Today our guest contributor guides us through his experience in a MFA writing program. Ryan Bradley pitched me exactly a year ago and I didn’t get to respond until December–one of the reasons why I started open/closed reading periods is to prevent delays like this! (If you send in pitches for guest post spots now, I’m currently accepting writers for early 2017 spots.) He was more than halfway complete with a three-year MFA program at the time. Today he’s a graduate and addresses the ‘To MFA or Not MFA’ debate below.
A Day in an MFA Writing Program
By Ryan Bradley
The debate about whether or not an MFA in writing is a useful degree has raged for at least the past decade. One side insists that the degree is important; it opens new neural pathways, and cultivates a lifelong love of writing and reading in students, whether they become professional writers or not. The other side argues that the degree is a money making tool for universities that doesn’t teach the students anything they couldn’t learn by reading and writing on their own.
My first few weeks in an MFA program didn’t feel different from my undergraduate workshops. The format was nearly identical. Every week, two students turned in original short stories, another brought in a story they admired, and the professor shared one she admired. The class discussed all four. Because no one wanted to make enemies their first semester, the feedback lacked teeth. Near the end of the first month though, a student turned in a story about losing both her parents in less than a year. Without speaking, the workshop seemed to agree that it probably happened to her, and that none of us were willing to criticize an orphan’s story. So we threw up softball compliments and criticisms, but left the bulk of it alone despite the story badly needing a good workshop.
The professor stopped us and said, “You’re all being nice because you think this is an autobiographical story.” She turned to the writer and said, “Nobody gives a shit if your parents are dead. This is a fiction workshop and we’re going to talk about this story as fiction. Start over.”
The workshop restarted with a very different tone. That sternness helped drive the student and the rest of the class to be better writers. The message was loud and clear: This was a fiction workshop in a graduate writing program. Whatever was happening in our lives didn’t matter. If we wanted to be writers, it was time to write and write well.
I’ve been out of my MFA program for two months now. I miss being in school. I had a slew of part-time jobs as I worked my way through graduate school and tried to afford living in Boston, but that wasn’t nearly as challenging as trying to strike a balance between working full-time and writing full-time. The MFA hasn’t helped me to get a substantially better job. I went from working in retail with a bachelor’s degree to temp work with a master’s degree, but my writing took incredible strides. The pressure to perform well helped me improve in ways I don’t believe I could have without strong role models pushing me to do and be better.
Ryan C. Bradley is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Wicked Horror, Gothic Blue Book V, The Missouri Review, The Rumpus, and others. He won the 2015 JP Reads Flash Fiction Contest. You can read his serialized novel and follow him on Twitter @RyanB4890.