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mizrachi


Apr 28, 2005, 8:13 PM

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Accomplish what, exactly, in my MFA program? Can't Post

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine--an author of two books and a teacher at a reputable MFA program--who told me that during his four year MFA studies he only wrote a few short stories, three to four, from beginning to end. As I am about to begin my three year MFA program, the prospect of completing such little work, like my old friend, seems both a total waste, and, perhaps, an inevitable reality. Considering that my MFA program has a strong lit requirement, and I will be a teaching assistant for all three years, my question is: what is a reasonable amount of writing that I can expect to complete by the end of the program? Is it smart to enter an MFA program with a set, specific project in mind or better to let one gestate and develop? How many workshopped stories are new and how many stories are rehashed, older versions? And, how do I balance all of the other requirements while writing on my own?

-Miz


wiswriter
Bob S.

Apr 29, 2005, 8:03 AM

Post #2 of 60 (5364 views)
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Re: [mizrachi] Accomplish what, exactly, in my MFA program? Can't Post

Great questions. A former instructor once told me that if you don't leave an MFA program with a book of publishable quality - for fiction, either a collection of stories or a novel - you've wasted your time and money. My gauge of success would be to produce a polished ms. to show to agents or publishers. In my program, that's a requirement.

I started seriously considering a low-residency MFA when I found out people were getting through Iowa hardly finishing any stories at all. The workshop-centered program where you're "up" once or twice a semester isn't going to make you produce like a program where a mentor is demanding something from you every several weeks. In my case, that was doubly important because I'm a slow writer to begin with. Or shall I say, I was. I've been at Bennington for not even one term and I've written five stories already, one workshopped and all with pages of detailed feedback from faculty to go into revision with.

At AWP in Vancouver I went to a session on improving the MFA workshop. There were lots of interesting suggestions from the panel but during the Q&A I raised my hand and said the best thing MFA programs could do would be to make the workshops smaller so people have to write more. When I added that at Bennington I write a story every month, people's jaws just dropped. But a month is plenty of time to write a story. It's all about getting serious as a writer.

If I got into an MFA program and found the distractions of teaching and academic work were getting in the way of writing, I'd leave. Teaching experience and a credential are worthless if you don't have writing to go with it. The main point of a residential MFA is time and space to produce. Otherwise you may as well be in a low-residency program and keep your day job and your paycheck. Or not do an MFA at all and juggle writing with real life like everyone else.


silkfx2004


Apr 29, 2005, 10:26 AM

Post #3 of 60 (5354 views)
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Re: [wiswriter] Accomplish what, exactly, in my MFA program? Can't Post

Completely agree with you, Bob, on all points.

For me, I wasn't doing that well juggling writing with real life -- unless you count the fact that I was writing for a living, in which case you could say that I wasn't doing that well juggling fiction writing with technical writing. I chose to do a residential MFA program specifically because I needed the time and space to concentrate solely on fiction writing. A low-res program would have allowed me to keep my job, but that wouldn't have necessarily been a good thing in my case.

I have every intention of graduating with a publishable manuscript. If I have to get support outside the workshop, I will. As you said, this is about getting serious as a writer, and that's my primary reason for going back to school.

As for whether the material produced should be old or new: That's a good question. A lot of my existing stuff could fit into one of two short story collections. (Technically one of those is really a novel, but I prefer to think of it as a novel-in-stories.) It would behoove me to start with them, but at the same time I want to be open to doing new things. I'd like to follow my creative mind wherever it decides to go, but only so long as I'm able to come up with something tangible at the end of it all.


--------
Nobody but God gets it right the first time. Everybody else has to rewrite. --attributed to Stephen King


pongo
Buy this book!


