I attend several writers’ conferences a year, and often attendees without MFA degrees ask me questions such as: Did you get a lot out of your MFA? If so, what in particular? Do you feel like it’s a good value for the money? Did some of the academic commitments of the program actually take time away from your writing? If I were to decide to pursue an MFA, do you think it would be essential that I get a number of pieces published beforehand, or do the admissions boards only look at the work submitted? How important are letters of recommendation? Since I’m an ardent believer in the MFA as a path to further one’s writing, I thought it might be worthwhile to answer the questions in a quasi-essay of sorts, as a resource for other writers.

In response to the overarching question, did you get a lot out of your MFA, and what in particular? my answer is a resounding YES. I attended the low-residency program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. My goal was to twofold when I entered: to increase my skill-set overall, and to leave having written a creative thesis that was as close to a completed short story collection as possible. Not only did I accomplish these goals, but I surpassed them. The critical reading and response essays sharpened my interaction with literature; in short, I learned to “read like a writer, rather than a reader.” I generated a body of work that I mined for four years—six years total, if you include the two years spent earning the degree. That’s largely due to the low-res model: for prose writers, you write one new draft and one revision for each month’s work “packet,” and you turn in five packets per semester. Plus at every residency you workshop a story, so that’s five workshop stories. At the end of each semester I tallied the page counts of both my critical and creative work, and on average I’d written and revised 250 pages a semester. Which, I think, largely accounts for how quickly writers in low-residency model programs often progress. You’re churning out so many pages, and your reading is targeted specifically for you, your concerns and interests, that your writing takes a giant leap forward in the span of just two years.

For a more in-depth perspective on how this method of study works, read this article by my former teacher, David Jauss: http://info.vcfa.edu/36collegestreet/bid/89529/The-Real-Story-Behind-Low-Residency-MFAs/

The academic commitments of the MFA only served my creative work—in fact, were essential to its enrichment. How else are you going to understand subplot and thematic construction in novels, for example, if you don’t study character grouping and image patterning in a deep and thorough way—because you don’t know what is meant by those terms? If you’re not aware of texts like Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature or E.K. Brown’s hard-to-find-but-worth-its-weight-in-gold Rhythm of the Novel? I had never heard of those concepts, nor would I have found those texts, without the instructors who led me to them, who steered me clear when my fiction experiments failed, illuminated why, and encouraged me to keep going.

Beyond the page, the MFA gave me a network I will be in touch with for the rest of my life, both in terms of faculty mentors, fellow students, and alumni.

I graduated in 2008. Since then all of the stories in my thesis have been published in mid-list literary journals, such as Harpur Palate and Green Mountains Review. “Shadow Boxes” won the inaugural Bosque Fiction Award. And “Teacher’s Aide” is out now in the Fall 2012/Winter 2013 issue of Slice magazine. Plus the novel I’m currently shopping to agents grew out of a story I’d written my first semester. So no regrets in terms of the writing goals I’d set—what I learned through my MFA studies blew them out of the water.

I’ll add that I don’t think MFA programs are looking for publications—although I can’t imagine those would work against you, if you happened to have some. Primarily, the admissions committee is focused on the work sample you submit as reflective of where you are currently in your writing, how you might grow and benefit from what the program offers. Think of the sample as putting your best foot forward, whether the piece has been published or not—you want your work sample to be as polished as it can be. In regards to letters of reference, they’re looking for not only what these individuals have to say about your work, but more so your character and ethic. And to be sure you’re not crazy. In other words, you play well with others, can take constructive criticism, meet deadlines, etc.   

Do you feel like it’s a good value for the money?

Ah, the money question. Is investing in an MFA worthwhile? My experience at VermontCollege was invaluable to my formation as a writer—I can’t imagine where I’d be today without the program—when pressed I have to say, yes. Whether my novel gets picked up by an agent or not, whether my story collection wins a prize or not, my answer is still, yes.


The cost of a low-residency program is expensive, and I believe I was somewhat naïve about this when I decided to attend—how difficult the reality of paying back hefty loans would be, without another more “bread-and-butter” career to fall back on, or significant family support. A good many of the low-res students were nurses, teachers, doctors, lawyers, or had spouses in such careers. As someone who had just waitressed out of college and taught courses as an adjunct through my twenties, other than receiving a financial windfall if a big publisher does indeed buy my novel manuscript, I will be paying off those loans for many years to come.

So, I would say, if improving your writing is the primary goal and you can afford a low-residency MFA program, take that route. I believe the apprenticeship model of learning, supplemented with workshops, is superior to the all-workshop residency model. If you’re really set on teaching and learning the ropes at a literary journal, a traditional-style program may serve you better in the long-term. I had earned an MA in English prior to entering the MFA and was already teaching college courses, so I may be taking that for granted. But in my humble opinion, as a traditional MFA student you’re likely going to be assigned composition, maybe an Intro to Creative Writing course if you’re lucky, and you’re not missing much by not teaching freshman comp—I know I’m not alone in this sentiment.

You may wonder why I had an MA in English and still decided to pursue the MFA later, and why I didn’t choose to attend a traditional, residency model MFA, since I was in my 20s, unmarried, with the freedom to move anywhere. The answer is a testament to the long and winding path that is the writing life. When I was 22, I applied to residency MFA programs and didn’t get in. But I had applied to the MA in English program at the University of Central Florida as a safety option, so ended up there—at least I was still writing, still learning. But my tenure at UCF was a rather rocky. I was working 55 hours a week to pay for the program while taking classes, and exhausted most of the time. I had written a sprawling mess of a “novel,” 300 plus pages, which ultimately failed as a thesis; to graduate I ended up writing a handful of short stories on the fly.

At 26, I wasn’t where I wanted to be as a writer. Not at all. Forget publishing. I didn’t have anywhere near a thorough understanding of the craft I felt was my calling, namely fiction. So I applied to MFA programs again, this time to traditional as well as low-residency models. My GRE scores were terrible (oh, cursed math) so applying to the low-res programs was a smart idea, as many of them don’t require GREs, and the low-res programs were the only ones to accept me. Of those, Vermont College had the strongest word-of-mouth reputation and statistical rankings in Poets & Writers. When I got their letter, I was as thrilled as getting accepted into Bread Loaf. I knew I was on my way.

A good reminder that as with life, the writing path you think you’re going to take is full of unforeseeable hairpin turns and pit stops. So hang in there and be open. There are many paths, not just one, to furthering one’s writing, including the conference/colony route. Sometimes it is a matter of simply finding a teacher who resonates with you. But keep knocking on doors—resilience is key if you’re in this for the long-haul. Ultimately you and your writing will end up through the ones that open.