Discover more from Lit Mag News
Leaving an MFA Program, Finding Inspiration
Poet reflects on the financial cost of MFA programs & finding inspiration beyond
Welcome to our weekly column offering perspectives on lit mag publishing, with contributions from readers, writers and editors around the world.
I read Walt Whitman’s iconic work Leaves of Grass just before I decided to withdraw from an MFA program in creative writing in the summer of 2022, after completing about one year. Whitman’s poetry confirmed my belief that reading and writing poetry has never really needed a formal education prerequisite. I became inspired by his argument for accessibility in poetry. He once wrote of his most famous work Leaves of Grass: “Most of the great poets are impersonal … In my poems, all revolves around, concentrates in, radiates from myself.”
Walt Whitman’s free verse poetry created a kind of new religion in poetry in the 19th Century, a religion that continues today. This could and should be a religion that anyone who reads and writes can join; in fact, there are many biblical allusions in Leaves of Grass, and the distinct cadence and parallelism used in Whitman’s most famous poem “Song of Myself” has often been compared to the syntax in the Old Testament.
At the time I enrolled as an MFA student I had been seriously writing poetry on my own for just over two years. I was looking for an efficient way to improve my writing. Earning an MFA seemed to me a good way to achieve this goal. I now wish I had done more research into how much earning this degree could help me, a middle-aged physician and mother of young children who is already carrying a lot of student debt.
The Iowa Writing Workshop started the first creative writing MFA in 1936. By 1994 there were 64 similar programs. In 2014 that number had increased to 224. In 2022, the Poets & Writers database listed 261 MFA programs. These programs do not offer a credential and there are no established standards of teaching at many programs, but they do offer time to write and guidance from published mentors. Although some programs provide funded time to write, most do not, and the degree often comes at a high price.
MFA programs have become so popular in part, according to the Pulitzer-Prize winning author Junot Díaz because of fantasy: “It’s no surprise that the promise of the M.F.A. — to make you, if you’re lucky, a famous, well-paid author — strikes so many people with even the smallest literary dream as utterly irresistible.”
More writers from diverse backgrounds are being published now than ever before
. However, the vast majority of writers who become famous or well-paid are still from wealthy backgrounds.
What about those of us who are not as lucky; does this promise of the MFA apply? In her 2017 LitHub article “MFA by the Numbers, on the Eve of AWP,” author Amy Brady asserts the financial costs are not insignificant. For example, in 2016, the average cost of a low-residency MFA (a program designed to offer more flexibility than a traditional MFA, and an option many working adults pursue) was $31,184. There were 3,000 MFA graduates in 2016, but only 119 open tenure-track creative writing faculty positions, and the average annual salary for an Assistant Professor of English at a four-year university in 2016 was $58,242.
I do not believe that creative writing MFA programs are without value, and I haven’t ruled out completing one myself one day. I felt fortunate to have been paired with an excellent mentor. In the year I attended the program, I read many excellent poetry collections, and by working with my mentor on my own poetry, my writing did improve significantly. I have also been able to publish my work in several well-known journals.
That being said, as a middle-aged mother of two young daughters who is also a practicing Family Medicine physician with over $100,000 in student debt, I concluded that I could not afford to continue even a low-residency MFA at this time because of the significant financial and time costs. I understand that not earning an MFA may work as a difficult-to-overcome barrier to entry to a viable career in poetry, but I also understand that there are many excellent writers who do not fit into the college-MFA-professorship paradigm, that most of the world may never get to read their writing, and that this should not be the case. I knew I wanted to continue writing and improving my craft because I love doing it.
So what can a person in my position do to improve their craft? For the last several months I have been reading. A lot. I have read both the classics and poets being published today. I have read craft books. I have developed a weekly writing practice during which I write 1-2 poems per week. I have attended workshops featuring writers I admire.
Walt Whitman said of education: “Re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem.”
What I have found most helpful recently in my growth as a poet is becoming involved in my local and global poetry communities. I live close to Los Angeles, a city that has a vibrant writing community. I started attending on-line and in-person events. I started reviewing recently published poetry books by authors I admire. I also started to use my social media more strategically; for example, I contacted a couple writers I met through social media who I admire and developed critique-partner relationships with them.
Becoming involved and supporting other writers in poetry communities is how I know I can continue to grow as a writer.