It’s a funny story how I chose my MFA Writing Program. Warning: don’t do what I did.
(For the 7 tips, scroll down.)
I was twenty four and in my second year as a full-time math teacher when I stopped by a little bookstore near my house in Uptown New Orleans and my eyes fell on a paperback called Pretty Little Dirty by Amanda Boyden.
I didn’t know Amanda Boyden then. I didn’t know she lived in New Orleans, too, and that one day I would sit with her and her husband, drinking wine at a bar in Spain.
All I saw was the skinny girl on the cover of the book, her arm cocked like she might be holding a cigarette, her face scribbled out with fluorescent yellow highlighter, and I knew it was just the sort of thing I liked to read: a literary coming-of-age story.
So I bought the book and devoured it. Then I read the author bio and learned that Amanda Boyden taught a class on fiction writing at the University of New Orleans.
It was around this time that I started thinking to myself, gosh, do I really want to be a math teacher for the rest of my life? The answer was no. What I really wanted to do was write novels
So I quit my teaching job and embarked on a series of random jobs (barista, receptionist, orthodontic assistant) that (theoretically) gave me more time and energy for writing.
That summer, I sat down to write what I hoped to be a literary coming-of-age novel. When I finished the last sentence, I was dismayed. The book wasn’t good, and I had no idea how to make it better.
That’s when I decided to contact Amanda Boyden.
I told her that Pretty Little Dirty was the sort of thing I hoped to write, but I was having trouble figuring out how to write a novel in the first place. I was thinking maybe she and I could get together for coffee sometime to talk about writing.
Yes, I realize now how naïve that sounds. So I don’t blame Amanda for how she responded. It was something along the lines of, no, I don’t have time to meet with you, strange girl from the Internet, but maybe you should check out the MFA writing program at The University of New Orleans.
And here’s where I’ll admit that up until then, I didn’t know there even WAS such a thing as a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. (It does sound rather absurd, right? A Masters degree in creative writing?!) I realize that might make twenty-five-year-old Eva sound a bit dumb, but, to be honest, twenty-five-year-old Eva was a bit dumb.
Twenty-five-year-old Eva was also excited. Going to school was something I’d always exceled at. No wonder I was having trouble writing a good novel: I needed to go back to school and learn how to do it properly!
So I went online and found information about the University of New Orleans “low residency” MFA writing program, which sounded cool. Students took classes online during the school year then did intensive summer sessions abroad. That sounded good to me. Online classes meant I could keep my day job as an orthodontic assistant. Plus, I’d get to do some traveling.
I’m embarrassed to say I did no other research. I didn’t look to see if there were other MFA writing programs that were rated higher, or that focused specifically on novel-writing. I didn’t even realize that there was also an in-person MFA writing program at the University of New Orleans.
I’ve never been a fan of research, and I’ve always been a bit trigger-happy when I’m excited about something. At the time, I honestly didn’t think anyone would pay for my MFA. I didn’t realize that many schools actually do offer teaching assistantships that cover the cost of tuition and often include a small living stipend.
Instead, without researching any other programs, I applied for the low-residency MFA at the University of New Orleans, and I was accepted. The following summer, I headed to Madrid, and my Fiction Workshop professors were Amanda Boyden and her husband, Joseph.
It’s hard to say whether or not I regret making such a quick decision. Yes, I did have to take out student loans to pay for my degree. And it’s true I could have gotten a teaching assistantship that led to a college teaching job, but I don’t want to be a teacher (remember?) I probably could have gone to a more “prestigious” school, too, but to be honest, I’m not sure I would have liked that any better.
Many good things have come out of my MFA from UNO. I met some wonderful (and eccentric!) people, and I had some amazing travel experiences. If not for my MFA from UNO, I never would have met my blogging mentors Jeni Wallace of The Coquette Kitchen and her husband Daniel David Wallce, or gotten to spend a month in Mexico on a post-graduate-school writing fellowship.
In this case, my utter lack of research didn’t seem to hurt me too much. In other words, I got lucky.
Maybe you’ll be lucky, too. But if you don’t want to chance it, here’s what I recommend…
#1 Decide if you’d like experience teaching at the college level.
If so, look for an MFA writing program that offers paid teaching assistantships. Often you can get your degree paid for this way, as long as you don’t mind teaching a bunch of Freshman Composition classes. Check out this list of fully-funded MFA programs that provide both tuition remission and a stipend to EVERY admitted student.
#2 Investigate what programs specialize in or are known for.
