A Young Writer’s Guide to the MFA Program

As I near the finish line on my MFA, or Master’s of Fine Arts (in Creative Writing), I’m reminded of the application process and all the expectations I had after I graduated with my BA in Creative Writing just a few short years ago. I was wrought with excitement and emotion upon moving back home and starting the program, and that excitement and emotion hasn’t diminished at all as I complete my final few classes.

All this is to say that if you’re thinking about an MFA, I want to encourage you to go for it! Here are a few things I’ve learned since I applied for the MFA program, and I hope they help you!


Do Your Homework (Before You Even Apply)

Let’s get one thing straight before we dive in: the MFA program is no joke. It’s challenging, trying, taxing, and requires more of you that you even knew you had to begin with. So, you can’t just willy-nilly apply and hope for the best. Research some wonderful programs, read a lot, revise a lot, create some new work, and take your time. This isn’t a process you want to be short-sided on. I’m so grateful for my undergraduate professors who understood the process and encouraged and motivated me through it so I could navigate it with ease. However, you may not have an advisor you connect with, or you may not currently be in school to have access to an awesome resource and encourager like that. That’s just fine! Just make sure you’re researching the program, reading about the professors (and reading their works!), checking out the curriculum, looking into financial aid, etc. You want to be prepared so that when you do get into the program of your dreams, you’re ready to buckle up and focus on the most important part: your creative work!


Prepare Your Best Work

You may have connected with your nonfiction works, or feel that poetry is better than air, or that short story or novel writing is your heart’s desire. Whichever your genre of choice, prepare your very best to submit with your application. What’s awesome and terrifying about the MFA is that your transcript, recommendations, and other supplemental materials play a secondary role to the biggest and most important part of your application, which is your work. You need to take time to revise, edit, proofread (!!!), and make sure the work you’re submitting is your absolute best, because it’ll be speaking on your behalf until you are accepted into your program of choice.


Be Confident & Professional

You don’t have to know it all when you’re applying to the program, or else why apply? But you do need to be professional and confident in your work. This is indubitably the hardest piece of advice to follow, because as a budding writer, it’s your instinct to cower behind pieces that received undergraduate accolades and fall back on professors who inspire you. With the MFA program, you’re really on your own, and that’s a good thing, because it helps you learn to create, edit, revise, and submit your work independently. Create clean, proofread copies, and don’t be afraid to stand out (I always use pink staples – something small but attention-grabbing!).


Read, Read, Read

You’re in the MFA program because you love the feeling reading brings, the thrill of the words spilling over each page, the emotional connection and empathy you feel for the protagonist, the scorch of hatred you experience when a character you love meets her demise…You get the picture. If you thought your undergraduate reading assignments required a lot of you, perhaps the MFA is not the right path for you, because you’ll be asked to read a lot and then you’ll want to read for yourself on top of that. Reserve some time each day to tackle a new book, or subscribe to some literary magazines to enjoy a wide variety of work from emerging and established writers, but do yourself the favor of reading as much as you can no matter what.

Prepare Yourself for the Workshop Experience

Take into consideration the chops of your new professors, the publications of your classmates, their varying levels of experience that they bring to each workshop, and other crucial factors when you begin your work in the program. Always submit something that you’ve worked hard on and you’re proud of, and submit it in a professional, collegial way. By this I mean submitting clean, proofread copies that are neatly bound and on-time; doing so will motivate you to manage your time well and prepare you for professional deadlines, and it will also make it easier for your classmates to provide you with valuable feedback.

In terms of writing, remember Faulkner’s wise and challenging words:

In writing, you must kill all your darlings.

That means you. And that piece you love. Throw it to the workshop wolves. (You’ll survive, I promise!) What I can also promise is you’ll cry over the misunderstandings and misinterpretations of your work, you’ll meticulously pick out the things you’ve done wrong (which your workshop mates are usually kind enough to underline, circle, or highlight for you), and you’ll wonder why you decided to go through with submitting it in the first place. You’ll talk yourself out of your next semester of classes and remind yourself you can always quit. In my experience, these are common feelings, and they help you develop the thick skin you need to be a professional writer. And now for the most important piece of workshop advice you can receive: don’t expect positive feedback. This isn’t undergrad, and your classmates won’t write “Great job! I loved the story and identified with the protagonist. And I’ve underlined all the sentences I think are beautifully written” atop each of your submissions. Prepare yourself for feedback that is rough, for saccharine comments, for someone to tell you to your face that he or she hated your work (and then prepare for them to detail the things they hated). Prepare not to say anything back. If you can get yourself in mental and emotional shape in this way, you’ll have a much better workshop experience, because positive feedback will be unexpected and you’ll be able to accept constructive criticism graciously.


Give Yourself Time to Create

This is a very important difference from undergraduate creative writing classes to MFA-level coursework, and one you should pay attention to. You can’t write something you’re proud of five minutes before it’s due for class, and you shouldn’t, because your professor is trained to dismiss shoddy work (as he or she should!) and your classmates don’t deserve to have to workshop a piece you didn’t put the time and effort into. The Golden Rule definitely applies here, and you need to take the time to create something that can eventually be a part of your thesis instead of just something that will get you through class.


Develop Your Process

Everyone is different here; some folks write best through the night and come up with a draft before they can do anything else, while others schedule time after their morning jogs and double-shot of espresso to start working. My process is a mix of passion and list-making, and certainly caffeine. I always start a piece because I can’t get a line or phrase out of my head, and it continues like music until I listen to the song (or in this case, write it down somewhere). Then I have to make a list of what I want to accomplish that day with specific writing goals in mind. For instance, if I’m writing a piece, I set aside time and a space in my list to revise it so that I can eventually submit it to a Lit Mag, online journal, etc. And caffeine is necessary for me as it is with many writers, in the form of coffee and Diet Dr. Pepper. All this is to say that you should do what works for you, and do it every day. You owe it to yourself to set aside the time and grow as a writer each day.


Submit Your Work (You Might Just Get It!)

As a new writer, you have the blessing and curse of inexperience. It’s a blessing because you are naive about some of the writing world and still have your rose-colored glasses on for the most part, which is good and motivates you to hunt for the silver lining in each situation. But you’re also inexperienced, and that means you don’t have multiple collections of published pieces (yet!) or that you know the ins-and-outs of writing conferences, or even how your thesis defense will go. But regardless of your experience, if you have the heart and mind of a writer, you should be submitting your work, as scary as it is, and it can be downright terrifying. Take the time to read the publications from the places you’d like to submit your work to, read their specific submission requirements, and polish up your work – you might just have the blessing of submitting five new poems and receiving the email that reads “Thank you for your work. We’re looking forward to publishing all five of your poems in our upcoming issue of our magazine.” And then they throw you a cocktail party. (It happened to me, y’all. It can happen to you.)


Give It Everything You Have & Dream Big

Read, write, submit, revise, and prepare yourself for the best possible outcomes. Dream about your book signings, read your work to yourself in the mirror, type up a list of your aspirations. You’ve got to dream big and open a vein to your work in order to make it as a writer, and the adventure is truly incredible.


Learn more about MFA programs all over the world here!

If you have specific questions, I’d love to offer insight or resources to you – you can comment below, here, or here, or you can email me using the contact form here.


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