Answer the following questions as honestly as you can. If you say no at any point, stop. You are not suited to pursue your MFA. If you say yes, continue on to the next question.
- Do you want to be surrounded by other writers of varying temperament, talents, and levels of dedication? Think carefully before you answer. That means people who might fall anywhere on the spectrum of mental well-being from moderately maladjusted to psychotic.
We’re writers. We haven’t necessarily had the best childhoods. We might be better at writing than we are at say, interacting with other humans.
We might also be beginners. We might start our stories with “The alarm clock went off.” We might have just graduated college and be stalling before getting a full-time job and so we might write our workshop drafts between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. the night before class. And we might not even feel bad about it.
If you can tolerate these possibilities, continue on to the next question. Because you will also find people in MFA programs who you recognize as kin–people who love the way words sound, who have grown up coveting their library card more than church, who will become some of your best friends or your worst enemies (note: sometimes, in writing programs, the enemies can be the most inspiring. Those you don’t like or envy or fear can push you to do better work).
- Are you capable of taking criticism of varying levels of sophistication on a weekly basis about the things you hold most dear?
You might have a fantasy that you’ll walk into a workshop and your professor will have brought along her own literary agent, who is dying to sign you based on your manuscript. Fellow writers will be so blown away by your work that they only have a few minor punctuation tweaks and maybe an idea for a different title (one without ellipses). The whole workshop will be a lovefest. No variation on this scenario will ever happen.
Workshops are designed to find the places where your writing falters, to pry apart the unconvincing scenes, to ask questions about the premise, the characters, the plot, and the ability of the writer to realistically render any experience.
And not all of it will be well-meaning. Some of your workshop participants will have spent a total of five minutes skimming your work and will say things like, “I feel like the main character should die in a car crash at the end.” If you can hold it together, workshops are also the place where people other than your mom will try to give you the best guidance they can to make your work better.
- Are you willing to sleep with poets? Unless you are otherwise partnered (and sometimes, even if you are), it is my experience (and scientific research backs me up) that you will be required to have sex with a minimum of two other writers, most likely poets.
You may also develop a slight drinking problem, and you will most certainly doubt your decision to put your life on hold during this time for your own selfishness and desire for fame. You might also meet your life partner, and/or your best friend, as well as a cadre of people willing to read your work at any time for the rest of your days.
And poets can be good in bed, if you can deal with the aftermath (such as hearing about the poet’s version of the experience at a public reading with 50 of your colleagues where your name and physical features have only been slightly altered).
- Are you at a place in your life where you can take two or three years off from the working world to focus on writing? You don’t have to be 23 to do this. You can have children, other debt, no money, angry family members who want you to go to law school, and you can still do it. I know people who have earned their degrees at all ages and under all kinds of life circumstances. Some of them have gone on to be professors; others have gone on to be bartenders. Some continue to write and get published. Others decide that the whole MFA thing was a phase. All leave with a graduate degree, debt, teaching experience, and a portfolio of work that they never would have otherwise written in that amount of time. The one thing—the main thing about writing programs—is that they force you to write. It is the only time in your life when writing what you love is your job, your singular focus, your daily chore, and possibly your salvation.
Have you said yes to all of the above? I left out some parts about sleepless nights, crying jags, difficulty in finding gainful employment after graduation, and the gnawing fear of failure.
And maybe, after all of this, you won’t believe me if I tell you that it was the best thing I ever did for myself and I miss it every day.