There are MFA writing programs specifically for YA and Children’s writers (wish I’d known that 10 years ago!) and even for those writing graphic novels. Some programs tend to be more conventional — focusing on literary short stories and poetry — while other programs are open to those writing genre or experimental fiction. Some programs are made up of mostly straight-out-of-undergrad students, while other programs cater towards older writers.
#3 Decide if prestige matters to you.
You don’t have to go to the famous Iowa Writers Workshop. There are a ton of MFA writing programs out there. While you will certainly be taught by excellent writers at a more prestigious school, sometimes the best things about an MFA program are a) being forced to write and b) being a part of a writing community. And those are two things you can get no matter which program you choose.
#4 Go to an AWP Conference.
The massive annual conference put on by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs is not only a place to gather information about various MFA programs, it’s also a way to decide if you even want to be a part of the crazy world of creative writing academia!
#5 Decide on a low-residency or in-person MFA program.
A low-residency program means you don’t have to move anywhere, but you also don’t have the option of an assistantship that will pay for your degree. You can keep your day job and take classes online, but you may not get to know your instructors or fellow students as well since you won’t get as much face-to-face time.
On the other hand, you will spend a few weeks or so each year or semester “in-residency.” For my MFA, I did my residencies in Spain and Mexico, and I got to know the other writers in the program quite well during those five weeks. A low-residency program often appeals to a wider range of ages and types of people than a traditional MFA. In my program the youngest student was 23 and the oldest was in his 70’s.
#6 Talk to graduates of the program you’re interested in.
This should be a no-brainer, but it’s something I didn’t do. Websites can make a program sound amazing, but the people who have been through it can tell you honestly about the pros and cons.
#7 Decide if you really need an MFA writing program after all.
You can learn a lot from an MFA writing program. But you can also learn a lot from reading books. If you are self-motivated, part of a strong writing community, and have no interest in teaching writing, maybe you don’t actually need a degree at all. Look into taking classes at local writing centers (like The Writer’s Center in the DC area) and attend writing conferences. Join a critique group, or start one of your own. There are plenty of successful writers who never got their MFA.
Need help writing your novel? I offer Story Coaching and Beta Reader Feedback!
Ashley Murphy says
This was pretty helpful, thanks! I’m looking into low res mfa programs since I have 2 very young kids and have to do this online. My end goal though is teaching. I know I’ll have the terminal degree to teach but do you know of any low res programs that specialize in MFAs with a teaching credential program?
I don’t know offhand, but let me know if you find one — I’d be curious. Of course, right now even “in person” MFAs are being taught online because of the pandemic. It’s such a odd time to be starting school. Good luck finding the right program!
Mary Adgate says
I’m thinking about UNO’s program. I need something online as I’m older and can’t move away from an elder parent right now. Can you tell me more about the online experience? Did you ever talk to your faculty and other students outside of residency months? I took an online course somewhere else in the winter and was shocked that it was all done through forums and written feedback and never even one Zoom call. I was hoping for a weekly zoom class in an MFA.
Also, I know it wasn’t your genre, but do you have any sense how they are as a Creative Non Fiction program? Thanks!
Hi Mary! Great questions. I’m going to email you privately.
I’m currently a candidate for the low-res MFA at UNO. I was wondering if you could tell me what the classes/workshops were like. Were they videoconference or entirely online? Is the program as competitive as the full-residency program? Selectivity is important to me because, while I’m not looking for a prestigious program, I’d like to think it’s intimate and selective instead of being standardized and accepting of nearly anyone who applies (like a degree-mill program).
Hi Jillian! I completed my MFA from the low-res UNO program in 2009, so… it’s been a minute. I’m sure things have changed since 2009. When I was in the program, we took online classes for fall and spring semester then we did in-person classes abroad over the summer.
The good things about the low-res program:
-an excuse to travel and have some experiences worth writing about
-the intensity and intimacy of doing workshops/classes abroad (I made several friends I’m still close with)
-the flexibility of the online classes during the year (I still worked a full time day job and took off time during the summer for the in-person study abroad.)
The good things about the in-person program I wish I had considered more carefully:
-I prefer in-person classes to online classes
-the in-person program provides the option for teaching assistantships
-travel can be expensive
Overall I’m not sad I did the low-res program. I think most of the professors are different now, save a few, so I can’t speak to the instructors. Good luck with whatever you choose!
Oh, one suggestion: if you do the low-res program, I recommend STARTING in the summer so you can meet some of your professors and classmates before settling in for a year of online classes.