An MFA in WRITING: Marissa Graff's Top 4 Lessons From Semester One

If you are a career writer, chances are at some point you've wondered if you should invest in a MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) for Writing. Marissa Graff is a Young Adult writer and good friend of mine who decided to take this plunge, and she with us today to share a few takeaways since entering the program. What I love about these are how they can be applied to anyone on the writing path, not just those who seek higher education. Please READ ON!  

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As writers, we wonder if an MFA program is a must-have on the road to publication. Having just finished my first semester at VCFA, I will say that it’s a decision that’s personal for each of us. There’s no doubt that the decision to pursue an MFA comes at many costs. While tons of writers reach publication without one, others feel like it’s the right investment for them. Whatever your feelings on an MFA program, the most important lessons I took away from my first semester at VCFA have nothing to do with earning a degree.

1. Keep an open-mind, but don’t shut out your inner voice. I went into my first semester with the attitude of letting the writing gods and my advisor lead me where they wanted. Though my advisor was fabulous, my release of total control was a sign that I had little faith in myself. I forgot to trust my own instincts. That’s not to say ignore the advice of other writers/critique partners because then there’s no point in inviting in outside opinions. But don’t forget to listen to your gut. Sometimes my advisor caught things that were unfeasible, poorly-hidden backstory, etc. and truthfully, they had been nibbling at my mind already. Just like in a critique group, it’s important to receive feedback, mull it over, and then go forward with what makes sense for you. An MFA program is like having a critique partner on steroids. Toss all that advice into a big colander and sift out what doesn’t resonate, while retaining all the tidbits that lead to aha moments. By the end of my first semester, I learned to differentiate between the two and it was perhaps the most important lesson for me.

2. Be a mad scientist. We rarely give ourselves permission to play. At my advisor’s suggestion, I explored short stories as my out-of-the-box writing experiment during my first semester. I dove into reading short story anthologies and reluctantly tried my hand at composing one. I loved the newness and brevity of the short story form and will continue to force myself to try new things. Whatever you’re afraid of or you think you don’t really know much about, challenge yourself to explore it. Poetry, short stories, non-fiction, or maybe just a different age-range, it’s amazing how sampling something different can improve our overall abilities.

3. Let go of your fears and go there. Sure, you can have an outline or a scene idea that you cling to like grim death, but tell your character’s story as honestly as he/she is begging you to do. I was afraid to touch the pain in my protagonist’s past until this semester. My advisor called me on it. I finally sat at the keyboard, closed my eyes, and went there. It was painful and scary and I was drained as though I’d channeled an otherworldly spirit when the scene was over. I was moved to tears and it felt like a big wound had been ripped open inside me. It was necessary. After months with this character, I finally knew her core and was able to view her world through her eyes, not mine. As writers, our brains are our own worst enemies. The only thing standing between you and your story is your inner editor over-thinking every scene, every action, every word. Don’t be afraid. Let go of your fears and just write. Editing will come later.

4. An MFA is not the only way to improve our craft. Don’t get me wrong. I adore my MFA program like it’s a fated soulmate. But my situation and ability to complete the program is unique to me. I don’t come from a creative writing background and I’m not one of those people who can say, “I’ve been writing stories since I was seven.” I never imagined stepping away from full-time work and taking this huge plunge. In fact, when I first heard about VCFA a few years ago, I distinctly remember thinking there was no way that would ever be me. So I educated myself. Everything I knew about writing prior to starting an MFA program came from reading. A lot. And writing. A lot. And critiquing. And conferencing. And of course, through the free wisdom writers share via the blogosphere. Good writing knowledge is out there.

Without the structure of an MFA program, it takes consistency and a lot of self-discipline to cobble together a do-it-yourself education, but it isn’t impossible. I’ve seen many writers do it and go on to nab an agent and get published. While I’ve learned many new hard skills during my first semester, the vast majority of what I know about writing came from years of self-study, craft books, and exploring the benefits of SCBWI. An MFA is a fabulous experience, but it isn’t a requirement.

YOUR TURN: What are your thoughts on MFA programs or other formal writing training versus self-study? If you have experience with a program, please weigh in on the discussion. If it’s something you’ve considered, we’d love to hear about it. Happy writing!

