Take the Risk: In Defense of the MFA

Whether you’ve considered pursuing an MFA, are currently working on one, or have already graduated with your diploma in hand, you’ve likely heard about the “MFA vs NYC” argument. If you haven’t, it can be summed up as such: go to school or get life experience. Authors such as David Foster Wallace and Junot Diaz have spoken out against the MFA, Wallace citing lack of originality and Diaz the whiteness of the program. However, authors such as Karen Russell defend the MFA. In fact, Russell contributed the MFA to her success. Each argument is valid, but I myself advocate for both. NYC, or rather life, offers experience, even material, to write about. The MFA provides the polish. But as I was entering the UCF MFA program, there seemed to be an eternity of articles denouncing the MFA. These articles elicited two major feelings: terror and outrage.  However, having only experienced a few weeks of classes at that point, I felt unprepared to take on the argument. For one, I knew I was biased. Clearly, I will never be able to tell you the benefits of choosing life experience over an MFA. In addition, I was overwhelmed. The first semester of an MFA is like a roller coaster you can’t prepare yourself for. You are challenged in ways you can’t imagine, and you are introduced to workshop pieces that you convince yourself are ten times better than yours. For a good part of the semester, I struggled with imposter syndrome and each day there was a good chance I was internally screaming. The MFA is tough. There were days, weeks, maybe even months, where I was frustrated and questioned why I was there. But looking back, that’s the best thing that could have happened to me.

When physically working out, you’re likely to hear things like “if you don’t feel the burn, you’re not working hard enough.” It’s the same for the MFA. The MFA is the boot camp of writing, where you have a responsibility not only to yourself but to your classmates and faculty as well. The pressure to write and challenge yourself is ever constant. Yet when asked if the MFA is necessary, I always say it’s not. The MFA is not for everyone. Like I said, it’s tough. And if you don’t get funding, it can be expensive. In addition, there are several published authors, such as Alison Bechdel and Helen Oyeyemi, who never pursued or completed the MFA. But I always follow up with why the MFA matters. And it does matter.

First, there’s the community. One of the things you’ll most commonly hear about the MFA is your cohort. More likely than not, your director will emphasize the importance of finding someone who understands your writing.  And they’re absolutely right. When joining the program, I dreaded the idea that I wouldn’t find that understanding. But I did. When a piece fails, your cohort is going to be there. They see your piece for what it can be, and they push you to achieve it. You’ll find writing that inspires your own, pushing you to explore new limits. And even if your writing isn’t their cup of tea, the critiques I received from workshop helped me learn about my characters, realize where I fell short, and gave me the needed skill to step away from my writing and see it for what it really was.

Then there’s the lessons. I recently discussed with another classmate the awareness we have of our writing. Some pieces were good, but they needed more work before being sent out for publication. Normally, such a thing might be something to despair about, but we were proud of our ability to see our work for what it was. Before the MFA, I didn’t know when a piece was ready. I sent in pieces that today I realize were nowhere near finished. And while that’s fairly embarrassing, I’m proud I’ve grown enough to be able to see the difference. It’s a skill I’ve developed by reading my cohort’s work, striving to give them the best critique to help with revisions. Going through countless manuscripts in The Florida Review hasn’t hurt either. There, I learned the importance of those first three pages, as well as how to separate myself from a piece I liked but knew didn’t have what it took to be published. By the end of my semester with The Florida Review, it was easy to apply that distance to my own work.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are the challenges. Before entering the MFA, I couldn’t find it in me to enjoy poetry. Frankly, it was intimidating, and I was convinced no part of me was artistic enough to understand it. I avoided poetry classes at all costs and dreaded when it was to be discussed in my undergrad Intro to Creative Writing class. During my first semester, I took the plunge and participated in Studies of Contemporary Poetry with Don Stap. It’s nearly been a year since the end of that semester, and it’s still my favorite class. There is nothing I regret more than avoiding poetry for so long, and I’m grateful to myself for taking the risk. That class not only expanded my limits, but it showed me the MFA was going to be what I made of it.

So whatever you decide to do is up to you. Forget the articles, and determine what you need. If you find you need a push, I highly recommend the MFA. Take the risk. Jump into what makes you uncomfortable. You’re going to be pushed to your limits. You’re going to want to cry. You probably will. But that’s when you know you’re doing all you can to make yourself a better writer.

bio-pictureRebecca Cobb is a second year fiction student, hiking enthusiast, and Managing Editor and Quality Enhancement Grant Assistant to The Florida Review. She received her BA in Creative Writing at the University of Central Florida, couldn’t get enough of the faculty, and came back for her MFA. She is internally screaming nearly 24/7, but is loving every bit of it.


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