Apr 29, 2005, 10:46 AM

Post #4 of 60 (5347 views)
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Re: [silkfx2004] Accomplish what, exactly, in my MFA program? Can't Post

My MFA program required a book-length manuscript (shorter, obviously, for poets than for novelists) for graduation. My own wasn't ready for publication, but it was a lot better than what I had been doing before that.

dmh


The Review Mirror, available at www.unsolicitedpress.com

Difficult Listening, Sundays from ten to noon (Central time), at http://www.radiofreenashville.org/.

http://home.comcast.net/~david.m.harris/site/


hapworth


Apr 29, 2005, 10:58 AM

Post #5 of 60 (5344 views)
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Re: [wiswriter] Accomplish what, exactly, in my MFA program? Can't Post

Wiswriter (or Bob),

Yeah, I hear you. I earned an MA in creative writing and took three workshops. Luckily, classes were smaller and we all go three "turns" over the ten-week quarter. I also started off at an MFA program where, yes, you'd get two turns over a sixteen-week semester! I know that I need to create better writing habits, but knowing that you only have 2-3 turns per term tempts you to slow down. Your work is only discussed 2-3 hours per term, which gives you the sense that your primary job isn't to write. I'm not making excuses. Writers write, and I've seen plenty of people thrive in residential programs. Still, I often found myself worrying more about the classes I taught (even though TAs are underpaid slaves, I still don't have the heart to pass my heartache ont students) than the classes I took. I too am considering the low-res option because I really feel I haven't yet had rigorous schooling. No, one doesn't have to go to school to learn how to write, but some of us need all the help we can get.

Hapworth


mizrachi


Apr 29, 2005, 11:53 AM

Post #6 of 60 (5333 views)
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Re: [wiswriter] Accomplish what, exactly, in my MFA program? Can't Post

I agree, the end result should be a book of publishable, serious work. But since I have so few stories under my belt I'm having a hard time imagining it. Anyway, thank you all for your feedback. The way for me to get the most out of my program, I think, will be to develop the discipline, dedication and day-in-day-out work habits early on so that regardless of how many times I'm slated to workshop, I've prioritized my time, am able to manage it all, and can be as productive as possible.


toni-b


Apr 29, 2005, 2:50 PM

Post #7 of 60 (5315 views)
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Re: [mizrachi] Accomplish what, exactly, in my MFA program? Can't Post

Living in NYC, I have met and heard stories of a lot of MFAs who never wrote a word after graduation, or at least took a long time to get going again. That freaks me out a bit, because I do rely on imposed deadlines and discipline. When I was choosing schools to apply to, one of the things I put on my big chart of potential MFA programs was the thesis requirement, and I found quite a range amongst fiction programs. I mean, what can you do with "a few chapters of a novel," "80 pages," or "125 pages," as opposed to a completed manuscript. The school I chose requires 125 pages, and I'm a little nervous about that, but I think it's best to be aware going in that it's the minimum I'll be personally satisfied with, and that I will discipline myself to do more.


mingram
Mike Ingram

Apr 29, 2005, 4:40 PM

Post #8 of 60 (5302 views)
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Re: [toni-b] Accomplish what, exactly, in my MFA program? Can't Post

I'm at Iowa now, and I've workshopped three stories in each of my two semesters so far. Sometimes people only get a chance to do two, if the workshop is larger, but you can generally squeeze in three spots if you want them. Of the six stories I've workshopped this year, four of them were completely new, one was a piece I wrote in the summer before coming here, and one was something older that I wanted to return to (there were things I liked about it and hoped that a rewrite could make it salvageable).

Of course everyone works at their own pace. Some people can spit out drafts very quickly, other people have a little longer gestation period (and some people here are working on novels, which is a completely different animal).

You are encouraged here, however, to write a lot. It's really the only measure by which you're judged. And the whole workshop setup is centered around giving you writing time. You don't have to take many other classes to graduate, and the ones you do take are seminars led by workshop teachers that don't involve any "critical" writing, nor any grades. Of course some people opt to take courses in other subjects, but it's not required.


texasgurl
Stacy Patton Anderson


Apr 30, 2005, 10:54 AM

Post #9 of 60 (5264 views)
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Re: [wiswriter] Accomplish what, exactly, in my MFA program? Can't Post

    Very intriguing post, Bob. I was sort of thinking it might be the other way around (that I would be more productive in a residential program), but you make an interesting case for seriously considering low-res options. I've sort of ping-ponged on the whole issue. At first, I only considered low-res because I am 36 with two kids and a law degree I hope to never use again. It seemed that no matter the unpredictabilities of family life, I could fit two residencies per year in, and if I could get into a premier low-res program, the expense would be worth it. I've waited a long time, and wasted a long time, getting down to what I really want to do.

