Archive for category: MFA programs

Someone reached out to me a couple of months ago after she read my post on MFA programs – pros and cons. She had been accepted to a couple of low-residency programs, including Lesley University (where I earned my MFA in Creative Writing), and she had a bunch of questions about my experience, including this one: How supportive is Lesley in helping its students get published? Are there networking opportunities available to meet agents/publishers?

For better or worse, here was my response:

Here’s my theory based on nothing but my observation and reading on the industry for nearly twenty years. MFA programs are designed to produce stronger writers. In other words, writers who have a better understanding of craft (e.g. creating scenes, writing dialogue, developing characters). The publishing conversation is like the big white elephant in the middle of the room. Many students want to talk about it, but are afraid to ask. The literary types—and you’ll run into them regardless of where you go—will want you to focus on your art first and foremost, and not worry about the publishing piece (and, to a certain extent, this is good advice, especially when you first start). Everyone else won’t necessarily have the best or any advice. MFA programs everywhere are filled with artists and artistes who want to discuss story and craft and metaphor and not the stinky, messy, commercial world of publishing that sullies the work and sometimes forces writers to “sell out” and enter the dark side, otherwise known as “business” and “marketers of books.”

Again, this is just my impression, and I don’t have statistics or even strong “evidence” to back up these impressions.

The good news? (And yes, there’s good news – I wouldn’t leave you with such a sad outlook.) It’s all OK. The goal of a writing program is to write. A lot. Write more deeply, take risks, revise, stretch yourself in directions you never thought you’d go. When you have a short story or novel (or both) that you feel in your gut is ready to send out into the world, there are plenty—and I mean plenty—of online resources to guide you through the journey to publication. MFA programs just aren’t built that way. YET. I say “yet,” because the publishing landscape has changed dramatically since I started at Lesley in 2006 (Kindle hadn’t been released, nor had iPads; no one with any pride would consider self-publishing…I famously swore up and down that I never, ever would. Never say never, right?). So I do think that programs will need to re-think how they guide students when it comes to publishing…right down to defining “what is publishing?” and what does it mean “to be published.” And you might actually witness this transformation.

So take everything I’ve just said with a grain of salt.

In terms of my own experience, Lesley offered some sort of publishing panel/seminar during each residency. Typically, it’s made up of agents, editors, some folks from lit journals, people like that. It’s usually causal, Q&A type stuff. I attended at least two, and they were good, but I didn’t learn anything new (only because, as I said, I’ve been a publishing junkie for two decades. I swear I devoted the bulk of my 20s to reading about the damn industry and “how to get published” rather than focusing on having something TO publish. That became the focus in my 30s :)).

I will say that everyone at Lesley—staff and faculty advisors—WILL be cheering for you. They want to see you succeed and to grow as a writer and to get published. They can and will definitely help you with the “grow as a writer” part. As for the publishing part? That will be up to you (although that could change, as I said). And you never know whom (who?) you might meet during your journey.

Do my no-holds-barred answers help? 🙂

Readers with MFAs in Creative Writing…what was your experience in your program? How would you have answered this question?

A friend of mine recently told me about an interesting thing she did for her book club. I’d recommended that she read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. She brought this recommendation to book club and added an interesting element: read A Moveable Feast AND The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, which is written in the voice of Hadley, Hemingway’s first wife. A Moveable Feast recounts Papa’s time in Paris with Hadley, and McLain herself was inspired to write her book while she was reading A Moveable Feast.

I thought the idea was brilliant.

My friend said the book club discussion went well, even though not everyone could get through Hemingway’s memoir (a book I love, by the way).

This got me thinking about other “book duos” that can lead to enriching discussions. During my MFA program, we read Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty about her friendship with the late author Lucy Grealy, and we read Grealy’s magnificent Autobiography of a Face. Our instructor didn’t dictate what order we read the books in…I read Patchett’s first, and I’m sure that tainted my reading of Grealy’s work, which had been published years earlier. Still, it led to a fascinating discussion.

What other book duos can you think of? I want to start a running list. Leave your ideas in the comments.

PS — that’s Ernest Hemingway’s passport photo circa 1923 on the right — I love old pics.

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In Wednesday’s post about my MFA reading list, I mentioned that I was on the nonfiction track when I entered Lesley University’s creative writing program in 2006. I graduated with a multi-genre thesis (nonfiction and fiction) because I ended up being able to work on my fiction as well (during semesters two, three, and four).

Fiction is my first love. It’s pretty much all I write these days (although one of the titles I’m releasing next year will be nonfiction). So why didn’t I declare fiction as my focus when I entered Lesley? Simple. I was afraid. Fear, of course, is seldom logical. Here’s my mostly illogical reasoning for choosing nonfiction (in no particular order):

What I thought going in: Nonfiction felt safer, which might sound crazy since nonfiction is supposed to be about real life, real people, real names. But nonfiction felt safer for me in that the “story” was already set. I wasn’t making up a story for people to judge. I was simply talking about a story that had happened or was happening.

