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On Time and the MFA

I blog about my MFA experience, the schedule and “process” of getting my degree in Creative Writing, to give readers who are considering pursuing an MFA a taste of that life. So, today, I’m thinking about the issue of TIME. Time to write. Time to grow. Time with other writers.

One of the benefits people often cite for pursuing a creative writing MFA is this one (or some variation of it): If I go after a Creative Writing degree, I’ll have (or make) the time to write more often.

There IS something to be said for this line of reasoning. When you take on an MFA course load you place upon yourself certain expectations, academically and financially.

Financial Pressure

Let’s face it. If you decide to spend the money on an advanced degree, you are putting pressure on yourself to actually do the work (much of which you could find other, less expensive ways to do, if you were so inclined). There’s that part of you that says, “I’m spending $x on this, I’m sure going to get my money’s worth!”

While this may seem “anti-creative” on one level, it’s actually a common and valid human reaction. Have you ever joined a free writing group or signed up for a free seminar or class, and then found you weren’t completely committed to it? This is typical. If we don’t invest something (usually, money) into a product or service, we don’t value it and, subconsciously, it becomes a secondary priority.

When we pay, even just a little, we add a layer of personal, internal accountability to our participation.

Back when I was a church business manager, we began offering debt-reduction specialist Dave Ramsey’s course Financial Peace University. This is a course designed for people who are struggling, really struggling, to get a grip on their finances. So, what did we do? We charged them to be in the program because it has been shown that those who received the multi-week course for free dropped out at a much higher rate than those who paid, even if they only paid half of the standard course fee.

Academic Pressures

“I don’t have the time to write!”

It’s a common complaint for those of us who know, deep down, that we are supposed to be writers, but who live in the real world of jobs and spouses and kids and car payments and mortgages. (It’s also a common complaint of MFA candidates, because of the other commitments a degree program places on your desk.) One of the benefits of being in a degree program is the extra layer of motivation to “find the time” to write.

  1. Deadlines – Yes, as un-creative as that word sounds to most of us, the reality is that while deadlines may not help you produce your BEST work, they do prompt you to produce SOMETHING. At Queens, we need to have two stories (or chapters, or 15 – 25 pages of loosely connected material or some sort) ready for our January and May week-long residencies in Charlotte.  And then, once we are back home, we have four more submissions per semester, due on a deadline. Our critiques/responses to our workshop group are due on a deadline. The material we are to read and digest before the next residency is due on a deadline. You get the picture. The point is, deadlines make you plan, and planning helps you set aside the time to read, write, respond, and edit. The deadline is imposed on you, and you LIKE IT because it gets your butt moving.

  2. Time with other writers – Being in a program like the MFA gives you a chance to be around other writers that most of us do not have in our day-to-day life. The faculty and students at Queens have been an incredible source of inspiration and information, for me. There are other ways to accomplish this sort of “exposure” to other creatives, but the ability to talk to, have dinner with, share a drink with a Pulitzer winner, or a National Book Award Short-List-er, or a student writer from India or South Africa, these are all wonderful benefits of community that come with a quality MFA program.

  3. Once in a lifetime – If you apply to an MFA and get that acceptance call, the clock starts ticking. I heard it the minute I hung up the phone and said to my wife, “That was Fred Leebron. They want me at Queens.” The MFA years are a finite period of time. I felt then, and feel now, a certain pressure to be sure I’m making the most of these two years. (Yes, you can defer some, and lengthen it out by a semester, but the core of that statement remains the same.) For me, I’ve tried to maximize my time and effort to wring as much from the process as possible. I don’t want to waste this opportunity. I know that there are a lot of people who applied for my position and didn’t get in. I’m going to do what I can to make the most of it.

  4. Now is the time to set yourself up for a writing life – You get a lot in an MFA program, but you don’t leave the program with a book contract or a teaching offer. You don’t leave the program with any guarantee of success, either commercial OR artistic. An MFA isn’t a magical short-cut that allows you to skip the hard work of growing, maturing, finding your voice, and connecting with an audience. During the MFA years, you WILL see a rapid acceleration in your art and, if you play it right, you’ll have all of the tools necessary to set yourself up for a writing life BEYOND the MFA. Because, isn’t that really the goal? For me it is. I want to lay the groundwork to take the knowledge and skill I’ve gained the last two years and utilize that to build a regular, productive writing life, for the REST of my life.

Those are some thoughts about the relationship between TIME and the MFA. If you have some thoughts on the subject, feel free to leave them in the comments section or hit me with an email.

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