A Small List of Things I Wish I Had Known Ten Years Ago

It’s been about 5 years since I got my MFA. I have to say the MFA is a blessing, but a mixed one at that. Over the last half-decade, I’ve seen my “writerly lot” improve at a snail’s place. I have made some headway, but none of it has come particularly easy. As I look back at my four years at Emerson College (yes, it took four years — I went part time), I’ve compiled a small list of things that I wished that I had known ten years ago when I was first considering applying. I’m not sure this advice will help anyone else, but it surely would have helped me.This is the first in what I hope will be an occasional series.

Avoid debt.

Work full time while in school and take classes part time. Borrow as little as possible. There is no need to graduate quickly. More likely than not, there is no golden paycheck waiting for you once you graduate.

College loans are nice and tempting — especially the money you get to keep after tuition and books. But, no matter how far away it seems, you will graduate some day and need to pay it back. In my case, I racked up tens of thousands of dollars in debt which I am still paying back — and will be for years. It was in my third year at Emerson when I realized my error. At that point, I started attending school part-time and working full time. The result was that I needed to borrow less money and, in fact, I was able to pay my final semester’s tuition out of my own pocket. By then, of course, it was a little late.

There are several reasons to avoid debt. First, there are a number of MFA programs that are inexpensive or even offer a free ride in the forms of grants, stipends and aid. Some people (guilty) avoid applying to these programs because they are often in small towns in the deep south or midwest or the mountains. My desire to stay in a cosmopolitan area and ‘on a coast’ channeled me away from a number of MFA programs in which the departments offer substantial financial aid.

MFAs don’t guarantee you work.

Here’s a short list of the type of job for which an MFA gives you favored status: teaching creative writing. That’s it. That’s all. If you want to go into publishing, you may as well get an MA in Publishing. Want to teach literature? Then you’re up against PhD’s. How about advertising agencies? Nah. Newpapers? An MFA doesn’t really hold any special standing when it comes to reporting, besides, haven’t you heard that print is dieing?

Let’s say you get a job teaching writing. A full time position pays, what? Anywhere between $35k – $65k per year- and odds are that it won’t be full time job. The people I know with degrees, the ones who teach, are part timers. They drive from school to school without any real office. Again (as a rough ball park figure) probably making $40k a year or more if they work extra hard in the summers.

Sorry to sound bleak, but the whole idea of going into debt for college is that the job you get after you graduate will more than make up for the debt. This is certainly not the case for me or others whom I know. After three years of job hunting, I did manage to find an MFA-based job that more than repays my monthly loan fees (part time teaching, of course), but make no mistake, it is a part time, second job. I still need my day job to make ends meet.

Work a full-time job.

Finally, when I came around and decided to work full time and just take only one class per semester, I found my whole life changing for the better. Working full time means that you are the boss of your own money. It means you can afford to go out and buy books and do interesting things. Also, going to school part time means that you can devote more time and energy to just a class or two. You can really focus and hone your skills rather than trying to juggle say, a term paper for one class, reading a novel for another, and writing short stories for two different workshops.

Summarizing my thoughts. Take fewer classes. Keep your day job. Apply to schools that have generous grant (rather than loan) programs, and don’t worry about graduating quickly.

Armand

If you liked this article at After the MFA, come check out my other web project The Slow Man. I’m talking about creativity, productivity, work/life balance, slowing down and enjoying life with a glass of scotch and a cigar

Comments 13

  1. The R wrote:

    I’d like to ask a few questions. What kind of full-time job or jobs did you have while you were pursuing your MFA degree? When you were going to school part-time, did you take evening or weekend classes? What did you do to discipline yourself to finish your creative thesis?

    I ask these questions because I am facing my own dilemma concerning whether or not to work full-time while enrolled in graduate school. I am trying to avoid more debt. I’ve just begun an MFA program, and opted to take out a hefty loan to help me pay for my living expenses and tuition. The reason I went this route is because I did not want the additional stress of a full-time job during my first year of graduate school or at least during the first semester. And, furthermore, I wanted to start off on a good foot academically–and I am doing very well thus far. I wrestled with taking out another loan, as I already have a (now deferred) big one I’ve been paying back for my undergraduate education. I’ve returned to school after a 10 year break. The main reason I applied and then enrolled in a graduate program is because I found it difficult to pursue personal writing projects with any kind of regularity while I worked jobs that easily demanded more than 40 hours a week, jobs that mentally exhausted me.

