21st Century Brontë #16 by Brontë Bettencourt
On Deciding to Pursue an MFA in Creative Writing
So for AWP 2016 I had one serious goal in mind: research grad schools. In the past I’ve spent my time darting between panels with a quiver of pens and a notebook bought just for that convention.
But after reading an interesting article at The Review Review on how to make the most of AWP, I focused instead on the book fair. Considering that there were over 700 booths hosted by publishers, colleges, and writers (and one, somehow, for the perfume of dead authors), this task was incredibly daunting.
Armed with my canvas bag, fresh haircut, and attire with a modest amount of personality, I strutted into the fair … to immediately scuttle over to a familiar booth, the first of many more to investigate: Hamline University.
I initially heard about this university at AWP 2015. Many of the faculty members were on panels that I attended because I was keen on the panel topics, before I noticed the same names involved. The subjects of Magical Realism, strong female characters, and people of color in YA fiction were hosted by individuals who took the convention atmosphere and transformed it into a thought-provoking, comfortable space.
This year, when I arrived at the Hamline table, I was greeted by this same mood: I didn’t feel pressured to buy into anything. I was then invited to dinner, where I met many more of its students and faculty members. I’m sure I sweated off all my deodorant due to internal anxiety. But, eventually, over dinner, I became comfortable in my own skin as well.
Long ago, my editor told me that not all MFA programs are the same, which should’ve been obvious. But I didn’t realize that I could forge my own path until after I earned my Bachelor’s degree.
By high school, I knew I wanted to pursue creative writing, but my advisor explained that I wouldn’t get far without a Bachelor’s Degree. Applying to universities in Florida made sense because of the simultaneous newness and familiarity. Driving home to friends and family only took a few hours. Looking back, not a tremendous amount of thought went to applying to undergraduate programs because I felt like I just needed a degree.
One bachelor’s degree later, graduate school seemed like the next step for many of my peers. As for me, I had no idea which out of the hundreds of countrywide programs to apply to.
But then a bigger question dawned on me: is graduate school even an important option for me?
I want to be able to earn a living through my writing, preferably through YA fantasy novels, or YA fantasy cartoons. Or any cartoons. I’ve always been attracted to stories with a large, diverse cast of characters who the audience identifies with before plot conflicts confront them (characters and readers and viewers) with heavier topics. I love when a story can meaningfully combine the whimsical and the serious.
The question of whether I would need an MFA weighed heavily on my mind since I finished my undergraduate work. In university curricula, there seemed to be a divide between literary (academically approved) and genre (don’t waste our time, please) fiction. I understood that the character should be the focus of the story, and that juggling character depth as well as other concepts such as magical or alternate-realm settings could be too much pressure to place on novice writers. But literary fiction isn’t my passion. If that was all an MFA could provide, then maybe this wasn’t the right direction to take no matter how much I love an academic life.
Which is exactly why I’m drawn to Hamline’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. This is a Low Residency program. After meeting with my mentors and peers for ten days, I’d return home to work on my writing on my own time. Such a set-up seems to resemble the writer/editor correspondence that I’ll hopefully partake of with my occupation. With a low-residency program, that one-on-one relationship between professor and student is still enforced.
Because there’s only ten days of in person instruction, there’s an urgency to not waste time. The rigor would feel like an elongated AWP.
The University of Vermont also offers a program like this one, except older (the oldest low-residency program that teaches writing for children and young adults in the US).
These programs focus on the various sub-genres of writing for younger readers, such as picture books, graphic novels, or comics, with semesters designated to focus on a different category. Students will also focus on writing for different age brackets such as early reading, middle-grade, and young-adult fiction. Although students will have to hone in on a particular sub-genre, experimentation in the others are encouraged. And students are also explicitly taught how to navigate the literary marketplace, from the writing life itself to publication.
Considering both the faculty and their works (such as Swati Avasthi’s Chasing Shadows, William Alexander’s Nomad), genre is encouraged.
And there are other programs that I’m interested in as well, such as Antioch University and Chapman University. Antioch has a low-residency program with multi-genre focuses on writing for videogames, films, stage productions, and television writing. Chapman isn’t low-residency, but there’s a dual MA/MFA Degree geared especially for students who want to teach English and creative writing at the college level. The degree would take three years to complete, with requirements to fulfill in both the MA and MFA degree. That honestly sounds really awesome to me as well as intense, granting me a completed year of work toward a Doctorate degree. I’m not for certain if genre fiction is encouraged, but considering that James Paul Blaylock (one of the pioneers of the steampunk genre of science fiction) is a professor at Chapman, there’s definitely promise. At the very least I’ll research the other faculty members.
In my canvas bag are business cards, pamphlets, brochures, and swag (pens, notepads, and even matches) from an even wider array of MFA programs.
I am at the end of a year off of my education to see if the writing life was truly what I wanted. This time consisted mainly of reading novels, jotting a lot of notes to myself, realizing that I’m not cut out for the standard 9-5 job, writing for my Dungeons and Dragons’ campaign, writing my novel series, and writing about writing.
I think I’m in this field for the long haul.
Brontë Bettencourt (Episode 34) graduated from the University of Central Florida with a Bachelors in English Creative Writing. When she’s not writing or working, she is a full time Dungeon Master and Youtube connoisseur.