However, after reading this board and researching all kinds of MFA programs I started to think that maybe it would be worth it to uproot my family if I can get into a residential program that offers a full ride--which is a crapshoot, of course. For me, it's all about that publishable manuscript. That's what I want the time for. But the only way I think I could do it in two years would be with guidance.

You've given me some more food for thought. A question: Bennington says in its P&W ad that it offers some scholarship/aid. Do you know anything about this? What's available to defray the cost?


Stacy Patton Anderson
http://family-of-five.com


edwriter



Apr 30, 2005, 11:32 AM

Post #10 of 60 (5259 views)
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Re: Accomplish what, exactly, in my MFA program? Can't Post

This is a very interesting thread!

Like Wiswriter/Bob, I enrolled in a low-residency program, but one that included workshops (via e-mail) between residencies, so the "mentor" was not the only one to comment on the stories each month. The workshops were very small (3-4 students). While this seems promising--and I'm certainly no fan of oversized workshops--it also had its drawbacks, mainly in that it really limited the range of responses one received on each ms. And that, frankly, had also been my concern about choosing instead a low-res program that depended on the "mentor-and-packet" model--the idea of depending on just one person's response for an entire semester seemed very risky, no matter how stellar the faculty seemed on paper (or on webpage, as the case may be).

What was useful about the program's approach in this case was that, as in Bob's situation, every single student in these small groups still submitted new work every month. So during each of the four semesters each student submitted six pieces (in fiction, up to 25 pages each time). That's because during the week-long on-campus residencies we each had two pieces workshopped, and then had four more dealt with during the term.

At times I would revise and resubmit a piece during the following semester (so fresh eyes might look at and respond to the work) but I think I only submitted one story twice within the same semester. That was my final semester, when my thesis was more or less completed and that story turned out to be one of my favorites, one I knew I wanted to focus on very intensively right away. I think I wrote 20 or so stories over the 2 years.

This sounds good, and for me it was to the extent that I was writing virtually constantly and producing many stories, a few of which were published even while I was still in the program. My production rate has indeed slowed (but not stopped) since graduating. But as I've suggested, I found that the usefulness (including both quantity and quality) of the feedback on all these stories within the small workshops varied enormously, which for me eroded some of the value of these very small workshops.

I also found that the program didn't particularly emphasize its literature component, or critical writing component, and like many other low-res programs, it wasn't geared to training future writing teachers. This may appeal to some people, and given that I'd recently completed a doctoral dissertation in another humanities field before starting the MFA I may have been one of them--at first.

But these choices have repercussions. And after the fact I've come to believe that not all these components are necessarily separable or discrete; some of them (especially the reading and critical writing) have an important role to play when you're talking about training professional writers and awarding a terminal degree in the field.

In the end, what you "accomplish" in your MFA program depends on what you, personally, are looking to accomplish, what your own goals are and how the program is set up to help you meet them. And it depends on what you do with your time once you find yourself in a reality/"community" that you won't really be able to perceive until you're actually experiencing it.

Best,
Erika


freeverses
James Hall

Apr 30, 2005, 3:53 PM

Post #11 of 60 (5227 views)
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Re: [texasgurl] Accomplish what, exactly, in my MFA program? Can't Post

Bennington offers scholarships now in many different genres. When I attended, from January 1998 - Jan 2000, there were only 2 Jane Kenyon Scholarships for poets, each at 500.00. I think the scholarships are still around that amount, though they may have increased. And I believe they're offered in other genres now too.


jwoodcanyon


May 1, 2005, 1:31 PM

Post #12 of 60 (5188 views)
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Re: [freeverses] Accomplish what, exactly, in my MFA program? Can't Post

It's been about five years since I have graduated from the U of Arizona in poetry. And the idea that the manuscript I handed in for graduation would be publishable now is a horrifying thought. I believe that many writers really find themselves *after* their MFA programs, IMO.

Chase Twitchell has some very good thoughts on this on the webpage to Ausable. She envisions the MFA as more of a tutorial or apprenticeship. And this makes sense: if you look at who is winning most first book contests, it is people beyond their MFAs, who have often taken years between their degrees and book publications (and often started PhD programs in Creative Writing in the process). Often, the time spent between post-graduation and first book is spent honing the manuscript, ditching it, or an odd combination of both.