    Lastly, I apologize for being wordy.

    Posted 17 Nov 2006 at 10:38 pm
  2. Jason Boog wrote:

    Thanks for this. A great essay with some really practical thoughts. As a graduate of a journalism MA with some consolidated student loans that I will pay until I retire, I heartily second the “avoid debt” advice.

    Posted 20 Nov 2006 at 11:26 am
  3. Armand wrote:

    @ Jason-

    Thanks for your note. As I write this occassional series, feel free to provide feedback based on your own MA experience whether you agree or disagree.

    thanks again,

    Armand

    Posted 20 Nov 2006 at 2:04 pm
  4. Armand wrote:

    @ “By The R???

    Thanks for your questions and interest. I’ll try to briefly answer your questions below:

    *

    What kind of full-time job or jobs did you have while you were pursuing your MFA degree?
    ————————–

    Nothing spectacular. First I worked foodservice and later foodservice + tutoring. Both allow for flexible schedules. If you hate food service try retail.

    For the first year, I worked part time at Starbucks @ about $9/ hour (that includes tips). I also did a nonpaying internship at a tiny local newspaper.

    In the second year I parlayed that experience at Starbucks into a horrible food service job at Denny’s-like restaurant found here in New England called The Ground Round @ about $10-$12 an hour (waitering). I also did a nonpaying internship at an ad agency.

    By the third year, I decided to work forty hours a week, so I got a part time job tutoring at a local community college*(1) and then found a job waitering at better restaurant in town. Pay for tutoring was $18/ hour and the new restaurant job was $20 per hour (roughly, it was all tips).

    *

    When you were going to school part-time, did you take evening or weekend classes?

    One nice thing about Emerson College’s set up is that almost all classes are offered once a week from 6-10 pm. So I was taking one class a semester once a week maybe like: Wednesdays 6-10.

    *

    What did you do to discipline yourself to finish your creative thesis?
    I actually found it much easier to write when I went to school part time. I think the whole hurry up and graduate thing is overrated. I think, IMHO, what we do is fall into a trap like this:

    going to school = going into debt and putting my life on hold.

    The reason I switched from full to part time was so I wouldn’t feel like that. I still had to borrow some money, but only enough to pay my tuition which wasn’t so bad especially since part time didn’t cost much. In the meantime, I was paying my bills myself (I did have to have roommates). And by the last semester, as I stated above, working full time allowed me to pay the tuition bill out of pocket.

    Suddenly, my life was my life again. Instead of being an obstacle to life, college and writing had become part of the flow. It took me four years to graduate, but I had the time and energy to write. Having ‘a life’ -even the seemingly nominal life of a waiter and tutor- put me in contact with ideas and people outside of the literary circles at Emerson and gave me a bigger perspective. It actually took some of the pressure off writing because it was now something I did rather than my one golden hope. Maybe the tutoring would lead to teaching (it did). Maybe the waitering could lead to a cool, high paying bartending gig. (It didn’t)

    I notice I haven’t really answered your actual question. I guess my general theory is that each writer has to find her or his form. (by forms I mean like: screenplay vs. comic books vs. literary short fiction vs. memoir vs. poetry etc) If you’re having trouble actually putting words on paper, consider messing with different forms until you find the one that tells the story that needs to come out. I’m presuming here that the reason you got into writing is that there’s something in you that can’t be expressed in any other way.

    If you can’t find any form (and this is not about you, since I don’t know anything about you- I’m just using “you??? in general) you may be in the wrong field. I think some people who went to writing school would be better actors (they need to get the story out orally) or stand up comedians or even would be film-makers, editors, agents or web designers. All these are noble career choices.

    In my opinion, writing is hard because 1. it’s lonely, 2. because it does not produce any immediate rewards, 3. because most of us associate writing with a ‘lifestyle’ that almost none of us will ever achieve, and 4. because it involves heavy revision which for almost everyone is a massive pain in the behind.

