Image: “Labyrinth of Light” by ItzaFineDay
As October comes to a wet and chilly end here in Missouri, I realize that for some, November means tweaking and refining those graduate school applications. When I was trudging through this process, I really wished there had been a pros vs. cons for MA vs. MFA in creative non-fiction and it was one of my biggest gray areas. I applied to both and when my acceptances were split down the middle, I was again lost. I guess somehow I thought that acceptances would make this decision for me, but they didn’t. I had to think hard for months. In the end, I decided to go MA. Hear me out.
My story is as unique as the next lady’s and because of that, probably not so unique after all. I entered into my undergrad as a studio arts major and it took me a while to fully transition to my home in the English Department. I settled in nicely there, but I frolicked between classes, as undergrads are encouraged to do, studying a bit of postcolonial theory, some modernism, some Derrida. When I graduated, I was offered a job in a law office and there I stayed until I moved to the Midwest just a few months ago. Over these years, I applied for teaching jobs in high schools without getting even an interview and I couldn’t afford to travel for work to a big city for an entry level job in publishing or editing, which would require years of grunt work. I decided that going back to school would give me some footing in the industry and would help to prepare me for whatever came next.
When I thought of MFAs, I reveled in the idea of spending two years committed solely to my craft, my genre and my words. Part of me still fantasizes about this. But when I thought of MAs, I thought of filling in the holes that I created for myself in undergrad: do I really love American lit? Have I given 19th Century British Lit a chance? Why haven’t I studied Renaissance lit, since Montaigne is the father of the genre that I love so much? But also, I thought I would benefit from having a more solid foundation in the world of English literature. I figured I could learn from Dickinson’s rhythms and I might be able to glean some creative thought from more intense study in theory. I also thought that having this better understanding might make me more competitive for a job once I graduated, that I may be finally able to get an interview for those teaching jobs somewhere if I didn’t decide to go on to pursue an MFA. Because while school (and writing) was always on my mind, I’m not sure if I would be here yet had I gotten any one of those literature-related jobs that I wanted so badly. But I didn’t, so I’m back at school sooner than I might have been otherwise and I love every minute of it.
For those of you wondering about the differences, I can’t speak from a perspective of an MFA candidate. But my MA program with an emphasis in creative non-fiction has me enrolled in two seminar classes and one workshop class. This can change slightly from semester to semester, depending on class offerings and my course requirements, but this seems to be the pattern that I will follow for the next year and a half. So you’ll notice that my creative writing is 1/3 of my semester workload. My other seminars this semester are in Folklore studies and in Renaissance literature. Each requires an in-class presentation that will guide the rest of the class discussion, another presentation regarding the topic of our seminar papers and finally, a seminar paper that discuss and researches an argument related to the class. The workload consists of a book or two per week and some additional articles (per class). The classes are small and discussion based; they have little to do with creative writing.
A particularly interesting aspect about my program is that first year MA students are writing tutors for the first year, putting in hours at our writing center, and we will teach the second year. My hours tutoring have reaffirmed that teaching is what I want to do in some capacity; we get to understand how other students think and organize their essays, what their insecurities are, why they do not understand the passive voice and how to explain what it is. Mainly, I enjoy discussing essays with someone who has great ideas but doesn’t know it; I like seeing them leave our space thinking that the task is a little more manageable and that their thoughts are great—that rules in essays only exist to express those ideas with strength.
I decided to also get another job on campus as a staff writer for one of our center’s websites, so I end up writing quite a bit. I’ve learned about journalism and feature writing— and this will help even more if I decide to pursue the writing route for a job, because at times, journalism and creative non-fiction walk hand in hand.
I love this. I get everything I wanted in one place here. I get to tutor, I get to explore the before unbeknownst corners of English lit, and I also get to work on my writing. We, too, have craft talks and readings by some great authors. I get little goosebumps each time I hear a story in the voice that created it. I still love fiction, essays, books. I still want to write. I just do it more broadly right now. In years to come that may, and will probably, change.
But still, the MA is hard and it’s demanding and October has been my toughest yet. I spent one night standing outside the library tearing up to my father because I was overwhelmed; I’ve also said “screw it” and fallen asleep to The Wedding Singer on my couch even though I had reading and writing to do. But I think you’ll have those moments anywhere. I think that’s one thing you can count on at any program: the slightly pukey feeling of being scared shitless followed by the inevitable reaction of “just getting through today.” But, from what I’ve heard and what I’ve read, this happens to every person in every program at some point. That is an inevitability that should not be counted in your decision. The other things should be your guiding lights: what do you love (its okay to have a really long, seemingly contradictory list), where do you want to be, what do you want to prepare yourself for and where will you be challenged so much that, against your pride, you find yourself fighting back tears with parents/friends/significant others, knowing that these are the moments in which you are defined? Start there.
For me, the MA was the place that could give me what I wanted and could provide a nice foundation for when I figured out which route I would take next. Since I’ve been here, I’ve started to consider pursuing a PhD; it even seems possible in a way that it didn’t six months ago. I’m hoping to present a paper at a conference before I leave. But, I’m also still very interested in pursuing an MFA after I graduate, to devote more than 1/3 of my learning time to my words and my craft. I think it’s okay to want both and I do. That’s why I’m here.
I’m collecting bits of everything that I love here and each day I’m learning what I want to do and how I want to work. I’m focused on my writing here, but I could be writing more. I can always be writing more. So maybe, as you read this, you think, “no way, that’s not what I want,” and narrowing that down is great. But for others, you might read this and think this sounds just like you. Know that there are options and that writers are writers in different ways, on different paths, in different stages. It’s just important that we write and challenge ourselves to be better. Sometimes that means MFA, sometimes that means MA, sometimes that means writing at night after work and staying just where you are. Just do you. But keep writing.