Marissa Graff is a full-time student at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. When she’s not reading or writing, or thinking about reading and writing, she’s spending time with her husband, Crossfitting, or exploring Northern Virginia. Follow her on TWITTER & FACEBOOK for more on her MFA & Writing adventures!

The Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults is a low-residency program, meaning you attend lectures and workshop for ten days in January and ten days in July, while working one-on-one with an advisor during the months between.

35 comments:

Angela Brown said...

I'm a firm believer in different paths for each individual. An MFA program may be just what one writer needs while self-study is the better route for another. I applaud writers for doing their best to produce their best. In the end, the reader benefits by getting to devour wonderful stories :-)

Marissa Graff said...

So agree, Angela. You make such a great point- never stop learning and improving regardless of what that looks like. Thanks for weighing in!

Lisa Gail Green said...

Great post!!! I often joke that I have the equivalent in self study. I'd love to do an actual program someday, but time and money are short. *sigh* Maybe I can put it on my bucket list. :D

Marissa Graff said...

Lisa, thanks for chiming in. I think it's a consideration but definitely not a necessity. We have a unique set of circumstances in our household that allow for me to do this program, but trust me, I have really struggled with guilt over it until recently. Once I was able to accept the decision and fully embrace it, I couldn't imagine NOT doing it. But it's a mongosso commitment! Never underestimate the power of self-study :)

Jemi Fraser said...

I'd never heard of MFAs when I was in school - small city syndrome I guess. I would have loved to get one, but I know I wouldn't have had the confidence to enroll back then. Maybe I'll try it one of these days - I love taking courses :)

Marissa Graff said...

Jemi, the beauty of VCFA is that it's VERY tailored to you. It's like having a one-on-one editor to meet YOUR needs. It's rather nontraditional in structure. You read a ton, but again, you choose the vast majority of the book titles. Every semester plays out this way rather than taking prescribed classes. After a lot of self-study, the structure of this particular program was highly appealing. That said, you've been consistently in the writing world collecting knowledge for a long time. You'd be shocked at how much you already bring to the table. Thanks for adding to the discussion :)

Kessie said...

I think it's like makeup--if you need it, use it! I was homeschooled and my favorite thing in the world was reading writing curriculum. Now I'm grown, I'm more of the self taught individual. I'm in a lovely brutal critique group, half of whom are recently published, and I've learned so much from them. My best teachers have been editors who ripped apart short story submissions. Not to mention asking for critique on Wattpad! Hoo boy!

But again, that's been my path and it suits my personality. I can't take writing courses like that, so I have to glean all the knowledge I can elsewhere. If you have access to those resources, by all means, use them!

Molten Notebook said...

I love the idea of a low-residency MFA, but am a little nervous about the amount of feedback I'd get in an online program. I've taken writing classes through Writer's Digest and a city writers center, and the instructors only provided an enthusiastic sentence or two. The "lectures" were actually short articles, and the level of feedback from other students depended on the course. (Often the students didn't seem very interested in others' work.)

I imagine a masters-level program is much more rigorous, though, and it sounds like you're having a great experience. What were you looking for in an MFA that you didn't feel you were getting from self-study?

Marissa Graff said...

Kessie, love the make-up analogy! I think it's great that you're self-motivated and have that knack for learning within you. Thank you for your thoughts!

Angela Ackerman said...

I think if I were to do an MFA, it would be the low-residency one as well. I think that any education, self or otherwise, is never a waste. One of the best thing I did was to take a year to study craft books with a partner. Becca and I would read the same book, make notes and discuss. It was amazing how we were able to help each other with technique by doing this--whatever I struggle with she could usually she light on or vice-versa. It was a great investment.

Thanks you so much Marissa for coming by even though you are so crazy busy! I hope that you'll post another time or two and let us know how it's going! I would love insight on commonalities you see in the books that you are studying, and more lessons of course!

Angela

Becca Puglisi said...

This is really interesting, Marissa. I hear a lot of conversation about MFAs, and it's nice to hear the input of someone on the inside. I'm not typically a joiner, so I much prefer to do my learning on my own, at my own pace, but I love that there are options for different kinds of writers. Thanks so much for posting!