    OK- so 1. I write because my massive ego pushes my desire to create alone (by myself) rather than sharing work credit with others. (If I liked creating with others, I might have tried teleplay). And that desire for the product to be unequivocally mine overshadows the loneliness of creation. 2. The lack of immediate results often kills me but the older I get, the more patience I learn. 4. (I skipped 3, it’s down below) I also am lucky sole who doesn’t mind editing and re-editing. I joke that I have a dash of autism- I’m prone to revisiting thing. Like everyone else I do suffer from the ‘I’ve read this so many time that I don’t know if it’s good anymore’ syndrome. In those cases, I rely on my wife (who is an excellent proof reader) and a few friends whom I bother every four months or so (would you read this for me?) or the old put-it-in-a-drawer-and-forget-about-it-for-six-weeks trick. Sometimes I don’t have these options so I just keep revising and hope I’m doing the right thing. Sometimes I just settle on my best compromise (this is the best way I could write this scene, and I’m going to live with it and move on)

    3. The one that hurts the most is the writer’s lifestyle thing. Like everyone else, I would love to get up late, stroll around the woods then retreat to a coffee house with my shiny new mac laptop and write like a madman, and still get home in time to make dinner for my wife and then spend the night relaxing and thinking deep thoughts. Those days may come, but they ain’t coming anytime soon. However, strangely, I’ve started looking forward to my late fifties (I’m 35 now & we intend to have children) when such a thing might be a possibility. Sometimes I think what I’m doing now might fuel a true writing lifestyle twenty years down the line.

    The good news is the lack of a writerly life has really only hurt the feelings of the part of my brain that’s in charge of that kind of fantasy stuff (the same part of my brain that generates the win-the-lottery fantasy). It hasn’t really put much of a dent in my desire to write.

    In fact, I often find my desire to write the strongest when I just don’t have time to do it. Not to get too personal, but it’s kind of like when I don’t have sex for a really, really long time. The lack of time just eats away at me and pretty soon, the desire to write is always there, spinning in the back of my mind. Then, when I finally have time to write, it comes out all glorious and whatnot. Of course, those first drafts are usually waaay overwritten, but then I get to move on to phase two- revision.

    *

    Holy crap I wrote a lot.

    OK- here are my questions right back at you:

    1. What kind of writing do you do and why?

    2. What was it specifically about your job that left you unable to write and can you avoid that quality in a job in the future?

    3. Are you writing more now that you are full time in school?

    4. How much of your MFA program time is spent working on papers (about books) rather than writing your own book?

    thanks – Armand

    —————————–

    *(1) Getting the tutoring job was massively helpful for my future teaching work. While you can go the private tutor route, most colleges now have some sort of student tutoring center. They are usually called ‘The Student Learning Center’ or something like that. Sometimes they even have writing-specific centers. These might be called the ‘Writing Center’ or the ‘Writing and Literacy Lab.’ I’d advise finding employment at these types of places if possible.

    Posted 20 Nov 2006 at 2:13 pm
  5. SE wrote:

    Thanks for your thoughts about working full-time, including your answers to posters’ questions, all of which I found very reassuring. I have no choice but to keep my full-time job and though the MFA program I’m applying to does permit part-time study I’ve been very worried about how I’ll have enough time/energy/stamina (I’m much older than you and most MFA students), etc., when now, without being in school, it’s quite a struggle to find the time/energy/stamina to write. Many people talk about how the great thing about an MFA program is that it gives you time to write but in a way, it has seemed to me, being an MFA student will actually result in my having less time to write. But you’ve made a thoughtful case here for how working full-time can mean being freed up to make the most of the MFA experience. I also like what you wrote about not having time, not having time, then exploding in bursts of writing. Anyway, thanks, you’ve helped calm some of my anxiety.

    Posted 04 Dec 2006 at 5:24 pm
  6. Armand wrote:

    @ SE

    Glad that it helped allay some of your worries. Keep checking Gordon’s Blog, and let us know what’s happening as you work your way through your MFA program.

    Armand

    Posted 05 Dec 2006 at 2:34 pm
  7. Lawrence Clayton, Ph.D wrote:

    As you can see, I already have a doctorate. I’ve also had a career–as chairman of a behavioral science program. I’m now retired, but I am interested in doing a MFA in writing. The problem is that being on a fixed income, I can’t the tuition. You mentioned that there were school that offered enough financial aid to be essentially tuition-free. I’m very interested in this. Can you name a few?

    Thanks for any help you can give me.

    Posted 06 Dec 2006 at 9:38 pm
  8. Armand wrote:

    @ Lawrence-

    Here are two that provide a good amount of support:

    University of Alabama. Tuscaloosa:

    “…It’s our policy to accept only applicants to whom we can pledge financial support for the duration of their programs…. All of our students qualify for Graduate Teaching Assistantships, which include a stipend paid over 9 months (currently $10,007) and full tuition remission…”

    link: http://www.as.ua.edu/english/08_cw/support.html

    University of Oregon, Eugene

    ” …The Creative Writing Program attempts to fund all admitted students with Graduate Teaching Fellowships (GTFs). Students with GTFs receive full tuition waivers (worth $13,734 in 2004-05), partial payment of student fees, health insurance, and a stipend of $9,314 per academic year…”

    link: http://www.uoregon.edu/~crwrweb/faq.htm

    I don’t think any school will cover all your expenses, but those cover a healthy portion.

