Your Questions Answered

“Am I Ready For The MFA?”

To prepare for a MFA in writing, focus on community and a writing practice first.

It is MFA application season, and I’ve received a number of variations on this question from students to which I have a single answer, and so I’ve decided to offer that answer here.

I typically do not answer as to their readiness with a single yes or no — I don’t want to be that powerful in such an important situation. They need to feel ready, and so I instead guide them on how to prepare. I extend the following caveat: do not let the application process be a referendum on your future as a writer. And then I offer an assignment: To submit work to contests and magazines, and to find a literary community. This is because an independent idea of your art and of yourself as an artist allows you to get the best out of the program, even as it also protects you from turning the experience into an obstacle.

The author at age 22 holding a pencil, in thought. Photo is black and white.
The author at age 22 holding a pencil, in thought. Photo is black and white.
Me at the first OutWrite conference in San Francisco in 1990, a year before applying to MFA programs. Photo by Rick Gerharter.

After I left college, I moved to San Francisco, got a job as a bookseller at a LGBTQ bookstore, and began writing. I created zines with friends, I worked on the first OutWrite conference, I took an internship at a local magazine and began a freelance writing career too. I didn’t know I was participating in a community, exactly — but I was guided by that community, by people who were either doing this work or had done this work. It is clear to me now how my accomplishments then came out of being a part of that literary community, and I’m not talking about connections: I mean showing up for events, putting my work out there and taking opportunities as they came to me. By the time I applied for my MFA three years later, I had published poems, stories, reviews and a few magazine articles. I’d read for audiences. I had met heroes, mentors, rivals, even nemeses. I had a sense of my value as a writer. I didn’t get that from getting into a MFA program — I arrived with it. And so when critiques didn’t go my way, or writing heroes didn’t like my story drafts, it might have hurt, or been difficult, but I kept my perspective and kept going.

A friend in my program at the time said to me, “You just carry yourself like you know it will happen for you.” I was surprised by this, as I didn’t actually feel that way. But I had already had editors ask me for a novel before I arrived, and knew I had would have something to offer eventually.

What I did see around me at the time was that if getting into a program is the first best thing to happen to students with their writing, it makes the program too powerful a force on their imaginations. If the MFA is their first literary community, they might think it is the only one. The comments from their fellow students and faculty can take on an overwhelming force imbued with the implied threat of the loss of this validation. And this approach also protects students if they don’t get in. If you fail at the getting into a program, and you are already a part of a community, you will have some other success that consoles you. And you might reapply, or even find that you don’t need what you thought you might need. Or you might even find another motivation —the determination to get your revenge by succeeding without a MFA — which is a powerful force, too.

I wrote most of what I have to offer for advice on whether or not to get an MFA here in this essay, “My Parade,” over at BuzzFeed.

If you’re new here, the story thus far is here. Previous writing posts: Your Questions Answered: How Have You Overcome Writers’ Block?, Let Me Finish, Don’t Quit Writing When The World Is On Fire. For updates about my future posts, add me here.

Author of the novels THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT and EDINBURGH, and the essay collection HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL.

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