An Ode to My MFA Program

The decision on whether the MFA is beneficial to writers of today is hotly contested and widely debated. (See: To MFA or not to MFA.) There’s no right answer, but all of the talk has made me want to share how I came to mine. 

Side note: Are MFAs as widely debated in other fields? Does one face similar criticism in pursuing an MFA in Theatre or Studio Art?

Here is a really helpful article on this topic: Jane Friedman’s “3 Myths About the MFA in Creative Writing.” Here, she outlines the three main reasons that writers pursue a graduate degree: to teach, to speed up their publishing journey, and to make writing a priority. She’s absolutely right, getting a teaching job with an MFA is far from easy, MFA’s don’t do anything for publishing that a stellar book wouldn’t do, and writing won’t be a priority in your life unless you make it one. Friedman was spot on with these reasons, and at first, I was admittedly pursuing my MFA because of all three. 

I’d never taken a formal creative writing class before I got to graduate school. I applied mainly just to see if I had the courage to send something I wrote out into the world for someone else to read. Seriously, when I submitted my application (less than a year and a half ago) only one other person had read something I’d written. The idea of putting myself out there this way was akin to having someone watch me sleep at night, just the kind of privacy invasion that I couldn’t stomach the thought of. Writing was the only personal space I had. But I wanted to make writing a career. It was my life’s biggest dream. So how was I supposed to do that if I broke out in hives at the thought of another set of eyes on my beloved words? 

I’d also been a life-long academic. My life story was written in MLA format. I’d write this blog post in MLA format if WordPress would let me. Even making the jump from Bachelors of Arts to Masters In Fine Arts felt scary. My BA in English was supposed to be a BA in English Ed. I won’t get into that, but long story short, I went to a way too small college. Anyway, my plan around March of last year, about two months before graduating college, was to do lateral entry teaching at the high school level. Then, somehow, I realized how important writing was to me. I wanted to test myself. See how good I was, and how committed. I wanted a program that was completely artistic, where I couldn’t rely on the grades I’d gotten since kindergarten. I was done being an academic, I wanted to be an artist. I was giving up the sure thing in favor of the risk. 

Enter, Lindenwood University. I found them online, and looking at that page, I got the same feeling I had when I stepped onto my undergrad campus for the first time. That visceral, gut, this is home, feeling. And their application requires only a statement of purpose and a writing sample. I swear on all that I am that submitting that application was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. But I did it. Then I bought myself tickets to a concert I didn’t end up going to to celebrate. 

A few weeks later, in my driveway as I was getting into my car to go to a baseball game, I got the Congratulations! email I’d been waiting for. I wasn’t a life-long academic anymore, I was a part time academic and a part time artist. 

That concept of what makes an artist is my main problem with the MFA as a whole. I absolutely adore my program, don’t get me wrong. Graduate school is easily the best decision I’ve ever made. I’ve never grown so much academically, artistically, or personally in a year in my life. 

That being said, I’m not at Harvard or Columbia or an instantly recognizable school. I’m not at a place that recognizes literary fiction as this supreme being. It seems that the entirety of the MFA is of the opinion that literary work is just better. When I think of those big name programs, as exceptional as they may be, I think of fierce competition and a level of stress so intense it could kill a racehorse. Graduate school as a whole is that way, competitive and borderline toxic, it’s not just the arts. I’ve seen kids all over the internet wearing t-shirts that say School Kills Artists, and I think if I’d somehow ended up in one of those literary supremacist programs, the artist in me wouldn’t have survived. It’s something we discussed in one of my classes this semester, the idea that high art is the only art. In the fine arts, there is this concept that you can be too good to be popular. That’s an idea I’m just too sensitive for. I might have been ready to submit my work for someone else to see, but I was definitely not ready to step into the fight for my life in a super competitive program. I deeply admire anyone who can do that kind of literary streetfighting. I’m sure the prestige of having terminal degree from a recognizable school is worth it, but I needed the kind of small school feel I had in undergrad. 

That’s what I love about my MFA program. It’s practical, not a pressure cooker. It’s human, where we interact with each other as writers and as people. No one in my program is there to boot someone else out. My professors, as successful as they are, offer their expertise to help us succeed, in whatever way success manifests itself in our lives. 