The only person I know of who published her MFA manuscript (she won the Juniper in 2000) at Arizona or otherwise had published in Kenyon Review, Iowa Review, and other prestegious places before entering the program. And I believe she was in her mid 30s. But for most people MFA students, especially ones in their mid to late 20s, I think the idea of handing in a book quality manuscript is highly unlikely.

Joseph P. Wood


rutha


May 1, 2005, 6:36 PM

Post #13 of 60 (5169 views)
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Re: [jwoodcanyon] Accomplish what, exactly, in my MFA program? Can't Post

IMO, I think it's unfortunate and misleading that many MFA programs, in their promotional materials and such, refer to students leaving with a "publishable manuscript." If you were in a low-res program where you had a higher output, that might happen, or if you're in a three program where you have maybe one class plus a workshop during that final year, and really only then if you're meeting on some sort of regular basis with your advisor to push you along. My thesis in my two year res program was a beginning -- an important one, of course -- that told me I did have it in me to write a decent number of pages required for a book-length manuscript, but that was about it -- and to go from there to "publishable" is a big leap (and one I'm still working on, a number of years after the fact). Of course, there are those rare stories of so and so's thesis turning into a book, but again I think it probably has to be understood that it's highly unlikely it went from the student's printer to the agent's desk without a lot of additional work.


edwriter



May 1, 2005, 7:02 PM

Post #14 of 60 (5165 views)
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Re: [rutha] Accomplish what, exactly, in my MFA program? Can't Post


In Reply To
IMO, I think it's unfortunate and misleading that many MFA programs, in their promotional materials and such, refer to students leaving with a "publishable manuscript." If you were in a low-res program where you had a higher output, that might happen, or if you're in a three program where you have maybe one class plus a workshop during that final year, and really only then if you're meeting on some sort of regular basis with your advisor to push you along. My thesis in my two year res program was a beginning -- an important one, of course -- that told me I did have it in me to write a decent number of pages required for a book-length manuscript, but that was about it -- and to go from there to "publishable" is a big leap (and one I'm still working on, a number of years after the fact). Of course, there are those rare stories of so and so's thesis turning into a book, but again I think it probably has to be understood that it's highly unlikely it went from the student's printer to the agent's desk without a lot of additional work.



This is a really good point. Even writing prolifically isn't necessarily a guarantee of a cohesive and/or publishable book manuscript.


Moonshade


May 1, 2005, 7:23 PM

Post #15 of 60 (5160 views)
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Re: [edwriter] Accomplish what, exactly, in my MFA program? Can't Post

This is exactly the topic that I want info on. In the past three weeks (since rejected from all the schools I 've applied to), I've been analyzing my reasons for wanting and MFA. Obviously it's to become a better writer, yet is this the only option available to make me a better writer? I wonder if I designed my own intensive writing, reading curriculum, what I could accomplish? I've also been reading those Low-Resid. threads too. I do know that I am not really interested in teaching, I would do it only if necessary.

But I do want to know exactly what an MFA program will do--because over the past two years I've been hearing lots of pros and cons. I don't expect any guarantees, like I will be a published writer upon graduation, but it's good to know that even the manuscript might not necessarily be "publishable". That too, takes time.

What I want, whether I go Low-Res. or Traditional, is to walk into the program with my eyes open. I don't want to be bitter or feel that my time (AND MONEY!) was wasted.


pongo
Buy this book!


May 1, 2005, 8:49 PM

Post #16 of 60 (5150 views)
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Re: [Moonshade] Accomplish what, exactly, in my MFA program? Can't Post

Here's what an MFA program did for me that I couldn't do on my own: force me to reconsider my work and its quality and see how I could make it better. Some people can do that for themselves; I couldn't.

This will depend, of course, on finding the right teachers, and that doesn't men people whose work you like but people who see potential in your work and are willing to, as one of my advisors put it, "make your life a living hell" until you respond with improvement.

