Writer Wednesdays: MFA in Creative Writing – Worth it? – Plus, Author Interview with Pam Petro
Welcome to Writer Wednesdays!
To MFA or not to MFA
Many writers debate whether nor not an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in Creative Writing is worth it. The answer to that question will depend on the writer and his/her/their life situation and goals. For me, it was beyond worth it!
I loved my MFA program for the following reasons:
I went to Lesley University which is located in Cambridge, Mass, near Harvard. The location was super inspiring, not to mention gorgeous. The New England architecture is stunning and Cambridge is packed with restaurants, bookstores, and art galleries. It was my happy haven!
My MFA program worked around my life. I had two little kids and when I graduated I was pregnant with my youngest. It was a low-residency MFA, meaning that I was on campus for about 10 days for five residencies over the two-year program. The rest of the time was distance learning with a mentor professor. This allowed me to be with my family and also keep working in my job as an artist.
I thrived in the creative community with other like-minded writers. I built lifelong friendships I will cherish forever. I also made many professional relationships which is a network I still feel grateful for five years later.
I learned so much during those two years. Probably the biggest lesson is how to edit a book. Every semester – for four semesters – I edited my work-in-progress manuscript, Expecting Sunshine, start to finish. I had many epiphanies and breakthroughs in those two years. I doubt I would have had that career jump start had I not enrolled in my MFA.
It was a gift of time I gave to myself. Perhaps I could have done it in a more spread out timeline, perhaps part-time, and through workshops and conferences, but my MFA was the focused, deep-dive I needed.
I was exposed to new works of literature that I might never have discovered on my own. I read so many amazing books during that time, and a few duds. Being Canadian, I learned Canadian lit in grade school and in my undergrad Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Diving into great works of American literature was a wonderful experience.
Having my masters degree has been a notable addition to my CV. It has given me a different level of credibility, experience, and education that I have used in many ways in my career since graduating, such as teaching writing and authoring other books.
How to Make the Most of an MFA Program
Save money so you’re not stressed and spread thin by school.
Read all the books, do the homework, put your heart and soul into your writing.
Don’t slip into bad habits from previous school experiences. Don’t skip. Do be proactive, curious, and make the learning experience your own. You’ll get out of it what you put into it.
Make friends. Go out for meals with your classmates, grab drinks together, hang out outside of school. Keep in touch after the program has ended as well. Do this with your teachers too.
Be ambitious. If they ask you to write one short story, write two. If they ask you to edit 2,000 words of your manuscript, edit 4,000. Make the most of the time you have.
Take opportunities presented to you. Put up your hand.
Research into agents, publishers, and publication opportunities like magazines and literary journals while you are still in school. This will give you a head start for when you graduate.
Form good writing habits that you maintain for the rest of your writing life.
Take what you worked on in school and keep working on it after school. Take it and get published, teach, whatever you want to do. Keep your initial goals in mind and follow through with them once your new accreditation is in hand.
HAVE FUN! You are in the MFA program because you are passionate about your writing and want to take it to the next level. Many people dream of going back to school and doing what they love and YOU ARE DOING IT. Savor every moment.
Our special guest today is one of my mentor teachers from my MFA program. Her name is Pam Petro and she is a gorgeous writer and a generous professor. I am honored to share an author interview with her today.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
The word “writer” crystallized when my mom read Little Women to me, and I recognized myself in Jo. So many people say that, I know, that it sounds like a cliché–but it’s true. The fact is, I’ve always had the archivists’ instinct to preserve, and always assumed everyone needed to hear my opinions (!!), so not being a writer was out of the question. To tell the truth, I can’t imagine how other people don’t write.
Who were the authors that influenced you as a youth, and in what ways?
Part of me cringes a little at this answer, but another part passionately stands by it: I read every book written by Mary Stewart when I was a teenager. Yes, I know, they were heteronormative romances, but romances that featured smart women in fascinating places shot through with history. That reading turned me into a travel writer, and later, digging deeper, a creative writer and artist.
How did it feel when you got to hold your very first advanced copy of your book?
I didn’t like the cover (Travels in an Old Tongue) so I was both thrilled and a little bewildered at the same time. And PROUD. Hugely proud.
Photograph by Pam Petro
What was the inspiration behind your book(s)?
So many answers to this. My latest book, The Long Field: A Memoir, Wales, and the Presence of Absence, was inspired by going to graduate school in Wales and discovering it was MY PLACE–the place I needed to be and to love and to live in and to learn from in order to understand my relationship to the earth, especially, as well as to time, history, creativity, and the emotion of longing for things we can’t have. I’ve spent 35 years trying to understand all this, 8 of which included writing the book. So in a nutshell, I was inspired by trying to understand and explain my passionate attachment to place.
What was your publishing journey like?
My publishing journey has been fraught, including fabulous highs and frightening lows. I was approached by an editor at HarperCollins in London to write my first book. He’d read an essay of mine and sent me a letter asking for a proposal–receiving it was one of the happiest days of my life. That book led to an additional 2-book contract, which was a glorious thing. But soon, as they say, my luck turned!
The launch of the 2nd book at the wonderful Hay Book Festival in Wales was canceled when the whole festival was canceled due to the Food & Mouth crisis, so the book received no publicity. And then just as my 3rd book was about to be published HarperCollins management changed hands in a hostile publishing take-over, and my book (and many others) was lost amidst the ensuing warfare. So….good and bad. Everyone has both kinds of luck.
What advice do you have for aspiring young novelists?
Write what you love–what you can’t stop thinking about. And don’t assume you need to know “what happens,” or what “the meaning” is or what you really have to say when you begin. That’s why you write–to discover those things. You set out because you’re a writer and you just can’t not write. Writing is nothing if not an act of courage.
Photograph by Pam Petro
If you could have any superpower, which would you choose?
Superpower: I’d have the ability to convince both a British and American publishing company to take on my 4th book, The Long Field.
Where is your favorite travel destination?
When you’re not writing, what are your favorite hobbies?
I’m a tennis player–I love smashing the ball at my hitting partner’s head! I’ve been in love with tennis since I was 11. I’m also a photographer–I can’t imagine not composing the world through my viewfinder. I like to draw, to cook, to drink wine (and good scotch!), to watch films, to see art and travel with my partner. And I love dogs and old Karmann Ghias and plants and oil lamps. There’s not enough time in one life for all I love and want to do….
An enthralling, rollicking tour among the storytellers of the American Deep South.
The story of the South is not finished. The southeastern states of America, the old Confederacy, bristle with storytellers who refuse to be silent. Many of the tales passed down from generation to generation to be told and re-told continue to change their shape to suit their time, stretching elastically to find new ways of retailing the People’s Truth. Travelling back and forth, from the Carolinas to Louisiana, from the Appalachians to Atlantic islands, from Virginian valleys to Florida swamps, and sitting before bewitching storytellers who tell her tales that hold her hard, Pamela Petro gathers up a fistful of history, and sieves out of it the shiny truths that these stories have been polishing over the years. Here is another America altogether, lingering on behind the façade of the ubiquitous strip-mall of anodyne, branded commerce and communication, moving to other rhythms, reaching back into the past to clutch at the shattering events that shaped it and haunt it still.