What’s the Real Value of an MFA Program?

What’s your first memory of writing? I don’t mean learning to write words and shape letters on a lined page. Rather, when’s the first time you put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and created your first story?

For me, I was eight, and I received a typewriter for Christmas. A Brother electronic typewriter, to be exact. On the left-hand side, a slot accepted floppy disks on which to save my precious work. I would bang away at the keys for hours, imagining myself both as a journalist and a thriller author. A P.I. with a mission and a damsel tired of waiting for her hero. I’m pretty sure a fairy or two worked their way into my stories as well.

Sadly, at the tender age of fifteen, an English teacher told me to hang up my writing talents—I wasn’t very good. And I believed her. I sold that typewriter at the next yard sale, and had it not been for an influential professor in my freshman year of college, I might never have crafted stories again.

But I remained convinced that my calling in life was something “besides writing.” I daresay many of us have that mindset. “Besides writing” becomes our chief goal in our career search, and we spend years avoiding the truth of our natures, investing in college educations that don’t speak to our passions, and toiling away at jobs that suck the life out of our souls.

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Still, we know: there’s no money in writing. Our “besides writing” determination steals our truth, we’re left bereft years later, with little to show for our hard work beyond too many unhappy hours doing what we must to pay the bills and support our families. Then we sneak a few hours here and there to embrace our verbose passion in the dark corners of house cubbies or the shadowed two-tops in coffee shops that serve tar-like fuel for our addled, exhausted minds.

You can imagine with so much of my life squandered on discovering what I was good at “besides writing,” that when I walked into the cafeteria at Wilkes University on the first day of classes, I breathed the air like I was coming home.

I wish I could say that was the case. Unfortunately, when you’re a bit too introverted to talk to others you don’t know, standing on the precipice of the salad bar filled me with anxiety. (I also had a roommate bent on subterfuge that first semester, who never returned after the first residency—but that’s a whole other story…)

However, after the first term had passed, the foundational courses inspired me to open up, take a chance. And this time, as I slid over the lunch-line threshold, I discovered a new world.

BEHOLD: MY PEOPLE.

Seriously, it was that dramatic. I clutched the hard edges of the fiberglass tray, surveyed the raucous crowd, and lo and bewitched, there they were: my cohort of likeminded folks, and they welcomed me with tired smiles and worried eyes, ready to soothe my fears over my latest writing attempt and encourage my ideas to shine brighter.

If this sounds all a bit too good to believe, I promise: try it. You see, for all my years writing, for the well-over-a-million words I’ve penned, I was afraid to embrace who I was, for a few reasons.

  1. I didn’t know if I was all that good. Sure, I’d had my work critiqued. Friends and mentors had told me I had something. But I never believed them. The only way to understand how good we are is to labor at our craft until it’s an extension of our soul. Anything less, and we’ll never quite buy-in that we’ve got something unique.
  2. I didn’t understand that others thought the way I did. Surely I was the only sick human who wondered how to dismember a body and bury the pieces without leaving behind a trace, yet hadn’t the psychopathic hutzpah to be a serial killer? No one else spent her wait in line at the bank coming up with new ways to create vampires and destroy happiness for the sake of a better plot twist? And I had to be the only freak who would rather spend her days in front of her laptop, instead of going to a party or vacationing at the shore, right?
  3. I didn’t know that my “shortcomings” aren’t all that unusual. Until we spend time with a bunch of creative folks at length—particularly those who hone the same craft—we can’t know that they too have had more jobs than they can count on fingers and toes and can’t sink their teeth into the 9-to-5. We won’t have conversations wherein wildly talented people will cry into their gin-and-tonics over their unhappiness because their spouse/family member/friend doesn’t get their need to have so much solitude. And there’s no way for us to understand that while this is a tough career and few succeed (according to our society’s definition of success), there are ways for us to embrace who we are, do what we love, and make a living.

So you see, my writing friend, as I stood there—the hard tray biting into my palm, my long-past-their-due-date sneakers squeaking against the gray tile, my writer’s pallor evident despite it being July—I didn’t yet know that acceptance, understanding, and friendship lay off to my right, amidst a gaggle of fellow wordsmiths. I couldn’t fathom the memories we had yet to make, the joys and sorrows we would share in the years to come, and the friendships we would forge regardless of our differences.

I also didn’t know that my future husband sat at that table either…but that’s really a story for another post. 😉

How did getting an MFA and attending Wilkes University change my life? I embraced my purpose. I found my talent lies not just in improving my skills, but also in editing and encouraging others. I’m a teacher at my deepest core, and when paired with my understanding of story and character development, I can help other authors rise to the next level of their talents and ideas.

Was my time well invested? Were the sweat, anxiety, and sleepless nights worth the outcome as I look back? Did attending graduate school—while barely making ends meet and crawling out of bed at 4:30 a.m. in the morning to write my assigned story/manuscript/capstone project—pay off?

Scroll to the top of the page, my friend—note the bright colors and cool services I offer. I didn’t get here on my own. Every faculty member who took the time to help me dig deeper into my craft, every cohort (now dear friends) who shared their frustrations and jubilations, every assignment that forced me to arise anew to the challenge: they all laid a foundational brick for whom I would become. I might have mixed the cement and struggled through masonry-for-dummies, but without their help and influence, I likely would have kept looking for meaning via solid benefit packages and 401k-match plans.

And my soul would have slowly withered and died.

Instead, I do what I love. Each day offers a smile because I am deliriously happy with my profession as an editor and author. And every time I interact with a client or hear praise (or criticism) from a reader, I am reminded once again why doing what we love, “besides writing,” is worth every single fight to get there.

Need I say more?