Drink special: Whether or not to pursue an MFA in writing. Based on the author following and then not following advice from Pulitzer-winner David Mamet. What to expect, what I learned, and where I am now 10 years later.
In a Previous Blog, I wrote that I took Mamet’s advice about staying out of grad school and why. This served me well until it didn’t. The following essay originally appeared in Digital Americana Magazine two years after I graduated from Queens University of North Carolina. With perspective gained in those ten years, I’ll interject additional commentary here and there.
Like now. Heh.
For those looking to get their MFA in writing, but can’t commit to a two-year program as a full-time student because of family or alternate career choices, a low-res program means you don’t have to move. You only need to attend campus in person for one week a semester for seminars, readings, pod meetings, panicking over jammed printers, and socializing. While there you will be split into small groups called pods with a pod leader (who may or may not become your thesis advisor).
At Queens we learned how to critique, how to take a critique, hot to write and present a lesson plan on an aspect of craft. All this while developing our thesis project with an advisor. Depending on the program you were accepted into, that could be Fiction, Stage & Screen, Poetry, and Non-fiction. I decided to double down and received my MFA in Fiction/Stage & Screen, but I mostly worked on my novel The Fountain. (You can preorder it here.)
After the week on campus is over, you will meet a regular submission deadline for both your work and critiquing your pod mates’ work.
(In Part 2 of this post you’ll read an open letter I wrote to my pod mates after critiquing a couple of their submissions.)
Then your pod leader will comment on your work and your critiques. There’s a shortish critical paper per semester as well, but it’s been a minute. This monthly submission is why you don’t have to attend for the full semester. Because of this low-res requirement your options for being accepted into different programs will be greater than if you had to find a program within commuting distance. It was perfect for my needs. Brilliant.
Now back to the original essay.
I’m David Scott Hay and you’re tuning into Digital Americana Magazine for shits and giggles and maybe to glean a couple of nuggets of scribblin’ wisdom (excuse me while I refill my drink). Ah, much better. Who the hell is this guy, you’re thinking. Well, I’m an award-winning Chicago playwright, screenwriter, and filmmaker who has finally wandered back into the non-collaborative (thank Crom) arena of fiction writing after an extended hiatus. As an antidote to the grind and head banging of screenwriting and producers, I enrolled at Queens University of Charlotte to earn my MFA in Fiction (and yes Stage & Screen writing, one must cover their bases). And also, I love to teach and one must have one of these, or significant shiny hardware.
Looking back on that blur of the last two years, here are some recollections:
Now, here’s the thing about an MFA program: you got in. You must be pretty good. Or show potential. Don’t let it get to your head. Don’t walk in thinking you know more than your peers and faculty and wait to be anointed the Chosen One. Confidence is one thing. Being closed-minded is another. There are others in the program that can kick your ass.
And that’s the beauty of it. With any luck, you’ll learn and earn respect from each other officially in your pods or unofficially through socializing and trading manuscripts under the bar tables. Welcome to your new network of trusted readers and peers. This network should serve you for life. Love these people, keep in touch. Buy the first and last round.
I am in regular contact with about five or so folks from my time at Queens, and in social media cheering contact with another dozen. Most of them have published books or are about to, and one introduced me to my publisher. So yeah, be cool, make friends, learn from one another.
By the same token, don’t bring anything less than your A-game. Reading and writing time is too precious. Hell, time period is too precious. Expecting someone to give their full-bore reading analysis and feedback on a half-baked, half-finished, stayed up last night to meet the deadline piece is bullshit. You will be shunned.
Queens is based on the workshop model, which entails– beyond the two weeks a year of seminars and socializing– submitting your work to your fellow students and faculty leader (for that semester) and critiquing and marking up their manuscripts. This is a roll your sleeves up model and I loved it. You quickly get a sense of others sensibilities and how a certain type of reader might react to your material. You also get a sense of a person’s craft.
A good MFA program won’t teach you to write, but it will help you to be a better writer. To help uncover your voice even more, not bury it.
I also like the low-residency model. Being away from my normal routine and immersing myself in writing, learning, and hanging with other writers was exhilarating. And exhausting in all the right ways. It allowed me to have the dorm room experience I skipped in undergrad. But it also let me meet and learn from faculty also coming in from around the country. This access is invaluable.
Even if you don’t have them as a pod leader, you can still socialize and talk shop and maybe convince one of them to become a thesis reader for you. Nothing like getting viable feedback from a NY Times Best Selling author or having a smoke with a Pulitzer Prize winner. I don’t smoke, but I did that night on the patio. Heh.
Now, you might be thinking, I do this already with my writers’ group. And good for you, it’s probably much, much, much cheaper. But I wanted to learn from the best and build my network beyond my city. Invest in yourself.
And it is an investment. I’m just about to pay off my student loan. With forbearance for a life event and accumulated interest, I’m not sure I want to know how much it cost in total. It is expensive.
Was the experience worth it?
Hmmm. I’ll answer that further down.
Put the in the work on the critiques. Over those two years, I was able to sharpen my critiquing skills. I hope. That in and of itself is an art. Through some quirk of fate, I was asked to give notes on a TV pilot script by a gentleman who at that time had just written the highest grossing R rated movie of all time.
One does not circle things on that script with a “not clear” “this is boring” “I’m confused. It’s better if you…” You simply don’t if you want to be taken seriously. So I tried to approach each peer critique as if it was coming from someone of significant success. “Is there any merit to…?” “An alternative idea.” “This choice resonated more so than… etc.”
Remember when I said there were peers who could kick your ass? Well, there are also some with a long journey ahead of them. Resist the temptation to become snarky despite your exasperation.
Nothing is more rewarding than seeing a peer up their game.
Which brings me to the most valuable (second most valuable, actually) piece of advice, gem, nugget, whatnot I can give you. It’s based on a group critique I gave to my podmates, and slightly revised and expanded for your edification.
And remember, I’ve got just enough experience and expensive whiskey to be a danger to myself and those around me.
And then I signed off with xoxoxo, DSH–
Ahem, DSH… Was the MFA experience worth it?
Looking back now, I can say I accomplished my goal of receiving my MFA, finishing my novel, and getting it published. Albeit ten years after graduation (I dove back into screenwriting and TV development, a heartbreak of a project sent me back to novel writing a couple of years ago). And now I have one about to launch, a date set for another, and more projects in the hopper. I’ve met other writers, done readings, and interviews and will do more as The Fountain makes its way into the world.
(Again you can order it here.)
So, the answer ten years out is YES.
Five years ago, I may have said NO.
But that’s how time works, isn’t it?
That open letter I talked about can be found here in Part 2.