus.
Before my first residency I began on Hamline’s Required Reading List—120 curated books spanning all genres and age groups which provided us a grounding in the literature we were learning to write and a common vocabulary. Plus each residency added several must-read books for different topics we'd study that semester. Even now I can post to my alumni group, “What’s a good middle grade novel on bullying?” and get a dozen relevant titles, sometimes in a matter of minutes. Which leads to another perk…
I came into my program set on writing young adult (YA). It’s what I’d always written, what I always read.
3 My MFA program helped me Become a More Versatile Writer.
I spent an entire semester working the the amazing Phyllis Root on picture books. Another semester ignited a love for poetry that grew and influenced my graduating thesis—a novel in verse for middle grade readers, and my first two published books will be—not YA—but picture books. Speaking of publication…
I once dreaded writing query letters. I agonized over the hook, wrote and rewrote a bio that sparkled while still being…true. Because while it looks great in a bio, I’m not a celebrity, don’t have a doctorate, and don’t have one single superpower. Unless Able to Scale Mountains of Laundry counts.
4 The MFA gave me a Credential, and with it Credibility.
A degree from a good institution is noticed. It is respected. An MFA qualifies me not just to lead workshops (and get paid for them), but to teach. At the college level. The credential proves I put in time, tears, and money, that I’m committed to being an author. It proves to me, on those days when I’m cleaning up one toddler-tornado disaster after another that I am a writer. A real writer. Because sometimes it's easy to forget...
I’d worked at this writing thing so long and so hard and had so many Close Calls (“I brought this to committee, but unfortunately…” “I love your work, but this book just isn’t quite…”), I truly believed I’d be stuck in the slush pile forever.
5 An MFA Can Open Doors to the Publishing World.
When I began the MFA I had no idea one of my classmates would go on to become an editor with a big house. I had no idea other classmates would find an agent who would happen to be a good friend of my agent. The industry is an interconnected web, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that my network of alumni stretches, somehow, to every publishing house on the planet. Alumni, faculty, we all work together, sharing knowledge, names, connections and yes, even stolen carrots.
Speaking of carrots, I once felt isolated on this writing journey. Sure I had a critique group and I had a few writer friends, though out of necessity most overlapped with Mommy Friends or school-pick-up friends. My segmented life had only a small hole carved out for Me as Writer.
6 The MFA Gifted Me with Community.
Friendships I’ll treasure forever. Each residency became a celebration: These are my people. They understand me, care about the same things, share my passions and dreams. I still remember many late-night conversations with my first-residency roommate—our instant connection that continues to this day. And remember the carrots? Late-night pick-up games of Dixit, glasses of wine at the hotel bar. I forged memories, shared life with people who, five years later, continue to share life and inspire me, goad me to keep at this exhausting art. Because…
When I began the MFA I thought I knew everything. I’d read all the books (hadn't I?), I knew all the rules (didn’t I?). I was a great, or, um pretty good writer (wasn't I?). Beneath the bravado a crippling terror whispered that I was a pretender, a hack.
7 Hamline’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults Gave me Confidence. And Humility.
Learning always builds confidence. But there’s nothing quite like seeing a whole universe of expertise—faculty, visiting writers and publishing professionals—to make me acutely aware of how much I didn’t know. Yet. Because I now have the tools, community, and support to continue learning as long as there are new things to learn.
Which would be, in case you're wondering, forever.