To MFA or Not to MFA

For this week’s feature article, we interviewed Mary Biddinger, Director of the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program (NEOMFA). Biddinger answers some questions for us about the benefits of participating in an MFA program and also discusses situations when an MFA might not be the answer.

Interview conducted by Diane Goettel

Sapling: What do you think are the best benefits of getting an MFA in writing?MaryB

Mary Biddinger: I believe that any sort of creative writing coursework is a gift that you give yourself as a writer. Whether it’s a weekend workshop, a residency, a group of friends getting together every month for coffee and poems, or a degree-granting program, the most important benefit is the time a writer will carve out of the everyday in order to work exclusively on writing. And how often do we end up folding laundry instead of writing? Far too often.

In terms of the MFA itself, I feel that the relationships writers can create with faculty members and friends are tremendously valuable. I’m still in touch with classmates from my undergraduate poetry workshops and beyond, thanks to the Internet. Getting an MFA taught me how to speak intelligently about poetry (and fiction). The MFA frustrated me and it excited me, and moreover it challenged me to keep justifying exactly why I wanted to write.

SAre there any situations in which you would advise someone against getting an MFA? How about holding off on beginning an MFA program?

MB: The MFA climate has changed significantly since I was a student. Now it seems that writers are more accomplished before and during graduate school, and while they are undertaking the MFA there’s an urgent push to publish and otherwise professionalize. I find this rather unfortunate, since often the professionalization takes place at the expense of the writing.

I have also noticed that students today are very interested in producing a highly-polished, publishable book as the thesis, especially in poetry. That’s perfectly fine if the work is at that level, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with using the support and community of the MFA to try new things, take risks and fail miserably, and create the skeleton of a manuscript (which may or may not ever emerge from the closet). It’s possible to satisfactorily fulfill degree requirements while leaving the thesis malleable. There’s no need to send it to publishers the day after the defense.

I started my MFA directly out of undergrad. I will be the first to admit that I was attempting to delay adulthood (it arrived anyway, apparently), and that my MFA thesis was a disaster, in retrospect. I was unhappy with the poems, and never pursued publishing them. I just moved forward and wrote more poems, better ones that I could stand behind. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything, because now I know why I make the decisions I make.

I would advise against getting an MFA if the writer feels it’s a required hurdle on the road to being taken seriously. That’s not true, since so many of our best writers do not have an MFA. I should probably advise potential MFA applicants of the younger sort to take some time off and work crummy jobs, and then try the MFA, but I won’t say that. There are plenty of crummy jobs awaiting us writers post-MFA. I held many of them, and now I write poems about them. But I am glad that I went right to graduate school, if only so that I could fall down and get up again (for fifty pages or more).

SWhen writers are just beginning their research into MFA programs, what should they look at first?

MB: Funding is essential, especially in today’s economy. I had no idea I’d end up eventually supporting myself, two kids, and three cats solely on a salary made from poetry and teaching poetry, and the way I learned to do that was by squeezing every drop out of my stipend and learning everything I could as a graduate assistant. In terms of funding, I’d also encourage students to see if there are options to do administrative or editorial work as part of an assistantship. I don’t think I would be able to support kids and cats if I hadn’t worked (as a volunteer, and for pay) in so many different capacities.

Faculty offerings are just as important as funding. When I applied to graduate programs I checked out the books of all the professors I could potentially be working with. Of course, a professor’s work is not always a representation of her ability to mentor students with varied aesthetics, but I was looking for a kindred spirit.

Finally, I would say that location makes a big difference. I spent much time driving away from the location of my MFA program, but eventually I found myself in love with the town and landscape. There are so many choices now that writers can look for locations that might be inspiring.

SMany colleges and universities have begun MFA programs in the last decade. Why do you think this is?

MB: As the director of a young MFA program that’s going into its sixth year, I might venture to say that MFA programs have taken on the dual purpose of attracting students from around the country (and globe), and serving local communities at the same time. The MFA isn’t a vocational degree, and perhaps as a culture we are beginning to value writing programs for what they can offer a variety of potential learners. In the NEOMFA program we have many nontraditional students who are working alongside what I would consider more typically “traditional” MFA students (and I’m defining this by my own twenty-something MFA student self of yesteryear).

SWhat do you think of online MFA programs? What about low-residency programs?

MB: I have friends who have been students in these sorts of programs, and friends who teach in them, and I really admire the way that they make creative writing coursework available to people who might not be able to complete the MFA otherwise. I am also very much in awe of their organization, and technological wonders.

I’m not sure I’d be right to teach in a non-full-residential MFA program, however, since I’m all about having an open office door and an ear ready to hear from my students whenever they feel like stopping by. I write comments all over student poems in my sometimes-incomprehensible green pen scribble, and I don’t think I could teach without being able to do that. I do like, however, that the creative writing curriculum is able to adapt, especially for those who can’t take several years off to study writing.

SMost MFA programs require students to choose a genre to focus on. What advice do you have for writers who, say, write both poetry and short fiction, and want to begin an MFA program?

MB: This is a decision that I had to make when I was an undergraduate thinking about MFA programs. Ultimately I decided to become a poet because the workshop photocopies were less expensive. I am mildly ashamed to admit this, and wouldn’t recommend it for future applicants deliberating about a primary genre. Once I got to graduate school I realized that I could take fiction workshops again, and that was a delight for me.

In this case, I might suggest that the student find a program where coursework in a second genre is either required or recommended. Our program, the NEOMFA, requires students to take one out-of-genre workshop and one out-of-genre craft and theory course. It’s amazing how trying out another genre can fortify a writer’s work in the primary genre, too. I’ve also found that some students are genre-ambidextrous, and many of my fiction writers have published poems, and vice versa.

SOf course, as the Director of NEOMFA, you are biased, but can you name some MFA programs that impress you? And can you tell us what you like about them?

MB: Despite my feelings about their football team, I think the MFA program at Ohio State seems pretty darn cool. I must follow this up with an endorsement of the MFA program at the University of Michigan. Another young MFA program like ours is the one at Virginia Tech. Reading their advertising materials makes me want to get a radical makeover and a fake ID and apply there as an incoming MFA student, totally incognito. All of these programs have the things I value in an MFA: excellent funding opportunities, faculty who are dedicated to their students, and a lively community of writers.

Finally, I have to endorse my own MFA alma mater, Bowling Green State University. I did not write my best poems while I was a student there, and I thank BGSU for letting me make mistakes and grow as a writer. I learned so much as an assistant editor for Mid-American Review, and at the time I had no idea that my future would involve editing several book series and starting my own literary magazine. I thank the BGSU MFA program for taking a chance on a girl with strange poems and black lipstick, many years ago.


Mary Biddinger is the author of Prairie Fever (Steel Toe Books, 2007).  Her poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in 32 PoemsThe CollagistCopper NickeldiodeGulf CoastThe Laurel ReviewNorth American ReviewPassages NorthThird Coast, and many other journals.  She is the editor of the Akron Series in Poetry, co-editor-in-chief of Barn Owl Review. Her chapbook, Saint Monica, was a finalist for the Black River Chapbook Competition and is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press.