Tuesday, October 19, 2010

What Will You Do With Your MFA?

It's a question that's asked often. I hear it from others. I ask it of myself.  Seth touches on it in one of the September ranking-debate posts below. The MFA does not guarantee a job. Unless you are really lucky or really good.

This scares the crap out of me. I come from a very practical family of public school teachers. I ended up getting my teaching degree in social studies. I like history and, for the most part, it was a guaranteed a job. I forgot to ask myself if I would enjoy facing 130 15 year-old every day beginning at 7:20 am. (Side note to anyone considering high school school teaching: you have to like kids. And 7:20 am. Combined.)

Somewhere in the midst of teacher burn out, I started to write. And I was hooked. A series of events (you know, life) led me to consider MFA programs. I weighed the pros and cons for a long time. I already have a Master's, my old student loans are paid off, and - let's be realistic - there is a very good chance that I will be back teaching high school students at 7:20 am. Except English this time, instead of history.

And sometimes, there is a little voice that says...you never know.  And there is a louder voice that says...who cares? If you want to write, then do it. If you want your writing to improve and you found a program that works for you, then go for it. I've discovered that my goal is not a job...my goal is to write, and write well. What's yours?


anotherjenny said...

I feel naive and foolhardy, but my goal in getting an MFA is to teach at the college-level, eventually as a tenured professor.

Yeah, yeah, it's what everyone says is impossible to do... but you know what? Someone has to make up that 5%. And I dunno, I kind of have this feeling that I'll do it.

Of course the MFA will improve my writing and offer me a chance to strengthen my literary community, but I'm 2 years out of school and my writing has still improved, and I've cobbled together my own literary community of sorts. In fact, I originally intended to apply to MFAs this winter and begin in Fall 2011, and now I'm considering applying winter 2011 instead in order to develop my voice and just... grow up some. The MFA's serious, you know? Or at least I want to take it seriously, and not treat it as an excuse to coast through Hemingway-style, as much as I admire the man. Damn him and his brilliantly concise sentences!!!!

Sheila Lamb said...

I hear you. Sometimes being "realistic" leaves me with a complete lack of imagination. I would totally like to be the traveling teacher...workshops and conferences here and there or teach for low res programs.

jaime said...

Thank you so much for this blog post!! And, like anotherjenny, my goal would be to teach at the college level...but I also feel like an MFA would help open doors, or at least make things a little less difficult....as well as provide a writing community....
But Sheila, I love what you wrote about that louder voice saying who cares -- I got to the point after graduate degrees in a "practical" field that didn't make me *happy*, that I finally wanted to feel some EXCITEMENT about life again....and that came when I wrote and decided to take that plunge to take that seriously, even if people think it's not "practical"....

FZA said...

My goal would also be to teach at the college-level, but for that goal, I'm planning/hoping to also get my phd, either in Creative Writing or in Literature. Having said that in a more practical sense, I would be very happy teaching high school. The hours and money aren't quite as good, but I've wanted to be a 'teacher' since I was a wee bit and ultimately I want to be in the classroom. I realize that if I end up pursuing high school teaching I might have to go back to get my masters in education, but without it, I am still eligible for jobs at charter and private schools.

Anonymous said...

Live in a grammatically-correct box.

PAH said...

The same thing I'd do without an MFA....RULE THE WORLD.

But really, I've never been a part of a writing community. Graduating from a small Liberal Arts school with a degree in Writing/Communications, I was surrounded with hobbyists and journalists...not people really passionate about creative writing. So that's what I want to get out of an MFA (along with time, structure, and teaching opportunities).

The actual degree (which I call receipt) will be a framed napkin. Buuuuut, I am with Blob -- I would like to teach, college or high school...in between book tours, of course ;)

STC said...

I'm not planning on doing much of anything with my MFA. It's just that the prospect of devoting myself to fiction writing for a few years within a supportive and intimate community of other passionate fiction writers sounds like paradise.

My goal is not to teach at the college level. If I end up in the classroom, I would actually prefer a high school position. I've taught middle school for three years, love kids (though, like Sheila, resent the hours), and find the young adult landscape in some ways so much rawer, richer, and more vibrant and diverse than the graduate or undergraduate "ivory tower."

What disturbs me, though, is that university-level teaching is considered significantly more prestigious in this country than secondary-level teaching, and our teachers are treated, and paid, accordingly. When the most gifted and talented aspire to teach only at the university level, the quality of secondary education is degraded. This isn't the case in other countries (say France), where teaching is a revered profession, where all teaching positions are selective and competitive, and where the best and brightest therefore are more likely to teach at all levels.

Claire Dawn said...

I want to get into publishing.

As a Barbadian living in Japan, it's not like I can just move to New York or London and start interning. So an MFA is a foot in the door.

And I know the chances are slim, but slim is still better than nonexistant.

Adam Atkinson said...

I've had half a semester of MFA life, and I'm already hooked. So right now? My goal for "post-MFA" life is a CW PhD or a second MFA--whomever will have me!

popsicledeath said...

I also hope to go into publishing... rather, being published! ;)

Okay, not really. I mean, really, but in my view an MFA is mostly it's own end, not the means to much more.

Granted, I do want to teach, but an MFA doesn't guarantee that. And I do want to work with a journal or publisher (I'm a pretty good editor; both definitions of how that word is used these days), but an MFA doesn't guarantee that. And I want to continue pursing a career as a writer, but an MFA doesn't guarantee that either.

I personally am in the camp that an MFA doesn't lead to becoming a great writer. It's just time for those who would put in the work, to put in the work a bit easier (in most cases). Too many people think 'if I can just get into an MFA program, I can finally make it.' To me this is flawed thinking, especially when the people aren't writing independently.

But what will I do 'with' my MFA... anything people want to let me do with it. I hope it leads to networking contacts and helps get my foot in the door with teaching or editing, but we all know great writing is what makes or breaks someone in the industry, and in my opinion great writing can be facilitated by an MFA program, but is by no means dependent on it.

So, with an MFA under my belt, my main goal is to not suddenly think I've done anything special or worthy of respect from others, and will keep writing as if I don't have one.

And my main hope is to not get addicted too much to the academic life when it doesn't also overlap with aspects of the writer's life. Too many people I've heard about or met love the IDEA they're in an MFA, and doing MFAy stuff, but at the end of the day they're learning more about being a student, than they are about being a writer.

Hopefully, despite an MFA, afterward I'll have more tools to go back to being a writer, and not get stuck forever as a slave to academia! (it's not that bad, being dramatic because it's fun, but still, I have some professors who like the idea of being a professor, and have learned more about becoming a professor than writing, and then other professors who happen to teach but are fighting every day to still be a writer... Perpetual Academia is a syndrome people should be aware of!)

Sheila Lamb said...

Good points about the publishing world...It's something I want to learn more about (aside from reading agent blogs and tweets!) It's easy for me to say "teaching" because that's what I've always done.:-)