Remember the Trapper Keeper? It was so badass, especially when you could poke a hole in a corner and blow it up like a balloon.  I did that almost every day in fourth grade.

guest bookEvery fall in those salad days of elementary school, I’d get queasy walking into Wal-Mart to get my Trapper Keeper and fresh notebooks and Number 2 pencils, and a few starchy pairs of Wrangler jeans for the new school year.

And I still feel that way, even though I’m in 34th grade.

Well, this week, as the Spring semester kicks into gear, Fiction School called up our far-flung MFA correspondent, Meg Flannery at Southern Illinois University, who overcame being Tommy’s former student and is deep into her edumacationing of writing.  We chat about how the program is pushing her writing boundaries, the “MFA Bubble,” why honesty is the most valuable trait in a reader, and how weird it is to be in a writing workshop at all.

And Baker doesn’t buy jeans at Wal-Mart any more.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.


  • Meg regales us with her experiences in her first semester of her MFA program, which was a really weird workshop where she had to read out loud and everybody gave their gut reaction.
  • And maybe that’s the best part of the MFA experience: being forced to try things you’d never think of, so that your repertoire expands beyond ways you’d never expect.
  • But that weird workshop is actually really representative of what it’s like when a reader picks up your book in a bookstore to decide whether to buy it or not.
  • Meg is scheduled for a “regular” workshop next semester.  So we talk about how strange a workshop actually is, to have 12 people read your story minutely and discuss it in-depth for an hour.  In real life, that, like, NEVER HAPPENS.
  • Tommy says that “the secret of the workshop is that it isn’t for the writer, it’s for everybody else learning how to read a story closely and identify what it’s doing.”
  • What about the out-of-classroom stuff in the MFA program? Meg likes (wait for it…) a brewery.  She hangs out with the poets a lot.  We’re okay with that, because when Tommy and Baker were in MFA school, we had a Poets vs. Prosers weekly matchup, which the Prosers dominated to the tune of 448 wins and 1 loss.
  • Meg talks about her MFA thesis, which she’s beginning to focus on.  That’s one of the other cool things about the MFA program life: having that big work being so important and such a longstanding piece you get to work on and take your time with for years.
  • Tommy asks whether there were MFA students who were figuring out that they in fact do not want to be writers.  That’s one of the best things you can learn in an MFA program, actually.
  • We talk about the ways that honest friends can really help you more than your good friends who really get your work.  The best advice you get is from the honest readers, and the advice sometimes hurts.
  • Next we discuss the “MFA Bubble,” where everyone you know in the world is in your MFA program, and it begins to seem normal to be a writer–and it’s pretty annoying to people you know who aren’t writers.
  • Then there are the students who are kind of posers.  Tommy and Baker called them “The Hemingways,” the people that wanted to be a writer, without actually doing any writing.  In Meg’s program, they’re “Writers with a capital W.”
  • There are lots of great folks, too.  The networking of the MFA program is one of the best boons of it, knowing all kinds of writers by the time you leave.
  • We wonder about the element of writing community and the difference between going to MFA programs in remote or small cities versus going to New York City and the way that’d change your experience and level of involvement.
  • Meg’s words of wisdom: when choosing your program, make sure you like the other students in the program more than even the professors.
  • Tommy reminds us that you SHOULD NEVER PAY FOR MFA DEGREES.  Go only where you get assistantships and teaching opportunities which pay your tuition and a little stipend.  It don’t pay to go into debt for your MFA, says the poet.

OK, kids.  That’ll do it for this week’s edition of Fiction School.  We’re off to a fresh start this Spring, so you have about a week until you get detention, probably.  See you there.