On MFA Programs: Live-Blogging Jane Friedman’s _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 3 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1 and 2, on networking and the concept of “Good luck,” respectively, are here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

…”Third, it can be worthwhile to enroll in an MFA program based solely on its faculty and networking opportunities…Don’t take it on faith that you’ll love any program or faculty sight unseen–get as much exposure as possible beforehand.” (The Business of Being a Writer, pg. 37)

Up until the moment I got accepted, selecting MFA programs had been easy. I wanted a low-residency program, so I could continue on with my day job and stay near my husband, and I wanted something that felt new. I didn’t much feel like taking graduate school exams, but I wanted something that would allow me to teach at the college level if that’s what I wanted. I wanted a faculty that comprised working writers, and an alumni pool that was also working as writers. I knew, too, what I wanted out of an MFA, so that made things even easier.

It came down to two low-res programs. One was much more established, and I knew people who had graduated from it. The other was new. Scrappy. So scrappy that it had sprung from a writer’s organization, and wasn’t affiliated with a college or university. Its facility boasted a live otter cam, and it was based out of a place I’d never really visited. The facility it hosted its classes out of boasted a live otter cam.

(not that kind of ottercam, you guys.)

They each had things to recommend them. Program B’s faculty looked as if they were all steadily working writers, and they said they only ever wanted to produce working writers. Program A, the more established one, had some faculty I had heard of, and they were renowned for their work in the young adult genre, a field I was pretty sure I wanted to work in. But in the end, it came down to the student body. Program A had both graduates I knew and had heard of. Program B had neither of these things.

But program B offered to put me in touch with their students. Program A took a few days to get back to me. I was very clear about who I wanted to talk to: I wanted to talk to working writers who were in the fiction genre. Writers who were working on long fiction, preferably. Within a few minutes of my sending a query to the program director, the e-mails from students and alumni of program B started rolling in. Four…five…six…seven and more students all had things to say, and all were willing to talk to me. All were working in fiction; all were able to address my specific questions and concerns, and if they didn’t know the answer, they pointed me to another student.

By contrast, program A sent me to a playwright, a guy who was in jail, and a graduate who said she wasn’t quite sure why Program A still had her on the list of people to talk to about their experience at Program A, since she was still doing the exact same thing she was doing before her degree and didn’t see a future in writing. I did not get to talk to the guy in jail, but the playwright was interesting, and completely not useful.

Friedman’s right: you should get to know the faculty. And I’ll never know what it’s like to have gone to that other institution. But, as I’ve previously mentioned, I leaned and still lean so heavily on my co-hort from my MFA and the huge number of guest faculty that I met while I was in school there. I think a good set of peers is at least as important, for many reasons, and maybe even more important, for another set of reasons.

I also want to point out the following, which has been thrown into sharp light now that I’m running a writer’s retreat of my own: the best faculty members are not necessarily those who are the biggest and brightest stars of literature. In fact, we had a few guest faculty lecturers at program B who were bigger names and who were, frankly, terrible instructors. Finding people who are talented, giving, generous educators and great writers isn’t always the obvious equation you think it’ll be.

Nope, for me, I’m happy I chose my MFA program based on the students who were there and who had graduated from the program.

Some takeaways:

  • Always ask to speak to students at whatever MFA program you’re considering.
  • Be intentional about why you want to get an MFA.
  • Be open: Although I wasn’t interested in making friends when I enrolled in my MFA, it happened despite me, and now those friends are colleagues, and I couldn’t be happier.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for exactly what you want. It’ll save time on both ends.
  • Have a look at the faculty member’s teaching resumes, or look for information about their teaching backgrounds otherwise.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

2 Responses to On MFA Programs: Live-Blogging Jane Friedman’s _The Business of Being a Writer_
  1. As a former classmate of yours, I agree with Jane’s suggestion about the value of networking opportunities gained through an MFA. Students (like you!) and faculty I met at program B are an essential part of my personal and professional support system.

    I also had similar experiences to you, both in deciding where to apply for a low-residency MFA and with what program B offered. In addition to my desire to work with a specific faculty member there and the useful conversations I had with current students, I appreciated that the program allowed prospective students to attend residencies without being enrolled. I was able to attend all the classes offered in my genre as well as sessions by guest faculty and student and faculty readings; that gave me a clear indication, before I invested a lot of money, that this program was a good fit. And I wasn’t disappointed when I finally did enroll (and graduate!).

  2. Wayne Ude says:

    Thanks for the good words, Yi Shun and Iris and Mel. That’s what we hoped the program would be; you helped make the dream come true.

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