You will also be pressured, in the right program, to read things you otherwise would not have, and to think about what you read in new ways. This leads, of course, to thinking about what you write in new ways.

dmh


The Review Mirror, available at www.unsolicitedpress.com

Difficult Listening, Sundays from ten to noon (Central time), at http://www.radiofreenashville.org/.

http://home.comcast.net/~david.m.harris/site/


rutha


May 1, 2005, 8:56 PM

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Re: [Moonshade] Accomplish what, exactly, in my MFA program? Can't Post

Many excellent writers never went to an MFA program -- Jane Hamilton, one of the best novelists around, apparently got rejected by a number of very prestigious programs, but never gave up, did it on her own, and look what happened. There's also many other options -- classes and workshops, writers groups. Anything to keep you writing -- that's the main thing. An MFA program can give you a lot of things, but desire isn't necessarily one of them -- that has to come from within. And if you do go, you're absolutely right to go into it with your eyes open, with realistic expectations. To do otherwise is to set yourself for a lot of potential frustration and disappointment. Keep at it and good luck!

(This post was edited by rutha on May 1, 2005, 8:59 PM)


jwoodcanyon


May 2, 2005, 12:25 AM

Post #18 of 60 (5129 views)
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Re: [rutha] Accomplish what, exactly, in my MFA program? Can't Post


In Reply To
IMO, I think it's unfortunate and misleading that many MFA programs, in their promotional materials and such, refer to students leaving with a "publishable manuscript." Ruth, I reread the posts on this thread the evening with my wife (a Phd in Rhet. Comp.) and we totally agreed with this take. Each month when I open AWP, I shake my head and think that wouldn't it be more genuine for the ad to say, "most of you will struggle with publishing and considering most respectable journals have a 2% or less acceptance rate, and there's a hell of a lot of good poetry floating out there". But they're advertising after all, so there you go. But you know what: despite whatever false expecatations I had about exterior validations (publishing and such) going into my program, I am grateful I went through my program and got proverbially punched in the jaw. I learned so much from my peers and faculty, often more from people who questioned my aesthetic than those who liked it. A break-through moment came from an off-handed criticism a former professor made when I saw him in a post office. What I mean to say is that the work--and I use this word deliberately--is the work itself; its progression is what the money should be going toward. And you know what: at the end of the day, I see value in struggling as a writer. Since graduating my program, I have published in a fair amount in respected journals and placed as a finalist in a couple book contests. But I deal with rejection much more so, often four or five times a week, and it's built a certain level of fortitude. But more importantly, publication only goes so far in validation. The greater reward is the work itself, and shaping it according to one's own intellections and values, not the market's. Best, Joseph


darredet
Darren A. Deth


May 2, 2005, 8:29 AM

Post #19 of 60 (5110 views)
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Re: [pongo] Accomplish what, exactly, in my MFA program? Can't Post

While not yet in my MFA program, I expect to better my writing. True, this can be done on my own, but at a much slower progress. I look forward to making connections with other writers. I look forward to reading books I never considered or knew about. I do not approach this venture as the means to an end. It is a step on the journey to a more literary life.

Darren


mingram
Mike Ingram

May 3, 2005, 12:15 AM

Post #20 of 60 (5045 views)
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Re: [darredet] Accomplish what, exactly, in my MFA program? Can't Post

Of course an MFA won't necessarily get you published. then again, I think "publishable quality" is a questionable bar to set for one's own work. Better to think of one's own writing as a process, and one which you'll never entirely figure out. It's not as if you publish a couple stories and then no longer have to struggle with the difficulties of storytelling. What I think an MFA can do is speed that process up a bit through intensive work.

Before I started my MFA, I worked full-time, and tried to squeeze in fiction writing at night. Now I can write for long stretches in the afternoon. I can go walk around my neighborhood for an hour and contemplate a story I'm working on. When a particular scene is giving me fits, instead of giving up and turning off the computer, I can sit at my desk and keep pushing on it until it either works or I pull out my hair. All of these things have made me a better writer. And they've given me my first glimpse at what it takes to really do this seriously. To make writing a life's work and not just a hobby.

Incidentally, there are people who publish their theses, even in this (a two-year) program. Last semester I took a workshop with Marilynne Robinson, and she took pride in the fact that two of the theses she advised on over the last several years went on to be nominated for National Book Awards (Adam Haslett's was one; I forget the other). And a number of writers have published books they wrote here -- Daniel Alarcon, Jim Hines, Elizabeth McCracken, Thisbe Nissen. There are people who are already writing really great fiction when they get here, and they hit the ground running. Then there are others who will spend more time testing out different things and making a number of failed attempts before they have some success (I count myself among those numbers). So those people may not leave with a manuscript they'll immediately peddle to agents. But that doesn't mean the time hasn't been valuable to them.

