Sharpen your pencils. Polish your trackball. Update your screen reader. Whatever accessibility means for you, do what you need to do. Because school is in session, folks!
I’m a curriculum designer by day, and my M.Ed. taught me a few things about program planning. For one, not unlike a great story, a good degree program has a beautiful through line, from the learning outcomes of the program to the classes that compose it, right down to each and every assignment. I love nothing more than building a clean, tight coherence that knits together the macro and micro systems, whether that’s in education or fiction.
So first, before I give you my program plan, here’s what comes standard with the typical MFA model:
- Seminars and workshops where you receive craft instruction from a highly respected, accomplished writer in your chosen genre. You then pass around your writing and practice hearing your classmates say things about your work that may, at best, sting your pride and, at worst, be downright ignorant and offensive. Ideally, you also get some actionable feedback as well.
- A class on literary theory and criticism, which most of your peers will grumble about.
- Lots and lots of reading, through both assignments and self-directed readings. You’re supposed to write about this reading, too, so that you graduate with some marketable book review skills.
- At least a couple literature classes.
- One elective, which could be anything you can justify to the school. Usually, though, this is a class in the pedagogy of teaching creative writing, interning with a literary journal, or working as a translator.
- At least a couple critical essays between 10 and 20 pages in length.
- A thesis, which is meant to be a publication-ready book-length manuscript in your chosen genre (poetry, fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting). Realistically, it often turns out to be a book-in-progress.
- A presentation, usually a lecture on craft or literature or a reading of your own work, and sometimes both.
- Four or five writing residencies, if you’re doing a low-residency MFA. This is where you fly out to campus at your own expense, put yourself up, and attend lots and lots of lectures, workshops, readings, and other literary-themed meetups with your classmates and professors whom you may never have actually met before. It’s definitely a no-go for someone with disabling chronic illness, but it does sound fun.
- Lots and lots of networking with other aspiring and published writers, forming professional alliances that lead to later podcasts or co-founded literary journals and organizations, teaching gigs, publication gigs, agent referrals, and all those other tasty treats that writers hope for at the beginning of their careers. None of this may happen, but it won’t be for lack of trying.
The Bennington College MFA, which is widely considered to be one of the top low-residency MFAs in the nation, lasts four semesters. It is characterized, among other things, by these requirements: 100 books read (beyond assigned reading), 30 days in residency, two 10-page critical essays, one 20-page critical essay, 20 packet exchanges, one 25-30 min. literary lecture, one 20-min. reading, and a thesis of 150 pages. Similar requirements exist in most MFAs I looked at, from the University of Washington to Columbia University.
I can pretty much achieve all these things more cheaply and accessibly, at my own pace, thanks to the wonderful worldwide web. Here’s how:
- Seminars and workshops can be accessed from my computer whenever I am able to withstand some screentime. Lectures on fiction will come from MasterClass, which has some incredible offerings from Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, and Neil Gaiman. At $90 a class, I can afford one a year.
- Inked Voices provides a wide range of online critique groups, workshops, lectures, and classes for about $8 a month. This is actually cheaper than my old writing group where, at a minimum, I spent $20 a month on coffees.
- Dr. Paul H. Fry of Yale University has generously allowed the university to post his class on literary theory to the Open Yale Courses website. His lectures are free to access, and the site provides his full syllabus, which can easily be leveled up to a 500-level course by adding graduate-level writing assignments as well as additional lectures and readings tying theory to the practice of creative writing.
- Lots and lots of intentional fiction reading, but paced out over six years instead of two, is a big part of why I’m doing this. It makes that 100-book goal a stretch, but doable. Plus, thanks to Book of the Month, when I’m not well enough to go out into the world to pick up a book, they ship me hardcovers of the hottest, latest literary titles for only $15.
- I’ll be returning to Open Yale Courses for most, if not all, of my literature classes. During my first MFA in my twenties, I took Dr. Amy Hungerford’s excellent class on the American novel. So next up is Dr. Roberto González Echevarría’s deep dive into Cervantes’ Don Quixote (which I’d one day like to model a novel on). And I’ll be examining Milton’s work with Dr. John Rogers because I’m deeply interested in how writers relate to and interrogate religion (and Milton is a great case study for that).
- My elective will be a class on screenwriting, also courtesy of MasterClass. Secretly, I’ve wanted to make a film my entire life. And although disability may mean I can’t ever work onset, I sure can work towards finishing a script.
- Critical essays are a no-brainer. Sometimes I do this anyway for fun. Really.
- The plan is for my thesis to be my second novel. But I know the creative process can veer off in unexpected directions, especially over six years. So we’ll see.
- YouTube is the perfect place for me to practice my lecture and reading skills. And since I’ll be discussing obscure literary techniques and history, the trolls will really have to work hard to find me. Fingers crossed.
- I will be doing seven residencies, clocking in at 49 days, thank you very much. Each year, I will schedule one week off work in March and devote it to daily writing, discussions with my writing groups, going through the class library on Inked Voices, and viewing readings online (seriously, you can find recorded readings online from pretty much any of your favorite living authors–try it). The seventh residency, after my final semester, will be spent presenting the thesis and lecture just as at most any MFA.
- Networking? I’ll figure it out. The online writing community is a gigantic ecosystem. It will take time to find my niche there. But hey, I have plenty of that.
The packets, for me, will be due twice a semester and include: an annotated bibliography of my reading, two 2-3 page book reviews for two books, and all the pages of revised and original fiction written in the previous 12 weeks. I’m aiming for two to four new pieces of short fiction each year along with ongoing work on longer-form fiction.
And yes, folks, I’ve done all this before. Discipline has never been an issue for me. And yes, I find all this super fun.
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Lots of people say lots of things about the purpose and value of the MFA. But I still like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s thinking best. I was at a reading where a young woman of color asked whether Adichie would recommend an MFA and if she thought the degree was necessary. Just looking at Adichie’s CV (she holds two master’s degrees, one in creative writing, along with numerous honorary doctorates), one would expect her to give a resounding yes. But she didn’t.
She paused thoughtfully, as I always saw her do at readings whenever young people asked for her advice, and she answered that MFAs were most useful for time and space. If you were having trouble making time and space for your writing in your everyday life, then an MFA could help you with that. But, she advised, only if it’s fully funded. Don’t go into debt for it, she told them.
I like this answer.
The MFA is about writing. That’s what it’s for. Period. And specifically, it’s about making a space for your writing. So my program plan is about my writing. If you decide to borrow it, then change it to fit your projects, your goals, your tastes. It should look like the writer you want to become.
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MASTER OF FINE ARTS
IN CREATIVE WRITING
NAME: M.C. Easton
CORE (28 credits):
ENGL 501 Textual Strategies (4) Fall 2019
ENGL 510 Seminar in Fiction (4) Spring 2020
ENGL 520 Seminar in Creative Nonfiction (4) Fall 2020
ENGL 515 Basics of Screenwriting (4) Spring 2021
ENGL 584 Advanced Workshop in Fiction I (4) Spring 2022
ENGL 585 Advanced Workshop in Fiction II (4) Fall 2022
ENGL 586 Advanced Workshop in Fiction III (4) Fall 2023
LITERATURE STUDIES: (12 credits)
ENGL 544 Cervantes’ Don Quixote and the Western Canon (4) Fall 2021
ENGL 513 Milton and Individualism (4) Spring 2023
ENGL 541 Themes in Contemporary Literature (4) Spring 2024
THESIS: (8 credits)
ENGL 700 Master’s Thesis (4) Fall 2024
ENGL 701 Master’s Thesis (4) Spring 2025
TOTAL REQUIRED FOR MFA: 48 credits