by Tina Isaacs
With all the brouhaha over the MFA-gate business, I thought I’d say my piece as a present student and candidate for the Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing at the University of Tampa.
Do bear in mind that I am a litigation lawyer living and working in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, traveling half-way around the world to attend residences at in Tampa, Florida.
- Some of the phrases in italics below are in my mother tongue, Malay, with a translation contained in the succeeding parentheses.
When I signed up for the MFA, I didn’t realize its significance (or the controversy surrounding it). I’d been searching for a mostly-online course, which would suit my time constraints, but also allowed me to attend at the campus so I’d get a feel of the environment. I had considered an English Literature course at first, but realized that wouldn’t cut it (I wanted to learn to write, not read).
Since I had an Undergraduate law degree, it made sense that my next course was a Masters (instead of another Degree course), but this was mostly to satisfy my academically-oriented parents – “Not to worry if I can’t make it as a writer, mom, I can always teach!”
It had also been very important for me to travel and experience the literary scene overseas (the Malaysian literary industry particularly, and South East Asian in general, is at this time not as developed). I considered USA as the ultimate destination because it is the Mecca of literary publishing today.
The Low Residency MFA in the USA (or Low-Res, as we call it), which involved traveling to the States for a 10-day Residency at the commencement of every semester, and then returning to liaise via email/skype with a faculty mentor for five months, seemed to fit my objectives perfectly.
True, there are other creative writing courses or options out there, but here’s WHY THE US MFA WORKS FOR ME:
The particular Lecture/Craft Seminar/Workshop/Reading/ Mentor-Mentee format of an MFA is perfect to fine tune my fiction writing. We learn from lectures and participate in workshops specific to the writing craft and our genre. I receive peer feedback and critiquing of my writing technique. We also hear seminars and readings from celebrated authors and poets – we’ve had numerous poets and authors published many times over, some having won book prizes, one a Pulitzer winner – and the entire class gets to hear how these speakers developed their writing careers and share in their experiences – we even get the opportunity to purchase their autographed book (a small perk).
Apart from the standard craft lessons, group mentor/mentee workshops and daily readings, we go on group outings, have Q&A sessions with the faculty, and of course, most importantly, have one-on-one mentoring by an assigned faculty member. This mentor goes through all your submitted work with a fine tooth comb. For me with my debut novel-in-progress, it feels like I’ve signed up for a gym membership with personal trainer who motivates and guides me towards my goal. Hopefully, after the two years, this translates into a publishable book of a certain minimum standard. The fact that many of my seniors (the earlier graduates) have already gone on to successfully release their novels via the traditional publishing route and have numerous essays appear in prestigious literary journals is a clear motivating factor.
We also have reading assignments and annotation exercises, done with the view of teaching us to ‘read like a writer’, i.e. analyze what works in good literature, and how to emulate it. This has been a real eye-opener, because prior to the course, I merely read for entertainment.
Of course, there is also the Critical Literary Essay in Term 3 (on a topic of writing technique) and the Thesis in Term 4 (at the end of two years), which forms the basis for your Masters. After four semesters have been completed, there is one final Graduating Residency, where the MFA candidate present a lecture, read an excerpt of their thesis and attends a “Robing” ceremony. The Masters is actually conferred after the end of that succeeding semester.
I am enrolled for a Fiction major, but they also have specializations in Non-Fiction and Poetry. Since some plenary lectures involve Non-Fictional and Poetry topics, I get to learn techniques peculiar to these genres and apply them to my storytelling.
Our dozen-person faculty is diverse – Russian, Canadian, Croatian, German, Pan-Asian and of course, from all over USA (most are permanent lecturers from other Unis, who work part-time for the low-res format at our Uni) – all of them very accomplished writers in their own right. And we have about 15-20 guest lecturers and writers, who are a hodgepodge bunch. Most of the guest writers during my three semesters were amazing, but there were a few I couldn’t stand because SO BELAGAK (Nose-To-The-Ceiling-Snobs) and one really accomplished writer (85 literary journal publishings!) spent the entire hour-and-a-half lecture speaking to her paper! WTH??? Well… all I can say is, it’s human intensive training and no one’s perfect.
Being a Malaysian foreign student, entering into a Western environment is a totally different ballgame. Pursuing an MFA in the USA means being immersed in the North American publication scene.
My classmates are 95% American (coming from all over the continent for our residency stint) and the rest, from all over the globe. Students’ age range from 24 (fresh out of undergrad) to in their 70s. Some of my classmates have published a few books or are already editors of their own literary periodicals. Most work towards nurturing their writing talent (to be come successful and published writers, authors and poets one day), but there are also many candidates of the MFA are there to seek the paper qualifications to further an academic or editorial career.
I’ve had the opportunity to meet and form relationships with writers of various caliber, some with astounding qualifications or experience who had yet to make it as successful writers, and all: impeccable English (sometimes I question how the eff I got in, being a non-native speaker!)
We also have industry talks with publishers, so it’s a great way to get a feeler if you are interested in publishing in the North American literary market and an advanced opportunity to make the priceless network contacts for your own publishing career.
Combined with the faculty line-up and guest readers, you are enveloped in a literary community that nurtures and supports a budding writer. I reveled in the level of the academia and find the natural camaraderie with our faculty and fellow students indispensible. And even though I only see them for 4 weeks in a year, I am able to maintain my connection from Malaysia due to the joys of the internet. From the shared experiences of some of the lecturers (MFA-graduates themselves), I’m told that these are lifelong and indispensable connections that a writers carries with him/her for life. I can certainly attest to this by indications thus far; the friends I’ve made in the course have never failed to extend support when requested.