Beth said...

Great post. Although I haven't taken my MFA, I'm about to embark on an in-depth writing program this fall. I'm excited, and nervous, and hoping that it's everything that you've found your program to be!

Marissa Graff said...

Hi, Molten Notebook! I took a few online courses too, as well as a semester at Hollins University. For me, the decision was complex. My husband spends a lot of time overseas and I felt like I wanted to do the program because I wanted to do something for *me*. Additionally, I felt like I wanted a close mentorship program to help meet my specific writing needs. It was a little about timing and a lit about wanting to do something more formal. Thanks for your thoughts!

Marissa Graff said...

It's so true that just taking time to pause, study, and analyze can really help. The low-rez format is great, but still quite hectic. Still, I'm with you- any opportunity at education is worthwhile :) Thanks so much for having me!

Marissa Graff said...

Thanks for your insights, Becca. The options are what make the journey so great. Today, more than ever before, writers have so much information within reach! Thanks for having me on your great site, Becca and Angela :)

Marissa Graff said...

Beth, how exciting! I think any time we do something in search of more learning and focus, we almost can't go wrong. Good luck with your program and thank you for joining the discussion.

Martina at Adventures in YA Publishing said...

I would love to have the opportunity to do nothing except to absorb, dissect, and get feedback on writing! Just the thought of that is incredibly exciting, but for most of us, it isn't practical. I'm also not sure that there is enough of a correlation between an MFA and future earnings to make it a feasible investment. But as you pointed put, it really depends on the individual. I reached a point last year where I knew I needed feedback beyond what my peers could give me, so I looked for more intensive workshops that were deeper than a regional or national SCBWI conference. Attending a workshop with a mix of published and unpublished writers, with feedback from editors and agents in real time was perfect for me and got me over the last hump before submitting a publishable manuscript. It was the perfect decision for me, and I am repeating it this year with another week-long workshop. In between, I'm working hard on my own, and with the help of my agent and editor, I am hoping to make an even bigger leap in skill level. Ultimately, we never stop learning! And that is what is great about writing. It gives us an opportunity to lead lives of curiosity and exploration! Thanks for sharing your journey with us, Marissa. It's great to hear that this was such a great decision for you!

Martina at Adventures in YA Publishing said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anita said...

I just completed and MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University in PA...also a low res program. Before going into the program, I think I had good instincts, but I didn't have the skills/tools/knowledge to take me to the next level. My agent is currently submitting my YA, and if it sells, I think it's in large part because of what I learned in the MFA program.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for sharing about your MFA experience. Having a kid going to college soon means it's not for me. But it sounds like a wonderful experience. Since I didn't focus on writing as a kid, it's taken me way longer than most to learn the craft of writing, mostly through my critique partners and beta readers and revising a zillion times.

M Pax said...

School is fun, but not in my budget. I take advantage of other opportunities whenever possible.

Marissa Graff said...

Martina, I love the route you took and *clearly* it all paid off! I truly believe that the decision to MFA is personal for everyone because it has so many implications, and as you mentioned, financial ones being probably the highest hurdle. Congrats on your huge accomplishment and thanks for sharing your personal approach towards improvement!

Marissa Graff said...

Anita, congrats on finishing your program! It's tough to go back to school for any reason, but I'm with you- some of my reasoning included getting a more formal skills set. Best of luck on submission!

Marissa Graff said...

Natalie, you're like me! The journey has been a steep climb for me not coming from a writing background. I was fortunate to work with writers like Martina to learn from and have access to the writing community online. It's been wonderful to do the MFA program, but there's no doubt it is a huge leap!

Marissa Graff said...

M Pax, I think that you are bright to capitalize on what's out there. We are so lucky to have a writing community that shares and supports one another. Thanks for chiming in!

cleemckenziebooks said...

I've had enough school to last me two lifetimes, so I wouldn't sign up. However, I'm sure it's a great course and has much to teach writers about writing.

The part about having fun and playing appeals to me. I think I'll do some of that.

Rosi said...

I've heard great things about the Vermont MFA program and have some friends who've taken it. Wish I could, but there is never enough money or time.