    If you just want to write and do not feel the need to explore other related careers options (like teaching) you migth be better served attending a good writing workshop (sans degree) at a place like Grubstreet in Boston (grubstreet.org) or Gotham Writers in New York.

    best of luck-

    Armand

    Posted 07 Dec 2006 at 4:45 pm
  9. Sara wrote:

    I know I’m about two months behind on this conversation, but I just discovered this blog today. Hopefully I’m not talking to myself here.

    I feel like I need to speak up for the other side here–the loan takers and part-time workers. I’m in my third year of grad school (did a year as an MA, then transferred to an MFA) and have taken out large loans every year. The first year, I worked full time as well, but for the last two years, I’ve been a graduate assistant. My funding as a GA covers tuition and a small stipend–not enough to even pay all my bills, let alone eat or buy shampoo–so I never thought twice about taking out the loans. That first year, I probably should have passed on the loans, but I took them and paid off my credit card debt, bought a laptop, and invested the rest. I thought this was wise because the interest on my student loans is much less than that on my credit cards and is considered “good debt” by credit agencies.

    I suppose that I may regret my decision when I’m an adjunct and trying to pay back these huge loans, but I never thought of grad school (especially a degree in writing) as a path to a job. I had a job when I started grad school and although it paid well, it didn’t make me happy. Grad school makes me happy. I’m teaching, which as anything other than a GA I’m not qualified to do, and I spend every day immersed in books and poems and words. My writing has improved exponentially since I quit my full time job, and so has my quality of life. I’ve traveled more, met more interesting people, and learned more in the last couple years than in my whole life before.

    I can’t say any of this with the benefit of hind-sight, but I think that the experience I’m having right now is worth any amount of financial burden I’ll face in my future. If I were still working full time, or even working a part time serving or retail job on top of my GA work, I wouldn’t have time to go to conferences, readings, and other literary events, and I’d be more strapped for time on things like papers and weekly reading. (And while sometimes I wish I could focus on just one paper, or one book instead of two or three at a time, I often find that my courses compliment each other in a way that taking one class at a time wouldn’t.)

    So, to sum it all up, I consider my loans the price that I have to pay for the best few years of my life. It wasn’t a decision I made lightly, but it has allowed me, if only for a short time, to live the writer’s life, which has been a dream of mine for quite some time.

    Posted 28 Jan 2007 at 9:07 pm
  10. Armand wrote:

    @ Sara-

    Thanks for your thoughtful, articulate and balanced feedback.

    Armand

    Posted 29 Jan 2007 at 1:10 pm
  11. ly wrote:

    I’m so glad I stumbled upon your blog. I’ve been accepted to a few programs which includes a private, state, and low res program. I’m having the toughest time deciding especially because I’ve been working for the past ten years and have a family. Your advice is helpful. With the current economy, schools are expensive and scholarships limited.

    Posted 24 Mar 2010 at 5:46 pm
  12. Beth Powell wrote:

    it’s true about MFA’s I can’t even find a part time job now and it will be 5 yrs in May.

    Posted 18 Oct 2010 at 8:49 pm
  13. Vince wrote:

    Even though this blog was posted several years ago, I’ve found it very helpful. Thank you. Deciding to go to a “powerhouse” and rack up debt vs a secluded but cost friendly school has been my biggest struggle. Your personal experience does add realistic value. How much are connections worth is a good question.

    Posted 02 Sep 2011 at 11:04 am

Trackbacks & Pingbacks 1

  1. From Resident Alien » Blog Archive » Masters of the Universe on 20 Feb 2007 at 7:41 am

    [...] While their approach is informal, it does give you insight into one of the major opportunities of a MFA: teaching! With certain programs, you can even teach courses at the University and College level. A downside can be found in this entry, A Small List of Things I Wish I Had Known Ten Years Ago; it states that teaching might not be as lucrative or easy to get as one might expect, “Here’s a short list of the type of job for which an MFA gives you favored status: teaching creative writing.” So much for easy answers, I suppose. [...]

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