When we’re not writing, most of us spend time looking for ways to hone our craft. For me, an MFA was part of that journey and I’m excited to share a series of blog posts to answer some questions about obtaining a low-residency MFA and to share a couple of the top craft techniques I gained during my program.
Question: I’ve been told that going for an MFA in Children’s and Young Adult Literature will “turn you inside out,” and “completely change how you write and what you write about.” What if I feel I’ve finally gotten to my personal truth and finding “voice”? It sounds scary to have your writing “turned inside out.”
Mary Jane: That does sound scary! But I understand the temptation to talk about an MFA experience in big ways–you can feel like you’ve come out a different person than you went in, but I think that’s true of any experience where we learn a lot in a short period of time. We change. The primary goal of an MFA program, in my opinion, should be to make you a better writer, regardless of where you start. However, it shouldn’t be about destroying you or tearing you up to get better (if you feel that’s what’s happening in a program, I’d suggest looking elsewhere!). Pre-MFA, I was doing the DIY-MFA approach: conferences, workshops, a mentorship, and my critique group. I was making progress, but I wasn’t making that transition into publication. The MFA was a way to dig into what I couldn’t “fix” on my own. I learned a lot about my (now broader) interests, how to revise, and I’ve pushed myself into new genres with good results. Since graduating, some of my classmates have published in new genres with different age groups, and have changed or added to their idea of who they are as a writer.
The cross pollination of a program, and the experimentation with new styles and genres is likely to have a net-positive impact on your work. The most successful students I know didn’t approach their MFA as a way to make one manuscript “publishable,” they were focused on developing lifetime-writer skills. I also observed that people got out of it what they put into it–it’s an unusual opportunity to really go deep in your craft and I can attest that the sheer amount of time I spent practicing along with the guidance of advisors significantly accelerated my learning. The bottom line is an MFA can change you as a writer, just as any deep-dive where you explore your craft and try new things can change you, if that’s what you’re seeking.
Question: I’m considering [an MFA program that’s] easier to get to, but I’ve heard from others that when it comes to agents and editors, VCFA is the only low-residency program that counts. Is this true? I don’t want to spend thousands going to a low-residency program that might help my technique, but is disregarded by traditional agents and publishers. (I’m not interested in self-publishing or small presses.)
Since I’m not an agent or editor, I checked in with Molly O’Neill at Root Literary who generously answered this question.
Molly O’ Neill: “Not true at all! VCFA is the most well-known because it’s been around longer, and I certainly have clients who have grown substantially as writers through their degree there, but I also have clients who have attended Hamline University’s MFA and feel it was formative in their creative development, and I know writers currently enrolled in Lesley University’s MFA who are currently being taught by a very impressive faculty. (There are a handful of other schools who also offer low-res MFAs, too, but I know less about them.)
My advice to authors considering an MFA is usually two-fold. First, as best you can, go in knowing what you’re hoping to get out of it/what you want to strengthen in your writing. Of course you want to improve across the board, but can you get more granular? Are you strong on setting but weak on plot? Are you trying to shift your sensibility from writing YA to MG? Deepening your understanding of pacing or your ability to layer plots and subplots with character arc? Etc. Having some clarity about what you intend to get out of an MFA experience will help you determine whether the MFA’s faculty has expertise in those areas, and narrow in on which faculty/advisors will be best equipped to work with you, as every faculty member has different strengths.
And two, take a close look at the faculty: are a significant number publishing meaningfully/successfully in the current publishing landscape? If the whole faculty is made up of authors who broke in 15 or 20 or 25 years ago, their sense of what editors/agents are looking for and what makes a book “work” (and thus which of your ideas are most promising, market-wise) may be dated at best and lead you in the wrong direction at worst. Also, keep in mind that the “right” MFA for one author may be quite different from the “right” MFA program for another — it’s an individual choice, not one for which there’s a single “correct” answer. For example, if you want to learn to write high-concept, commercial projects and everyone on the faculty of a program writes literary, character-driven stories, it’s probably not the right match for your craft needs, no matter what successes other writers may have experienced there.
Also, having worn both editor and agent hats, I can assure you: the credential of having attended an MFA program doesn’t honestly matter to a publishing professional. We may respond positively to the writing that results from an MFA-developed project, but the degree in and of itself is simply a data point, not a “cheat code” for a different level of attention. I don’t treat a query any differently from an MFA’d writer than I do one from a writer sans MFA — it’s all about the strength of the writing, creativity of the story, and the question of whether those things match the current marketplace.”
Tune in next month for a deep dive into creating emotional resonance, or what to do when someone says “I’m just not connecting with your character.” Then, we’ll tackle something I learned to love: revision! Meanwhile, if you have another MFA question, feel free to email me by October 15th at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mary Jane has been a member of SCBWI since 2014 and is currently writing a historical fiction mystery. She graduated from VCFA in January 2020. Visit her at www.maryjanenirdlinger.com and follow her on twitter: @MJNwrites