Are MFA Programs Worth It?: How Much Is Too Much To Invest In Your Craft?


Alright, fine. I'll do it. I'll begin this blog post with a cliche. To make matters worse, it's going to be a sappy one about springtime and flowers and the birth of new beginnings. Don't say I didn't warn you.

The problem is that I've been searching and scheming and tapping my pen and standing on my head (OK, maybe not that last bit, as I've never really known how to do a headstand), all the while trying desperately to write about something else. But, I just can't seem to shake it. Newness is plaguing every inch of my life these days, so I may as well talk about it.

I didn't really plan it this way. Not like last spring when I specifically planned to uproot my life from New York City and move back to California. This year, I was hoping to maintain status quo; yet, life has not allowed me such luxuries. It's not that I'm averse to change, it's just that when many changes happens all at once, it can be a bit overwhelming, regardless of how positively awesome they may be.

In the past month, I've bought a new car and said good-bye to my roommate because she moved to Seattle with her boyfriend. I've also been living in a veritable wasteland of an apartment because all of the furniture and household appliances were hers. For the last two weeks, I've been eating meals out of my bedroom because my desk is the only solid table I've got to set a plate on.

On the plus side, my landlord took this opportunity to install new carpet, as the carpet in my apartment had not been replaced in 9 years. That's right, 9 years. In all that time, my friends have been moving each other in and out, so the place has never been fully vacated or renovated, and the carpet we'd been living with was worn and stained and the color of dismal rain clouds.

My new carpet, however, is exactly the opposite. It's pillowy soft and is the same shade as coffee flavored ice cream. I absolutely love it, and it's revitalized my entire home. I will have a new roommate and new furniture coming on April 1, and I'm quite excited about both.

In the midst of all of this transition, I've had to make one other adjustment, and this one was probably the toughest. Last December, I was accepted to a Masters of Fine Art (MFA) program for Creative Writing. I was beyond thrilled. I've always wanted an MFA, and I loved the prospect of having a community of writers to learn and grow with, and a mentor who could guide me through the process of writing my book.

All the while, I could never bring myself to make a formal announcement of my acceptance on Facebook, or my blog, or anywhere else. I told people who were close to me, but I couldn't fully commit to telling the whole world until I worked out one tiny bit of the equation: the financing.

When I got accepted, the financial aid office told me that the government had just changed a few of their policies. For starters, there would no longer be subsidized loans offered to graduate students, which meant that every penny I took out would start earning interest regardless of whether or not I was a full-time student. They also conveniently chose to double the interest rate at the beginning of 2012. It went from 3.4 to 6.8 percent for all Stafford Loans.

I spent months researching scholarships and various other loan options, but nothing was panning out. In the meantime, I would sit down to write, and found it increasingly difficult to focus on my book. All I could think about was the price tag of this program and what it would potentially mean to have all those loans hanging over my head for decades to come.

You see, the ironic part of deciding to pursue something creative for a living is that money inevitably enters your subconscious. It lurks there like a shadowy figure, hidden yet pervasive. I began to wonder what it would mean to write a book that wasn't at all financially successful. What if no one bought it? What if I invested $30,000 in a writing program -- and, yes, my craft improved, it was a wonderful experience -- but what if there was never any financial return on my investment? Would I then look back and agree that it was worth it?

All this anxiety was wreaking havoc on my creativity. Scott Avett, painter and musician who sings and plays  banjo for the folk band, The Avett Brothers, discusses this phenomenon in an article he wrote for Relevant Magazine. He talks about how the act of creating something gets polluted with the "intent to succeed," and shares a quote from one of his art school professors:

"'If you are thinking about where a painting is going to hang in a gallery and what others will say and think of it before you have put the first brush to the canvas, you are missing the point entirely.'"

I read that statement and immediately knew I was guilty of doing just that; however, my act of creating wasn't being polluted so much by my "intent to succeed," as it was by my intent to survive.

It's not that I disagree with Avett, because on many accounts, he's right. The act of creating something should be a journey, and it should be about more than success; but if you want art to be your livelihood and you want to financially survive off of it -- to pay your bills and buy groceries and go on vacation and raise a family -- then do you still not worry about your artwork's final destination?

The whole scenario seemed like a Catch-22 until one day last week, when I was driving down the Pacific Coast Highway and listening to NPR. It was the weekend Morning Edition and they were interviewing Esperanza Spalding, the 28-year-old jazz phenomenon who won "Best New Artist" at the 2011 Grammy's. She was telling a story about a musician she knew who was in his late seventies and had been playing and writing music all his life:

"He keeps his horn by his bed and gets up every morning and writes," Spalding said. "I think about that, and it's a really good reminder and a testament to the fact that you have this partner, and  if you've been good to it over the decades, is always good to you. Even if you're not out working and being famous, it's like the most giving and loving and satisfying partner -- which is the art and the craft."

Her words struck me in a rather pivotal way, and inspired me to take a few steps back and reexamine my relationship with writing. I thought a lot about my childhood, and the hours I would spend scribbling stories into notebooks, and then transcribing them on to my mother's typewriter, a monstrous and lumbering mechanism that hummed at me while I hunted and pecked at the keyboard.

The transcribing process was never my favorite, but the initial act of dreaming up the story was. There was so much joy to be found in getting lost inside an imaginary world, and searching for the right words to capture it. I can see now that I still have that joy inside me, it's just gotten a little squelched. It's been muddled with pressure and expectation and intent to survive.

But the thing I've realized lately is this: I don't need to write well to survive. I have a job, and it's not a glamorous one, but it pays the bills quite nicely and gives me ample time for writing. If all I ever do is continue to wait tables in the evenings, and spend my afternoons working on my book, then that's not a terrible way to live.

Yesterday afternoon, I came to my final decision and denied my acceptance to the MFA program. In letting go of that opportunity, I am now faced with yet another new beginning. I signed up for a weekly writing workshop in Los Feliz, and I rearranged my bedroom to make it a more suitable space for writing. I shoved my dresser into my closet and brought in a side table, a lamp, and my favorite gold armchair, the one I like to curl up inside of and brainstorm ideas the old-fashioned way -- with a notebook and a pen.

My goal is to once again embrace writing the way I used to when I was 8 years old -- when it was the late 1980s and computers didn't exist and all I had to worry about was telling a story, not for any other reason but because I wanted to. Because the very act challenged me and taught me something, and if I did it well, I could look back at what I created and feel an enormous sense of pride.