For example, I emailed my professors to tell them I’d be doing work ahead of time to prepare for a personal matter that would cause me to not be able to do classwork for two weeks. One of them told me he’d extend whatever deadlines I needed, and the other emailed me back and said I could have the rest of the semester to make work up if I needed it, and he’d even give me an incomplete so I’d have a whole other semester to do it. It’s that kind of care that I appreciate so much. 

Next week, I’ll have been a Lindenwood Student for five semesters. I’ve taken workshops in fiction and nonfiction, I’ve explored literary novels and some of the best YA I’ve ever read. I’ve taken publishing courses, and I know how to write a query letter and whether or not I need an agent. I’ve written flash fiction, short stories, and nonfiction, when I’d only written novels this time last year. I couldn’t even stomach the first page of a Stephen King novel, but I’m planning to write a collection of horror/crime short stories as my thesis project. I’ve made friends and learned from the most incredible professors. In particular, among many others, I’ve learned to appreciate the existence of Nicole McInnes, Kali VanBaale, and Tony D’Souza. 

Do I think everyone needs an MFA in Writing? No. Do I think every writer needs the kind of supportive, positive, strengthening environment I am lucky enough to be a part of at Lindenwood? Absolutely. 

So, if you do decide that the MFA is a path you want to take, be careful in choosing where to start, because the problem with the MFA as an institution is they aren’t all Lindenwood. 

Coping with Post-Draft Disorientation

A few weeks ago, I finished the first draft of my first novel. It was the dream, my story was told. The sand was in the sandbox, and now I had to build castles with it. It didn’t feel the way that I’d expected it to. As proud as I was, I just felt lost.
This book and these characters had been a part of me for a year, countless hours of work, and tens of thousands of words. Then, suddenly, they were gone. I still had to edit them, they still need to be published, but the deep connection I’d had to them just disappeared. I didn’t know what to do. As writers, we create characters, give them stories to tell, and put them on paper so that they live forever. For my characters to live forever, I had to take those next steps. Right then, though, those steps just felt too difficult to take. I built each of these characters from the ground up, and I’d painstakingly threaded every piece of their narrative together. As rough as that draft is, it is such a big piece of my heart. The night I finished my draft, I told a friend that I felt like I’d just buried a part of myself. I know that sounds melodramatic, but honestly, if you don’t have that kind of devotion to your characters, I don’t understand how you could spend days, weeks, and months writing them.
If are blessed and cursed with that kind of devotion, you’ve probably felt this way before, or you’re somewhere on your way. There are a lot of resources out there that describe life after the first draft; taking a break to let the manuscript breathe, the initial edit, agonizing over every word, beta readers, so on and so forth. What I’ve never read about is how you’re supposed to feel.
Like in most things in life, I don’t think there’s a wrong way to feel. There are, however, some ways to cope.
The first, don’t underestimate the break.
I cheated a little, my break was only a week. During that week, I went to a writing conference, had incredible author Jessica Burkhart critique my first ten pages, and brainstormed ideas for my next book. I had my first draft printed and bound, and I carried it with me everywhere, but I didn’t open it.
When I did, I made a big deal about it. I played music, I hugged the book like it was a teddy bear, I took a deep breath before I opened it, the whole nine yards.
Let me tell you, the first time I read my own book was the closest thing to magic I’ve ever experienced. Don’t get me wrong, it’s just a draft, and it needs a lifetime’s worth of work. The important part, though, is that it’s real. It’s tangible. I was holding a year’s worth of work in my hands, and at some point, in the middle of that first read, I realized that I hadn’t lost those characters I love so much. All I did was make them real.
That brings me to my second tip, realize that this is only the beginning. I spent a year writing this draft, and I’ll spend months at least working on the next one. Then they’ll be another, then I’ll send it to readers, then to agents, then to publishers. These characters are going to be with me for a long time. Their first chapter is just over, now it’s time to make them the best they can be.
My third and final realization may seem obvious; the connection that I thought had disappeared was never really gone. As I read through my draft, and every time I’ve read through it since, I’ve been flooded with memories. Where I was when I thought of the ending, the way I felt when someone else read it for the first time, all of it. It’s all still there, and all of those beautiful characters are just as much mine as they were when they were just thoughts in my head.
So, if you’re like me and you’re feeling adrift because you finished a draft, I hope this can help. Your characters will always be yours, and thanks to you, they’ll be alive forever.

Check out my About and Works pages to for an introduction to me and what I’m working on, and catch me on Twitter @MarissaEller.