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Should I Attend a Low-Residency MFA Program or a Traditional Program in Creative Writing to join famous prose writers?
Planning Your Degree in Creative Writing?
Aspiring writers and even seasoned pros often look for opportunities to improve their craft through graduate work. Ever since the University of Iowa pioneered Creative Writing as a degree in the middle of the last century, Universities have embraced a degree program that's, honestly, something of a cash cow for them. The university gets to hype the famous writers that teach at their program, and the students flock to pay up to six figures in tuition for the privilege of being told how much they suck by these famous, and sometimes not-so-famous, writers. Most folks, me included, will tell you it's something of a scam operation, where a high cost is paid for a piece of paper that means nothing to the places that publish writers. A writer's education can be gotten at writing conferences and writing groups.
But, I also went and got one of these silly pieces of paper, myself. I did it because the benefits of having a Master's Degree in the world of business outweighed the silliness of getting one, for writing. These are actually legitimate degrees from major universities that only require you to do the thing you're going to be doing, anyway: Writing your bloody knuckles to the bone! Once one acquires one of these degrees, one could go on to teach at Universities, magazines, advertising firms, computer software companies, and anywhere that people go to find intelligent, literate people with lots of ideas and the training in practical implementation.
As a writer, I think Ph. D. Writing Programs and MFA programs are unnecessary. As a working professional, I'd much rather get my Master's Degree in something I care about, and I've already reaped the rewards of my decision with professional positions that valued my advanced degree.
There are basically three kinds of programs.
- Full-on, full-time graduate work on site at a University, like the Iowa Writer's Workshop or Columbia.
- Low-Residency Graduate Programs that offer academic framework around a close approximation of a writer's actual life.
- Terrible Programs that should be avoided at all costs, that offer nothing to the student but expense without learning.
What Makes a Program Terrible?
Naming names is not important, because the things that make a program terrible are true no matter what University is under consideration.
For-profit colleges have picked up the mantle of Creative Writing Programs, often coupling them with fancy programs that claim to integrate writing with multi-disciplinary media work. Let me translate that into English for you: They've tacked a few writing workshops onto their game design or media production program, that's already producing a hefty profit for investors, so they can bilk a few more poor, impressionable people out of a few thousand dollars.
When you take a degree from a for-profit college, you are taking your degree from the bottom of the totem pole of writing programs. In fact, the program is lower than the bottom. Even the worst, smallest, most-regional writing program is a good fit for someone. For-profit colleges have some programs that are excellent, and worthwhile. (The University of Phoenix has produced some excellent business leaders, and Art Institutes tend to make good starting places for camera men.) However, for writers, these programs are universally dreck.
Maybe in a few years there will come along some program that isn't just an excuse to throw a low-overhead writing workshop or two on top of an already-extant program. I've yet to see it.
Advantages of a Traditional Program
Everyone interested in a writing degree should apply to the University of Iowa, regardless of genre or professional goals. I've published multiple novels from major publishers you've heard of, and I've worked as a writer and game designer for nearly ten years, now. I didn't get in to the University of Iowa.
Still, it's the most-respected program in America, and it will open the most doors for you professionally. The real advantage to a degree from the best programs in the country are all intangible. The professors are probably very good, and do a good job teaching, but there are good professors everywhere. The name recognition will help you when you're talking to magazine editors and advertising firms and game design studios and film production companies. A degree from this program is worth it just to say you got your degree from that program on the job market.
I know it's a bit cynical to put it that way, but it's a truth people don't like to admit. The program has produced more than few great writers, but most of them would have been great anyway. What it produced, of real value to all attendees, was relationships with the other graduates of the most-selective writing program in the world, who are mostly going to be doing great things once they finish the program!
Outside of Iowa, the professional reasons to pursue this degree is for the administrative and teaching experience. If you think a future working in a University is for you, this is your degree. The job is difficult to get, though, and most graduates turn to other things to make a living. Another solid career path I've seen with this degree path is to move into non-profits that work with communities and schools that need quality teachers to improve literacy rates. If the idea of stepping into a community center to teach Adult Education courses in conversational English for non-native speakers, it's a low-paying gig but a very rewarding one.
Also of note, administrative professionals are probably better off pursuing the on-site program. Dealing with University Bureaucracy on a day-to-day basis is a great start for the career of an academic advisor, or government employee.
If you do choose this route, do everything you can to work on the student literary magazine on campus, and if your program does not have a literary magazine, start one. Editorial experience is one of the most valuable things a writing program has to offer. Time spent producing a magazine is time spent boosting your professional experience and career opportunities after graduation.
Why Low-Residency Programs Are Both Wonderful and Lacking
When I pursued my degree, I went with a low-residency program. At the time, I had high-paying work at a media production studio, and it was not a good time for me to go hide in the ivory tower when I had the opportunity to work with some very talented chaps on some interesting creative projects. But, the real reason I did it right then, instead of waiting for my time in the studio to wind down, was because I was interested in being a working writer.
The real reason for you to consider the low-residency degree is that it is a close approximation of a writer's actual life. You will not get to hide in an ivory tower and write your masterpiece. You will be writing your masterpiece at 4:30 in the morning before your eldest child comes stumbling into your office demanding food, clothing, and shelter. You won't even get to think about writing again for the rest of your day with the whiny little timesinks you fathered or mothered demanding cooked food, and clean clothes, and a ride to school... I love my children. Sorry, it's just that they can be a blight on my wordcount!
Low-residency MFA programs offer students the support structure, and excuse, to block out portions of their life for just writing. Telling your spouse that you have to work on your (eternally unpublished) novel is not the same as telling your spouse that you have to work on your Master's Degree that we've been paying thousands of dollars in tuition for, and might lead to better professional opportunities in the future. For two or three years, you can tell people who try to take away your writing time, "Sorry, I have to do homework!" Everyone understands homework. Nobody understands the Great American Novel.
This has turned into a training tool, as well. After two years, my kids know that when I'm in my office and they can hear the keyboard clacking away, they're not supposed to bother me. If they don't hear the keyboard clacking, they come in and bother me.
On top of that, I've noticed low-residency MFA programs attract as professors people who are more widely published and respected than your average full-residency program. For instance, at Antioch's low-residency program, Tananarive Due, Terry Wolverton, and Brad Kessler, all notable names with extraordinary talent and major publications. Other programs tend not to attract that caliber of talent, because a weekly class schedule full of Freshman Composition is difficult for someone who has to deliver another manuscript next week, and another the week after that.
My own alma mater attracted a comparable level of talent, in the regular fiction field, and is ranked in the top ten of low-residency writing programs in America. If you're interest is being a working writer, balancing deadlines with a career and a family, the low-residency model is the best one for you. It still comes with the networking advantages and the professional opportunities of a graduate of an MFA program, but it comes with one glaring disadvantage.
The thing about low-residency programs is that it will make it even harder for you to find work teaching writing. Most administrators of English Departments think that their teachers must come from a traditional program, and that the low-residency model is a sad off-shoot of the full-residency program. I happen to know this is not true. The mentoring model means students get the best time and energy of some of the most-talented writers and teachers in the world, with a much higher volume of scholarly and creative writing. But, I am not hiring any creative writing professors, and English department heads want what they want. If you are interested in teaching writing at any point in your future, the low-residency model is not for you. Sorry, chaps. You can't have it all!