Masters Review editor Sadye Teiser received her MFA from University of North Carolina Wilmington. Here she answers a few questions about her experience, why she chose the school that she did, what she learned, and the value of pursuing an MFA in creative writing.
Tell us a little about your MFA Program.
I went to the University of North Carolina Wilmington for my MFA. For me, it was a great fit. It’s a three year program. I focused on fiction, but we were required to take both forms classes and workshops in other genres (creative nonfiction or poetry). The third year was mainly about the thesis.
How did you decide on that specific school?
I chose UNCW for a few reasons. I had read and admired the work of professors in the program, and liked the curriculum. I was also given a fellowship and the opportunity to teach. In the end, I was choosing between UNCW and Columbia, a much larger program, with a much higher tuition, which would have landed me deep in debt. When I visited Columbia, it just didn’t click for me; it’s obviously a great program, but it felt large and spread out. When I visited UNCW, though, I was overwhelmed by the sense of community. The program is in a small coastal town, with about 15 students per class, and there is just such a strong network of support. I thought: this is a place I could really write.
How many schools did you apply to and what were your top criteria in choosing a program?
Eleven. I applied mostly to highly ranked schools with funding and faculty whose work I liked. Though I’m happy with where I ended up, I don’t think mine was the best approach. I would encourage people not to be so fixated on the top ten list and to take more time with their research than I did. There are some really great places—like Portland State and The University of Florida—that I did not even know about when I applied.
What advice would you give for someone applying to an MFA program? What do you wish you had known? What was the most difficult aspect in applying?
In deciding what schools to apply to: keep an open mind, but determine the factors that are important to you. Many programs will offer opportunities to support yourself in the program through teaching, and I would pay attention to this. While I don’t think it’s an absolutely necessary part of the MFA experience, it’s something that I really enjoyed. Consider things like funding, tuition and cost of living. There is no reason to go into debt, at least not crushing debt, for an MFA.
In terms of the application itself: just send them your best writing. That’s by far the most important element. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a chapter from a long novel or a 5 page story, as long as it’s good.
Did you find your goals were similar to those in your program or was it diverse?
The best thing about being in an MFA Program is that you are surrounded by people who are passionate about writing. But not everyone I studied with wanted to go on to be the next great American novelist. This was refreshing. Some people wanted to work in publishing, and my program was actually very good at providing this training. Some people wanted to teach. Some people wanted to work in journalism or get a PhD. Some people just wanted to write. Period. That was the most important thing to them. Of course, when you are doing an MFA, there is always the practical question of how to support your writing. My MFA taught me about the practicalities of being a writer. You are surrounded by people who want to dedicate their lives to writing, but there’s always the question: how do you make a living?
This differs from school to school, but how was teaching undergraduate classes to aid in funding handled in your program?
In my program, some people were offered graduate assistantships with admission; these came with a stipend that covered tuition and went toward cost of living. My program also often helped place its students in teaching and research related jobs throughout the University.
What are some common criticisms of MFA programs that you feel are accurate or inaccurate?
MFA programs have gotten a lot of flack for producing homogenized writers because they introduce sets of rules, formulas for good writing. While it’s always good to have guidelines, and there is certainly a place for the Freytag in workshop, this never seemed to me like the main goal of an MFA program. If you’re getting an MFA, you are not, for the most part, a writer who needs to be taught formulas; you are someone with your own individual voice, a sense of what you want to say and how you want to say it. The best workshops I had during my time in the MFA Program were the ones that first, tried to understand what the author wanted to do and second, critiqued the writer within these parameters, tried to help her figure out how to do it better.
What advice would you give someone before they begin their MFA?
Maybe this is just a personal thing, but when I started my MFA, I felt this enormous pressure to start a book, like this was the only chance I would ever have to write anything. It ended up turning into my thesis and I’m very glad I had the chance to get feedback on a longer manuscript, but I also wish I’d spent more time experimenting. The point is to have fun.
The other thing I would want someone to know before beginning an MFA program is: make sure to make time to write. This seems obvious. But with classes, teaching, social events, and just the rush of everyday life, I often found myself compromising my writing hours. Set a writing schedule and stick to it. When you are getting an MFA, that is your most important job.