The Back-To-School Special: Updates from the MFA Underground | Fiction School Podcast #46

The Back-To-School Special: Updates from the MFA Underground | Fiction School Podcast #46

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.

2 Responses to The Back-To-School Special: Updates from the MFA Underground | Fiction School Podcast #46

  1. Thanks for bringing Meg Flannery (sp?) back to discuss her experience so far with her MFA program. Interesting to hear her perspective after the first semester.

    One MFA option people may be less familiar with is the low-residency MFA. You do the same amount of work (more or less; hard to make broad comparisons when there are so many programs, both traditional and low-residency), but with some important differences in format.

    In my program (The Stonecoast MFA program through University of Southern Maine), like many other low-residency programs, you start the semester with a short (but intense) residency on campus–mine was ten days. Afterward, you work with a faculty mentor by correspondence for the rest of the semester. In my program, that means sending in five packets of 25 pages (roughly one per month), which your faculty mentor returns with detailed line notes and typically a long letter (e.g. 3-10 pages) discussing your work. There may also be discussions via phone, Skype, or in person if you happen to live in the same area.

    Baker said of his program that the faculty were “kind of important,” while the other students were “way more important” in his overall experience. In a low-residency program, I’d say it is almost the reverse: your relationships with your faculty mentors are probably the most important. With my program, each mentor typically works with only four or five students throughout the semester, and as mentioned, and their feedback on your work extensive. That said, I also came home from my residency with at least a dozen new friends among my fellow students, all of whom I could call on for support as needed. I even connected with several faculty members through both in-class discussions (seminars and workshops) and after class socializing (faculty readings, student readings, dinners, etc). All of them were very approachable.

    The general vibe in my program was incredibly supportive. I never felt like I was in competition with anyone. Which is not to say that I felt coddled by faculty or fellow students in workshop. Their feedback was honest and invaluable. They showed a great deal of insight in identifying the elements of my stories that weren’t working for them, and for the most part their response to those elements was not prescriptive, but questioning: e.g. How could this be more nuanced? What could be added here (or taken away) to better develop the character, the setting, etc.? Regardless of who was being workshopped, I came away every day feeling energized and excited about opportunities to improve my work.

    I do agree with Tommy that the workshop is “not about the person being workshopped.” Or at least, not all about that person. You learn just as much reading other people’s work and being forced to articulate your thoughts about it.

    While I may miss out on regular in-person hangouts with my classmates, many of us seem to be keeping well connected with each other through social media–the conversations about life, writing, and reading continue. I definitely still feel like I’m part of a strong community.

    Economic considerations are also an important factor. Unlike many established traditional MFA programs that may offer full tuition and possibly a stipend to students in their program, grant money at low-residency programs tends to be more limited. But if you have a career already, quitting your job–even with tuition paid for–may cost you more money than paying full tuition to a low-res program that allows you to keep the salary you’re used to.

    Every program, low-res or full-res, is different in terms of culture, quality, cost, reputation, etc. If you’re considering where to apply, you really owe it to yourself to check out each school on your list to make sure it meets your needs.

    If you’re looking for an MFA experience that emphasizes peer-to-peer relationships, provides a more traditional classroom structure, where you’ll probably spend less money (while possibly foregoing a larger paycheck), a full residency program may be your best bet.

    If you’re looking for an experience that emphasizes student-faculty relationships, has a more self-directed structure, and allows you to keep your day job (while probably spending more money on tuition), consider the low-residency option.

    For those who think they want to get an MFA so they can teach writing, it’s probably true that most full-res programs will give you more pedagogical training. (In my program, everyone has to do a third semester project, which you could use as an avenue to accumulating some experience as a teacher–e.g. by running a workshop for teens in your community). But I have talked to a lot of MFA faculty–including low-residency, full residency, and people who do both–and what I’ve taken away from those conversations is that a teaching job is not easy to get. The odds are against you, and what really matters is not teaching experience but publishing experience. Sadly, it is true that great writers are not always (or even often?) great teachers. The art of writing and the art of teaching people how to write (coaching is a better word for it) are only loosely related. Nevertheless, students are attracted to programs with award-winning, well-published faculty. Ergo, prolific writers who win awards are going to be in higher demand. So I say don’t worry so much about your teaching experience. Worry about what’s going to make you a better writer. What MFA experience is going to be your best path to developing your full potential?

    If you want to learn more, there’s a book called “The Low-Residency MFA Handbook” by Lori A. May. Great information there.

    If anyone out there has specific questions for me, I’m happy to answer them in this forum.

  2. Hey Fiction School!

    I might create the best impression by starting out with my next line, but I feel like it has to be said: I follow your show like strong-headed sectarian cult! There, I said it; God knows why I wanted to say that… (no pun intended)

    I have a question regarding how does one understand whether or not they really need and MFA program if they want to become authors. A lot of bestselling writers nowadays might not have any kind of writing background and yet BAM, they wrote something in their free time and it sells. This is a question I’ve been asking myself for years now, and I can’t answer my own question because I’ve had frankly zero experience/contact with other people who could tell me whether or not I have the skills.

    Here’s the long timid story of my life… I-I mean, the scenario. Yeah, here’s the scenario:
    My first year of college is starting out in a couple of months. One would think I should take this time to chill, relax and write – I’ve already enrolled, got my acceptance letter, just waiting for the term to start, right?

    Well, you see, I live in the ass of the universe. Okay, maybe I exaggerated a tad – there are a lot of areas that are cut out of civilization in general, not just cut out of fine culture. But I live in a sex-tourism city in Thailand. Life happens, we had to move out of Europe, my parents fell in love with the local beaches, palm trees and ultra chill atmosphere so they decided this was the place where they wanted to grow old. I moved here when I was 12 and have been living here permanently every since.

    We’re still a developing country, decades behind, and the Thais are really strict about keeping things the way they are – the Thai way. A lot of attempts of the foreigners to civilize this place fail, crash and burn to the ground – Thais don’t need all those things. They’re chill and happy with the most simplistic ways of living and don’t see why they’d improve something that satisfies them just fine.

    Schools are strictly academic. That means no clubs, no activities, parties, events, barely any sports, no contests, no out-of-school interest groups, not even a proper prom or a proper diploma after finishing school.

    (Except, of course, for the couple of English boarding schools for the snooty-Mc-snooty rich kids, and even those suck remotely.)

    The only few International Universities that teach in English only teach Business courses and maybe some IT. That’s it. You can’t study medicine, engineering, sciences, social arts etc.

    For the past seven years I had a passion for writing that was impossible to fulfill. My only resources – a pen, a writing pad and books (at least they have bookstores in here!) to study this wonderful form of art. And throughout the years, the feeling of “who eve needs this” had been building up in my chest because of the realization that I can’t ever achieve anything here.

    As soon as term one commences I’m dedicating all my time to finding transfer programs or scholarships and getting the hell out of here. But I only got one shot at this – our finances are singing blues, so I gotta stick to one path and dedicate to it. The question is, what do I choose? Logic tells me I ought to stick to a ‘serious’ career path that will get us out of our financial crisis. My heart says that this is my only chance to spark that flame again and not let my passion die, along with numerous projects I’ve dreamt of sharing with the world.

    Okay, hell no, that is “the part of me that you’re never gonna ever take away from me…”, but I feel that an MFA program would speed things up a hundred times and help me become confident of my work, not to mention get feedback. Otherwise, I feel like I might not be able to do it all on my own.

    Sp whatcha think?

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