Angela Ackerman said...

Marissa, thanks again for taking the time to post and converse with us! Clearly this is something on a lot of folk's minds and we sure appreciate you sharing your experience with us! :)

Deborah McKnight said...

Thanks for the post - maybe one day I can enroll in such a program. I work a full time job so schooling isn't exactly an option however, I was fortunate to find a writer teaching a creative writing class at a local community center. Attending those weekly classes were so helpful.

Mindy Hardwick said...

I have an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College, and I just finished a post-graduate semester in the adult MFA program working on my memoir, KIDS IN ORANGE: VOICES FROM JUVENILE DETENTION.

I loved the MFA program because it gave me a chance to really work on a project and dive into it with mentors. The friendships I made in the program were invaluable, and seven years later, I still email and see some of them. The program was also the first place where I really took my writing seriously and it moved from just a hobby I did on the side, to something I wanted to pursue as a career.

For me, adding an MFA to my credentials has opened the doors to teaching at community colleges and Universities. This is where the value in terms of money has been in my MFA study. I also have written and published articles about the craft of writing using some of the information from the papers I wrote in the VC program.

I think the MFA is a worthwhile experience!

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Daveler said...

I think the MFA program itself is very important as to whether or not it's useful. I had a horrible experience getting a BA in theatre, and while I got out of it better than my peers, there were a lot of talent people who had been demoralized, or at least scarred, by the process. It can also be a crap shoot, because sometimes the only way you'll find out that your professors are horrible people with severe inexperience is by actually committing to the process. I've been trying to get into a MFA play writing program, but because my undergraduate experience was so terrible, I don't want to go to just *any* school; it could be easily just another waste of time and money. And while I actually believe the experience did teach me a lot, it was indirectly related to my field. It improved my ability to work with others, and I learned a lot of theoretical knowledge, but with professors who behaved as though we were "never going to actually work in our chosen field," we didn't receive a lot of practical information.

My assumption was that all professors are good and intelligent people, and when I got that, there was nothing more useful. But when they're not, it can not only be a waste of time, it can actually knock you a few steps in the wrong path. So, I find that how helpful a MFA is really does depend on the specific program.

Marissa Graff said...

Thanks for all the comments, everyone! I've just returned from my second VCFA residency and am happy to see the discussion is still going. It's definitely the case that the decision to do/not to do an MFA has to make sense for the individual. I know I wouldn't have appreciated the VCFA program without having self-studied for a loooonnnngggg time beforehand. Also, for me, I wouldn't have gotten as much out of the program had I done it say, 5 to 10 years ago. Having more experience under my belt, writing and life-related, has really helped me to maximize the learning.

Daveler, I went through a similar experience. I started at a program *before* VCFA and couldn't shake the feeling that it wasn't a good fit for me. I gave it two semesters and tried to be patient, but I felt like my writing growth was flat-lining. You make a wonderful point in that doing any sort of program isn't a guarantee where learning and value are concerned. Going through it myself, I learned that it's okay to recognize what we already bring to the table and demand more. If I had been straight out of my undergrad program/younger/less-experienced, I wouldn't have known any better and likely stayed in the *other* program. Thankfully, that didn't happen.

Best of luck to each of you. I adore the discussion because the bottom line is that we're all passionate about writing and open-minded enough to yearn for growth and improvement.

Marissa Graff said...

P.S. Thanks SOOOOOO much to Angela and Becca for inviting me onto their spectacular blog! <3

Marissa Graff said...

I love the ongoing discussion about this topic. It is undoubtedly a very personal decision for each writer. I was discussing the MFA choice with a VCFA friend of mine recently and we agreed that if we had enrolled in the program any earlier in our lives, we wouldn't have the same feelings about it. We both felt life experience has been crucial for what we bring to the table. Having done self-study, conferences, etc., I brought a lot more know-how to the program, allowing me to be pushed further. If I had done it right out of undergraduate college, I wouldn't appreciate the opportunity in the same way. It's a very individual thing for each of us.

What excites me is the zest we all bring to writing and how eager we are to improve. I love that "the road" is so different for each writer. Thanks for all the great discussion and thanks once again to Angela and Becca for having me!

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