To MFA or not to MFA. That is the question. Plenty of people have answered it, some with vitriol usually reserved for the mommy wars or politics. It’s a question that has a different answer for every writer. We all find our own path.
My path to an MFA wasn’t typical. I’m in my fifties, for one thing. But a few years ago I learned I was leaving my exceptionally talented and supportive writing community in Calgary, Alberta to live in Boston for two years. (The move was about my husband’s work, and an adventure I was quite willing to take with him.) But I needed to do something to keep my writerly momentum going, and immersing myself in a writing community was the right thing to do. Had I not moved, I never would have considered an MFA. And I would have missed out on a really difficult and wonderful experience.
You absolutely can learn what is available in an MFA outside of a program. Read craft books, lots of them, and apply the ideas in your own writing. Audit courses. Go to every writing event you can find. Watch craft lectures online. Study good writing. Really study it. Write down how it works, what the writer is doing, the techniques they are using, and again, apply it to your own work.
If you choose to go the MFA path, it’s not easy to find the right program. I stumbled upon Solstice at Pine Manor College. It’s small, supportive and low-residency. Low-residency was important to me because I knew another move loomed in our future and it was the only way I would be able to finish. Further, low-residency means students come from everywhere and bring with them lots of different ideas about writing and life that make conversations rich and deep. But no matter what program you take, or how you decide to become a better writer, the onus is always on you to put the work in, to study, to reach for something more.
Truth be told, before I moved, I was having trouble finishing my novel. I was writing myself in circles. I would abandon it for months at a time in favour of smaller, easier projects. At Solstice, the novel was just as difficult, but when the going got tough, I’d have a little talk with myself. I’d say, “You don’t know how to do this. They have a plan. You have no plan. Why don’t you follow their plan and see what happens?” So I did. Trust. It’s all about trust. I trusted them and now I have pages, really solid pages, of a novel that I will be proud of, no matter what happens to it after I’m done. And I know how to finish, something I didn’t know before.
But here’s what really sold me: Meg Kearney, the Director. Writing about the nature of the program, she says, “In an environment of creativity and imagination, the number-one poison is envy; it is by nurturing the work of others that our own work begins, through some mysterious process, to grow and flourish.” I thought if the folks at Solstice can accomplish that, I’d like a piece of it. And I have it now. This has been the greatest gift of this program. And so I embark on my new series of blog posts to keep this gift alive – a celebration of books and stories I like and admire. I offer no other reason for highlighting a book except it moves me in some way. I hope these posts inspire you pick up the work or try something brave in your own writing.
And keep writing. Keep striving to be better. It’s worth the struggle.