4) JUST RIGHT FOR MY PERSONAL CIRCUMSTANCES
I’ve always been passionate about books, displaying a penchant for storytelling and other creative tendencies as a child (I’d even sung professionally and acted in Theatre and TV movies in my 20s). As a 40 year old mom and lawyer with court trial and drafting experience, and after 20 years of being in the work force, I was brimming with tales waiting to be put on paper. Furthermore, having been in the legal industry for two decades, I needed to break away from just ‘telling or submitting the facts’ to weaving a credible fictional storyline that would invoke that emotional connection with my readers.
Most importantly, I was not getting any younger. Unlike some countries with a higher literacy awareness (where kids are exposed to English literature at a young age), writing is not considered a viable career choice in SE Asia. Therefore, it’s very normal for writers who hail from the East to embark on their writing career a bit later in life, after our basic “life requirements” have been met – career established, married with children etc. The MFA-haters say it’s too late for older-folks like us to give creative writing a try. I respectfully disagree. If this contention were to stand, the Anglophobe writing community would be a sad place populated only by writers from developed Western countries.
When deciding to take such a leap of faith at the advance stage of my life, I told myself that I couldn’t afford to be idealistic, taking the time to hone my craft in the (slower) traditional way. I was adamant to find a program catered to mature students; one that would treat me seriously and shortcut all the basics – although when I got into it, I did come to realize that I’d have to relearn some basics of grammar and undo many bad habits developed as a litigator – fiction writing is so nuanced!
I’m pleased to say that, thus far, the course and guidance of my faculty mentors has enabled me to reach deep into my depth of personal experiences, to pour it into my writing voice; this being the essential ‘It’ factor that makes my writing me.
WHY MFA WON’T WORK FOR EVERYONE
1) You have to be proactive and self-sufficient. Quiet or mousey people who don’t ask questions and expect spoon-feeding will not benefit. It’s a Masters program so, unlike undergrad, requires a student to take initiative and be bold.
A lot of what you learn is from outside the classroom, from mingling with your classmates, chatting with other faculty, asking the right questions to the right people, even going for a Clubbing/Karaoke session with the entire troop (and developing a relationship with them). It is essential that you be outgoing – if you’re not, fake it till you make it, baby! – and be willing to go over and above, otherwise you miss out!
Also, traveling alone overseas (a trip from KL to Tampa is generally a trans-Pacific/Atlantic 35-45 hour total of flights ONE WAY), requires you to be self-reliant, street-smart and internet savvy.
2) Orang banyak songeh (fuss-pots) will also not benefit. Studying creative writing is not an exact science, and a student cannot expect everything to be tailor-suited to them. To get the most out of the program, an MFA candidate has to be adaptable and resilient, be prepared to immerse oneself into an experience which is totally different from one’s ordinary life. What one could get out of it would commensurate with the effort that one puts into it.
3) People who think they are absolutely right and are not open to suggestions – we Malaysians cheekily call them “batu besar dalam kepala ada duduk” (in their head sits a massive boulder) – just don’t bother to sign up. The faculty (and even your peers) dishes lotsa tough love. You may not like it, but better you hear it from them now than your book critics later.
Being classically trained, it’s natural that many of them are literary snobs (they only read or give recognition to literary/award-winning works), so I’ve had a few differences of opinion since I write what is considered as genre/commercial fiction. Of course, they are not Gods or all-knowing. Only you can determine what works for YOUR writing. But, blimey, they know their stuff, ya know? So listen to what they say and always extract the positive from the wisdom they try to impart on you.
That said, in my experience, the faculty has been very flexible and amenable. They work closely with the students to get the best out of their manuscripts.
4) You have to work hard and there are NO shortcuts. The course requires you to complete numerous assignments with tough deadlines (each month, the writing assignment alone is a 7,500-9,000 word submission). Till now, I grapple with time management (On the final deadline of the packet submission, I lurve the 12-hour time difference!). Not to mention I have to also juggle and allocate time to my legal work (paying clients!), household and family duties (an affectionate hubby and three school-going girls) and time to myself (else I’ll go cray-cray)
But, hey, no pain, no gain…
Which brings us back to the MFA-gate argument. After I signed up and commenced the course, I started hearing about the criticisms (and defensive arguments) about the course. Some said it’s a ploy to make money off aspiring writers – apparently there are hundreds of thousands out there, halfway intelligent folks who are positive they’re the next Stephen King or JK Rowling!. Others argue that the MFA is an industry conspiracy to create jobs for writers, who would otherwise struggle to subsist on book sales alone. On the other part, I have been told that the MFA is regarded as a basic MUST if you want to be taken seriously in the writing community. One person said, when submitting your manuscript for publishing, revealing that you have an MFA in the query letter to agents/publishers is an automatic set-aside from the slush pile, at least for the first round of filtering, because they understand the structured program, not to mention the sacrifice and hardship, we MFA candidates undergo to graduate.
And the arguments on either end of the spectrum go on and on, yada yada yada.
For me? I just here to learn, ya know? At the time, I hadn’t sought it out for the recognition that comes with it (or lack thereof), because I merely viewed the MFA as the best way to achieve all things I needed to jumpstart my writing career. I certainly consider the MFA a service to all aspiring writers, particularly writers like myself who originate from less developed literary communities.
In just three semesters, I feel like my brain has been rewired. I read, write and think differently than I did two years ago. So, although the cost is quite substantial – I sold my beloved Toyota Prius and that still doesn’t cover it all! – I see it as a worthwhile investment in my future, and don’t regret it one bit.
Now, all I can do is work hard and pray that, in my case, this endeavor is the start of great things to come!