Mike


silkfx2004


May 3, 2005, 8:04 AM

Post #21 of 60 (5034 views)
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Re: [mingram] Accomplish what, exactly, in my MFA program? Can't Post

While I understand where everyone's coming from with regards to the goal of having a publishable manuscript (or not), for me I really don't see the point of my uprooting my whole life for two years unless I'm going to end up with something measurably better than what I've got now. I'm not one of these people who wants to be published for the sake of being published...I could have done that years ago.

As I said, my OVERALL goal for getting the MFA is to become a better writer, and to that end I am setting for myself the task of producing, if not a completely publishable manuscript, then a greatly improved manuscript. As Mike said, "better writer" can also mean having better work habits, better focus, etc. and I want to achieve that as well.

I mean, sheesh...I produced just over 100 pages of fiction in a single semester for my undergraduate honors requirement. I suspect, according to my thesis advisors, that only a third of it was good enough to be published right away, but that was the last time I had the time to really concentrate the bulk of my energies on writing. Surely in two years I ought to be able to put together something that'll be of quality to somebody. ;)


--------
Nobody but God gets it right the first time. Everybody else has to rewrite. --attributed to Stephen King


wiswriter
Bob S.

May 3, 2005, 10:41 AM

Post #22 of 60 (5018 views)
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Re: [mingram] Accomplish what, exactly, in my MFA program? Can't Post

To me, "publishable" doesn't mean that you send it out and it gets automatically snapped up. It means good enough to get real consideration, to get past the first reader, not to stand out as amateur or unworthy. And it means I'm good enough and disciplined enough as a writer to produce such work on something like a dependable basis. If the MFA doesn't get you to that point, you've spent a lot of time and money to, at best, increase your own enjoyment and satisfaction in the act of writing. Which is also fine, I suppose, if you have that kind of time and money to spend. My tuition is stretching me enough that I want a more tangible return than that. I came in with published stories but I'm wanting the MFA to give me aid and structure in producing the first book. I think the MFA has to get you to the next level in some way to be really worth it.

I didn't mean to slam Iowa. I did my first workshop there, the dear departed Frank Conroy's three-week thingie in the spring where they let in the unwashed with the MFA students. It was a great experience. I loved it and it really gave me a push as a writer. But in talking with Frank and the MFA students I realized it wasn't a fit for someone like me who was more in need of mentorship and structure and discipline than good connections and lots of time to write. I think Iowa and other top residential MFA programs are best for people who are pretty much finished writers already, who are able to take the two years of freedom and the big name and run with it. The high rejection rate at Iowa probably does a lot of writers a favor.


Moonshade


May 3, 2005, 6:48 PM

Post #23 of 60 (4975 views)
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Re: [wiswriter] Accomplish what, exactly, in my MFA program? Can't Post

I agree with Wisewriter on the mentorship, structure and discipline. Especially the mentorship. I consider myself a fledgling writer. I need all the instruction I can get on developing my writing. What I want from an MFA program is to be a strong, polished writer. To have the skills to write WHATEVER I chose whether it's short stories, novels, plays, or screenplays (and in whatever genre I chose like, Children's Lit., or fantasy) and naturally earn my living solely as a writer, if I so choose.

I already enjoy the act of writing, so I don't need help with that.

I also think it helps to know the nature of the MFA program. I've heard several people on this forum mention some MFA programs as mainstream or radical.


viviandarkbloom


Mar 10, 2006, 10:12 PM

Post #24 of 60 (4976 views)
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question for poets Can't Post

Hey, I have a dumb question: How many hours a day would poets ideally like to write? All of us want Time To Write in an MFA program, and there has been lots of talk (or type) here about how academic requirements and TAships take away from that. When I read interviews with fiction writers, they usually say they write somewhere between four and six hours a day. Which is a lot. What's it like for poets?


ciaosamin


Mar 11, 2006, 1:03 AM

Post #25 of 60 (4889 views)
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Re: [viviandarkbloom] question for poets Can't Post

i'd say three or four hours in the morning would be my ideal. i have a short attention span, and i tend to write in bursts anyhow.

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