What I learned: stories of “truth” come with their own restrictions and can still be judged. There’s nothing safe about it, if you’re going to do it right.

What I thought going in: The nonfiction program was smaller in terms of the number of students.  I can be a shy person and easily spooked when I’m in situations where I don’t feel confident. I thought it would be easier to get naked (which is what essentially happens when you share your writing in a workshop) with a smaller group of people.

What I learned: smaller groups meant there was more time for everyone to focus on a particular work, including mine. Think nakedness under microscopes.

What I thought going in: I didn’t feel as well read as I should have been in literary fiction. I thought this would affect my ability to workshop pieces and take part in class discussions.

What I learned: One of the most important things I learned in school is to stop making excuses or feeling bad about what you don’t know and, instead, go learn it or go read it. Most of us have gaps in our educations somewhere. It’s okay. You can remedy the situation.

What I thought going in: At the time, I did not have enough confidence in my fiction. At least, not the type of fiction I thought creative writing programs wanted. In my mind, creative writing programs wanted literary writing. Mine was way more commercial, and I was okay with that. (I still am.) I think I feared that my commercial writing would be mocked and that I’d be encouraged to write in a more literary fashion. I guess you could call me stubborn in this case — I didn’t want to become a literary writer just because that’s what was expected in grad school. (Note: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with literary writing; it’s just not my style.)

What I learned: during our one-week residencies, we often attended classes that were led by people outside of our chosen genre. So I got familiar with the fiction faculty, and I think that the majority would have been okay with my more commercial voice. During my second semester, I worked on my novel with someone outside of Lesley whom I had chosen. During my third and fourth semesters, my nonfiction mentor also worked with me in fiction because she wrote in both genres. This worked out great for me because I felt more in control, and, thus, more confident about my work and the process.

It’s because of this last reason that I wouldn’t do anything differently if I had to do it all over again. I really lucked out and got the best of both worlds with almost equal time in both fiction and nonfiction.

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In Monday’s post, I talked about the pros and cons of an MFA in Creative Writing, from my point of view. As I mentioned, I received my MFA from Lesley University in 2008, and one of the best things I got out of the program was the reading lists my faculty mentors and I generated for three semesters (we didn’t have a reading list during our final semester, which was our thesis semester).

Writers are always told to read, read, read — and read widely, at that. This is great, smart advice, but there are a lot of books out there from which to choose. So I found it really helpful to have reading lists that my teachers and I developed together based on what I wanted to write.

I need to back up for second: I was accepted into the fiction and nonfiction tracks at Lesley, but I had to choose one or the other when I started the program. I chose nonfiction, for a variety of reasons that I’ll address in Friday’s post. But I ended up graduating with a multi-genre thesis (fiction and nonfiction) since I also worked on fiction in semesters two, three, and four. That’s the reason why the books on my reading lists are primarily nonfiction. In some cases, and for various reasons, my mentors and I made changes mid semester, so I didn’t read every single book on our lists (writing this post reminded me of this fact, which is great –more stuff to add to my Nook library).

My favorite list is from my first semester, where I worked under the very talented Elaine Mar. It’s below.
1. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (pictured to the left). Every writer should read this book, regardless of what you think of Hemingway’s fiction (I feel the same way about King’s On Writing).

2. A Cab by the Door by V. S. Pritchett. Good nonfiction. I picked up some of Pritchett’s short stories, which I REALLY liked.

3. Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion. Didion is one of those names all “serious” writers of nonfiction are supposed to read, and for good reason. The woman is great (interestingly, I haven’t read her fiction, which is supposed to be equally as good).

4. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Loved the book, which won the National Book Award in nonfiction. Also loved the one-woman play based on the book, which I saw at The Lyric Stage in Boston.

5. Alice, Let’s Eat by Calvin Trillin – I can’t remember why, but mid-way through the semester, we decided to put the Trillin titles on hold. I need to get back to these.

6. Travels with Alice by Calvin Trillin. Ditto.

7. The Gay Talese Reader: Portraits and Encounters – Talese is a master. I didn’t read all the portraits, however.

8. A Writer’s Life by Gay Talese. We axed this one; still on my to-read list.

9. The Bullfighter Checks her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People by Susan Orlean. She’s one of my favorite writers.

10. Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell. She’s one of those writers more people should know about (she is well known, especially to the NPR and Jon Stewart crowd, but I think she deserves to be a household name).

11. Barrel Fever by David Sedaris. A combination of fiction and nonfiction, when, apparently, Sedaris was trying to figure out what he wanted to write. Insanely great book.

12. Naked by David Sedaris. Ditto. LOVE him (both reading and seeing him live, which I was able to do this past April at Symphony Hall in Boston).

13. Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard. Her essay, “The Fourth State of Matter,” which I had read a couple of years before, was THE reason I wanted to write nonfiction. The book includes that piece as well as many other brilliant essays, but you can read “The Fourth State of Matter” in the link above for free.

14. Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. Lived up to the hype, at least for me.

15. This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. Classic grad school fare – you can’t call yourself a “serious” nonfiction writer (or so they say) unless you read his classic along with his brother’s book below. I actually agree that nonfiction writers should check ’em out, not only because they’re interesting reads, but also because it goes to show how one’s perception of events shapes reality.

16. Duke of Deception by Gregory Wolff. See my comment above.

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I read an interesting article the other day in Slate Magazine called “MFA vs. NYC: America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?” It’s one of those subjects that’s been around since the dawn of MFA programs, although it’s evolved with time.

I received my MFA in Creative Writing in 2008 from Lesley University’s low-residency MFA program in Cambridge, Mass. I debated with myself a long time before I made the decision to apply to a program (and I have a very distinct memory of printing applications to other full-time MFA programs, like Brown’s and BU’s, on September 10, 2001. We all know what happened the next day. To say I lost focus after that is an understatement).

I’m a commercial writer, not a literary one (or, at least, not what I consider to be a literary writer). As you can tell from this here blog and website and Facebook page, I have no problem promoting myself (I’m a marketing copywriter by day), which is something that many literary types loathe. The bottom line for me is I want to be the best writer I can possibly be and write stuff that matters to a passionate tribe of fans. Not everyone will like what I write, and that’s okay.

So why did I finally decide to go for my MFA? A few reasons. At the time, I thought I might want to teach full time (I’d been an adjunct professor at Mass School of Law), and the MFA is considered the terminal degree in the writing field. I thought being involved in a program would help take my writing to the next proverbial level. And I thought the degree would provide validation: to family, friends, and myself.

I don’t regret my decision at all. But I’m not pursuing a teaching gig (and I don’t see that in my future, but never say never). I had an epiphany over the summer (with the help of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird) that validation needs to start with me. All that said, my writing did reach the next proverbial level, I think. Would that have happened anyway over the course of two years? I’d like to think yes, but who knows? I do think it happened faster because I was in a program.

Like anything else, there are definite pros and cons to an MFA program. Here’s my list, as I see it.


  • Justified time (one to two years) devoted to your writing (I say justified because for those people in your world who don’t understand that writers need to write, it’s much easier to say, “I have something due for school” and have the person understand and accept it)
  • Someone else – faculty members – devoted to your writing
  • Meeting other writers
  • Expansion of thoughts and worldview: new books, new ideas, new ways to think and do things
  • Terminal degree, which is needed if you want to teach writing at the college level
  • *Might help your queries or submissions get noticed (I am a true believer that in the end it’s about the writing…but if someone is willing to read a couple of extra pages – be it a fiction reader or editor – because of the MFA, well okeedokee)


  • Writing programs are filled with published writers who teach. A published writer does not a good teacher make. I actually have a theory that editors would make better writing instructors because a good editor will see what’s working with your piece, your voice, your vision and will help you shape it and take it to the next level. Too often writers who teach don’t know how to teach beyond the way they write. This isn’t criticism. It’s merely an observation.
  • Some writing programs are notorious for being cutthroat and ultra competitive. Personally, that’s not an environment I would flourish in, although maybe it works for some people.
  • More debt, as in school loans, and often later in life when you’re likely to have a mortgage and kids’ educations to think about.

Some other thoughts, and these are just my opinions, so accept or reject at will.

  • You don’t need an MFA to write quality fiction, nonfiction, or poetry.
  • You don’t need an MFA to get published.
  • You don’t need an MFA “to be a writer.”
  • You do need an MFA (yes, there are always exceptions) if you want to teach writing at the college level.
  • You don’t need an MFA to learn to become disciplined.
  • You don’t need an MFA to make connections.

That said, an MFA can help with all of the above, if you decide to work it that way. For example, if you decide to pursue an MFA because you’re serious about taking your writing to the next level, well, then, you likely will. But it’s you who is making that happen – not the MFA (however, the MFA program might give your subconscious a “reason” to focus…and the MFA program will likely provide an environment that will help you succeed in your goal – a thesis deadline will do that for a person).

An MFA can be a good “excuse,” if you need an excuse, to focus on your writing for one to two years.

So, you might be wondering, if I had to do it all over again, would I?

That’s a good question. I definitely grew as a writer during the program, and while I’d like to think that growth would have happened anyway, I have no way of knowing that with any certainty. The biggest thing I got out of my program is the different writing I was exposed to. Yeah, I love to read, and I know, as writers, we’re supposed to read widely, but it does help to have some guidance from veteran writers on just how wide to cast the net…and where to cast the net. I loved the reading lists my faculty advisors and I put together for my first three semesters (I’ll share those lists in another post). I’m not sure I would have found some of those writers on my own, even with my good intentions of reading widely.

Okay, now it’s your turn. Are you considering an MFA? If yes, share your reasons, your reservations, etc. And for the MFA veterans out there, what do YOU think of my pros and cons? Agree or disagree? Any to add? Get the discussion started in the comments.

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