notes from a creative writing PhD candidate
It took a single haphazardly chosen elective to alter the course of my academic path. In the final semester of my senior year at James Madison University I enrolled in my first creative writing class, in nonfiction. The instructor, Erica Bleeg (now Cavanagh), was new to the department. As an undergrad I gravitated towards nonfiction works, or those that were nonfiction-esque yet labeled as literature (Kerouac’s novels, for example, which are clearly fictionalized but based on true events and real people). I devoured book after book, but theorizing and analyzing and developing erudite-sounding theses is a totally different animal. Being an “academic” felt like a role I was simply trying on, not a person I could actually be.
Before entering college I knew I wanted to run the whole academia marathon–bounding from undergrad to grad school and eventually becoming a professor with a PhD in English Literature, all before I was 30. That didn’t quite happen. While completing an honors thesis on–guess who!–Jack Kerouac, I was borderline obsessed with reading his works and biography. But when it came time to scaffold my awe of his prose with literary theory and scholarly journals and composing a hundred-page research paper, I wasn’t sure if “English” exactly was my passion. I was still willing to endure seven more years of research-heavy schooling to be able to teach Salinger and Sexton and Lahiri at the university level, though.
I didn’t know “CNF” existed; as my dad once said, “‘Creative nonfiction’ is just a way of saying you try to tell the truth, but if you can’t remember you can just make shit up. That’s why it’s ‘creative’.” Erica’s course made me think completely differently about writing, reading, and how literature and art should be taught. Essays poured out of me easily; it was like journaling, something I’d been doing for years. I loved the workshop environment. The class was more like a discussion rather than a lecture, and my writing and textual analysis flourished in this environment.
So, I threw out all my near-finished MA applications and focused on the MFA in nonfiction. I applied to only one program, at George Mason University, near my hometown, and was accepted.
I’ll write more about the specifics of my MFA (professors, courses, required reading) at Mason in a later post, but here I want to discuss why, for me, the MFA was a much better choice, both personally and professionally.
1. Workshops. Classes are small, between five and fifteen people, and each semester you have the opportunity to write and revise multiple pieces of work, graduating with a nicely polished portfolio. There’s a therapeutic element to the workshop–sharing, offering suggestions, complimenting what’s working and gently pushing writers to venture outside their comfort zones. Students tend to bond really quickly over discussing traumatic childhood events. In graduate literature courses there’s still a strong round table talking element, but you don’t get to read and compare your classmates’ work.
2. Professors. In MFA programs students are granted the opportunity to know professors on a more intimate level. In the nonfiction genre especially, you’re sharing personal tidbits of your life–often not the most flattering or happy moments. My thesis advisor, Kyoko Mori, is truly incredible as a reader of my work and as a writer (read her memoir Yarn: Remembering the Way Home as soon as you finish this post), and I’m still in touch with a handful of former mentors and instructors whom I feel comfortable approaching for critique or recommendations years after graduation. Many invited their students into their homes for dinners and parties, and I appreciated my professors’ eagerness to know their students on a deeper, friendlier level.
3. Terminal degree. The MFA is 48 credit hours–18 hours, or a full-time academic year, longer than an MA. It’s considered “terminal” because you can’t technically get a PhD in a fine art (although many English Lit PhD programs now are allowing a creative dissertation option). You’re qualified to teach college-level classes and apply for grants, while the MA often limits you to teaching at the community college level and many scholarships, like the Fulbright, require applicants to earn a terminal degree.
4. Write, revise, publish, repeat. Since you’re reworking old and new pieces each semester, eventually certain stories, poems or essays are ready to be sent out and (hopefully) published in literary magazines. While getting your education, you have the ability to secure a professional place in the literary world, if you put in the time and effort. The writing community, once you’re immersed, gives you a certain confidence and camaraderie (and a little competition). I loved that.
5. GRE & Thesis? Most MFA programs don’t require the GRE for admission! BUT: some MA programs don’t require theses. Each program is different.
1. Workshops, again. There’s that one person in workshop that’s just a total asshole. They disregard everyone’s work, roll their eyes, even bicker with the professor. They can turn the tone of a workshop from constructive to critical with a single derisive comment. When the group slips into this antagonistic vortex, it drags down the entire three-hour class. Many professors begin each workshop with only positive commentary (“What is working well?”) and move onto criticism (“What can be altered, what confused you?”). Other professors just let ‘er rip, and it can get pretty vicious.
2. I can’t get that monster out of my mind. I borrowed that line from Joan Didion, but it expresses how I feel from time to time when I sit down to write and all I can hear are the nagging voices of doubt and negativity. My monster can be many things–comments from peers, former professors’ “advice,” comparisons to other writers, notes scribbled on my essays’ margins after workshop, rejection letters. It’s easy to forget what’s working when it seems like most of your essay, according to your audience, isn’t. Post-MFA I’ve had to rely on not having a group of writers evaluate my work, but it’s also a relief–I no longer have to care what they think, or cater my writing towards what they expect or want.
Obviously, the MFA is craft, or studio, based while the MA is steeped in research, interpretation and theory. Both degrees require extensive reading lists. An MFA’s “thesis” is a body of creative work, while an MA thesis is focused on a chosen author, genre or canon. As an MFA student I wrote essays about my family, travels, and habits; in my two required MA literature classes I wrote papers about assigned texts and spent hours combing through the library’s databases for appropriate articles. It depends on your scholarly preferences, and what professional options you’re considering post-graduation.
MAs and MFAs can be ridiculously expensive; there’s no way I would’ve been able to attend graduate school without a teaching assistantship. Thankfully I was granted a stipend (~$10,000/year is typical), health insurance, and invaluable classroom experience. Although I taught and tutored on the side, I budgeted and graduated in 2013 debt-free, but without a job. (And that’s yet another post.)