Friday, September 14, 2007

The MFA for Non-English Majors

zooeyincharge asks:
i didn't major in english or creative writing (rather, Sociology) -- is this going to hurt me in applying? should i address it in some way in application?i took 3 creative writing workshops and 3 english classes. thanks!

Daryll Lynne here:

We have an engineer in the fiction group who's one of the most interesting writers here because he can bring in this whole different level of experience and knowledge to his writing. As far as I know, he didn't take much creative writing in his undergrad, and I do remember him saying he didn't take many lit classes, but he did fine.

Zooey, you'll look great on the application because you'll have different education experience that gives you a broader world view than just reading and writing, yet you also have the writing background. Of course you want to address this in your statement of purpose, but as one of your strengths, not as a potential weakness. Consider the great material you have since you're trained to look at human behaviour, and to see the origins of our interactions. On top of that, you have plenty of reading and writing training to give you a foundation for getting through workshop and the lit classes.


Catherine said...

I have done research on schools and saw a handful that actually required an English major, or at least a certain number of credits. But I feel that for the most part, it is not required.

zooeyincharge said...

Thank you so much. Your reply helps. Catherine, thank you as well.

Amy said...

If anyone knows of programs that more readily embrace writers from interdisciplinary backgrounds (U.T. Austin, for example) I'd be most interested in hearing about those ....

dbmicheal said...

I attended Montana's MFA program and did not have an undergraduate degree in English (rather, history). My guess is that about one third of the MFA students came to the program after earning a degree in a discipline other than English. Most had earned liberal arts degrees, but not all. Most had experiene in workshops, but again, not all. Some where simply talented writers who took up writing years after finishing their degrees.

Truthfully, I found this helpful, because it created a more diverse workshop atmosphere. Because of our varied backgrounds, I became interested in other disciplines like philosophy, psychology, and even the sciences, all of which made me a better writer. The program at Montana also encouraged their students to take classes outside the English department, which facilitated diversity.

Maybe I should reiterate what Tom and so many others have said on this site: it's all about your writing sample. If your sample is great a program will admit you regardless of your degree.

One of the professors who chose my incoming class told me that he recommended us based only on our writing samples. He made sure we had included all required materials, but then deposited the personal statements, transcripts, and GRE scores into the trash bin.

Certainly, there are professors who will be more impressed with the type of undergraduate degree you have or where you went to school, but not all. For the vast majority of committees, your writing sample will trump anything else.

So, in summary, I should say that most programs welcome diversity. Most importantly, MFA programs and professors will admit a talented writer with potential before they will accept another average English major.

L. said...

Hey dbmichael,

Nice going on the Montana MFA. What's life like after the MFA? Any quick tips on how to get the most out of one's time in a program?


dbmicheal said...


Good question. I forced myself to keep a daily/weekly goal. I *tried* to write at least 750-1000 words of fiction a day and read at least one short story, two poems, and fifty pages of something else (ranging from Richard Ford to Nietzsche) on top of the work I had to do for workshop, literature classes, and technique classes.

I didn't always make it, but I really tried. And the days I didn't make it, I tried to make up for it over the next few days.

I spent a lot of time in the English building or in the library. I was also too cheap to get cable. That probably helped.

I just think you really have to take your time in an MFA program seriously. This might be our only opportunity to make writing and reading our primary focus.

I've been trying to do this after the MFA too. Even if I can only write for an hour a day and read for only an hour a day. I think you've got to keep at it.

L. said...

I'm in my first semester, and I am getting all of the other stuff you mentioned done, more or less. The one thing I'm not doing much of is writing fiction! I'm writing a lot of ideas down, but not much more. My writing workshop right is taking a different approach--going for a certain quality, rather than quantity in writing. This is interesting, though I worry that I am not writing enough. I feel like I'll need to be mindful not to get sidetracked by all of the other demands of being here, not to mention the diversions--film symposia and coffee with new friends, to start with.

Bolivia Red said...

That's how I started off my first semester spending my time--not writing. Then it carried over into the next semester, and the next....Now it's two years later and I have dribbled away all that time with not much to show for it, especially in terms of a strong writing habit. If I had it to do over, I would have locked myself in my writing room and never spoken to anyone. All those fun distractions will be there when you get out. And frankly, most of those distractions are empty calories--like the lame, flavorless desserts in the cafeteria.

Marc said...

I’m just finishing my first month in the MFA program at Texas State University in San Marcos. I’m in the fiction program and I have a BS in History. I actually found that having an undergraduate degree other than English was helpful in securing funding for me. I received a substantial fellowship.

The campus is remarkable. I would say that San Marcos is the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen. I was born and raised in a town of 20,000 people in Missouri and I had no idea that there were cities where a river as clean as glass flows through the center of town. I watch kids float down it all the time.

My first month has been an eye opening experience. I’ve never taken a real fiction workshop before. I feel like a fish out of water. I have no idea what I’m doing. We did brief introductions during our first workshop and I think I screwed up when my turn came. I told them I was more of a reader of literature than a writer of fiction. They asked me what I was currently reading. I told them that I try to read one book per day. They laughed at me.

Lizzy said...

You make me want to visit San Marcos, marc. River sounds nice.

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