Thursday, August 6, 2009

The MFA Debate

I wanted to write a little about Seton Hill University, a graduate school where I received a M.A. in Writing Popular Fiction. The title is a bit strange, but I believe it was an incredibly positive experience.

For starters, it’s a low-residency, two-year program, and I attended a week-long residency at the college twice a year. I also got assigned a published genre mentor (for me, my genre was ‘mainstream’…a bit self-created, considering there was only one other person in the category, and we’re still friends. There’s also romance, fantasy, horror, sci-fi, mystery/thriller) who basically was my fire-starter for 5 months at a time. I set up a schedule and deadlines for the amount of pages I hoped to finish over a month. In the end, I completed a 400-page novel that was tightly edited and approved by two other mentors who came in at the end and read my final draft. Also, there was a non-fiction compare and contrast essay based loosely on my genre that was due at the end. Oh, and I read around fifty books either requested by myself (sort of a self-made kick in the ass) or assigned by my mentor.

In the end, I got a degree that, even though the novel I finished was rejected in the publishing world, has helped me work as an English Instructor in Japan, and gotten me now into college teaching.

Being a mainstream writer in a graduate ‘genre’ program would be, for many, not the right move. Most people who write mainstream attend other, more literary programs, but I feel like I’ve learned about both sides of the market now, and it’s made me a better writer. There are so many benefits (I’m trying not to sound like a salesman, really, I am…) to getting a low-residency Master’s Degree, especially if you’re working AND trying to write an incredible novel. Even if your master’s thesis novel doesn’t end up selling, what you have to show for it is a master’s degree that allows access to jobs close to your art.

For some reason, one of my favorite quotes came to my head. It’s from the movie Rudy. A man who works as a groundskeeper for Notre Dame talks to Rudy after he finds out that he might not ever play in a game at Notre Dame.

"You're five foot nothing. A hundred and nothing. And you've got hardly a speck of athletic ability. You hung in with the best college football team in the land for two years. And you're gonna walk out of here with a degree from Notre Dame. In this life you don't have to prove nothing to nobody except yourself. And after what you've gone through, if you haven't done that by ain't gonna never happen."

Have you ever considered a low-residency M.A/M.F.A. program? Or, if you already have a Master’s in Writing/Creative Writing, what were your experiences?

Seton Hill link:


  1. An MFA program would probably tighten up my craft a lot, but I frankly don't have the time to do it. I write during lunch and breaks from my day job. Even if I wanted to finish an MFA, I wouldn't be able to take that much time off from work.

    I also wonder just how much use it would be to my writing genre. I mainly write thrillers and mysteries, and given that the literary quality of these typically aren't very high, I'm not sure it would help me.

  2. Interesting post. I can see where you are coming from, as I have an MA and have received some of the benefits that an MA can provide.

    I don't think that I would want to do an entire new grad program, unless it was to get a Ph.d or a solid and terminal MFA degree. With that said, I might be interested in a summer program that would help me succeed with a given project.

    If you ever see a grad program where I would have a good chance at getting the tuition paid for and I would have the chance of making a decent stipend from teaching I might consider it. You never know.

  3. in a recent conversation, that Rudy quote came up. thanks for posting it.

    i haven't considered an MFA program (my master's in curriculum & instruction), though i've always thought it'd be enjoyable. i have considered applying for Odyssey or Clarion's summer programs, though. maybe someday i'll actually get the nerve to go through the application process :)


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