I've been asked by a few writing friends if I thought the MFA program I'm in at Spalding will be worth the cost of tuition. Obviously I think so, otherwise I wouldn't be enrolled and I won't know for certain how I feel about the entire program until after I get through my first semester. But I thought I would explain what I've heard about MFA programs, what I've seen at Spalding, and what I think of the program so far for those who are curious.
**Please note, I'm not trying to promote Spalding. It's the only true reference I have to pull from experience-wise.**
A little information on Spalding first. Spalding's MFA program is a low-residency program. That means students need to be on campus ten days a semester, which they call residency, unless you're attending a summer semester. In that case your 10 days will be spent in a foreign country. This year students went to Paris, France. Next summer, they'll go to Dublin, Ireland. After the residency, students work from home with guidance from their mentor. Spalding offers Children's/Young Adult fiction, Fiction, Screenwriting, Playwriting, Poetry, and Creative Non-fiction. I learned about Spalding, because I was in close proximity of the school in High School. I did not know about the MFA program until I saw it listed as one of the top 10 creative writing MFA programs in multiple writing magazines. To learn more about the program go to Spalding's MFA website.
Creative Writing MFA programs only write literary fiction.
I've heard and read this a lot. I've also read that because they only write literary fiction, a lot of writing suffered from the program. The author was a contemporary novelist and the school insisted on him/her writing literary. This was a concern for me. I'm a a contemporary writer and though I don't mind reading literary pieces, I don't believe I'd do well with that style of writing on more than a trial basis. This was especially a concern when I realized that the two books we needed to read before residency were both literary fiction. However, we were required to workshop our peers writing during the residency as well. I found some reassurance in reading the excerpts. Their were contemporary pieces to critique.
During the actual residency at Spalding, I picked up on a lot of their techniques and logic. They want their students well-rounded. So each semester they focus on a different aspect/genre of writing that they expect everyone to participate in during residency. Of course, they offer lectures on other topics, subjects and material. This semester the focus was on children's books. Next semester, from what I understand, the focus will be on screenwriting. They prefer students to do an exploratory semester their second semester--have them try something other than their focus. A lot of people suggested I try screenwriting out, next semester. I believe you can try a different style for every semester if you like though. The different types of experiences will help the writing in different ways. Poetry for instance teaches rhythm and imagery. Screenwriting teaches you how to tell a lot in a very short amount of space/time, etc.
No one said anything about restricting oneself to literary fiction when writing. In fact a lot of contemporary novels were referenced in lectures. I've heard that a lot of MFA programs are literary focused, but I do not get the sense that Spalding is.
Creative Writing MFA programs result in one or two short stories a semester.
I workshopped with ten students, an alum who was volunteering to help with the program and two mentors. I met several other people outside the group. None of which, are going to be writing short stories during the semester. I will be working on two novels during my first semester. Shadowed, and Entangled. I've been editing Shadowed for years, as some of you may know. I first wrote a rough draft of Entangled at fifteen. I've rewritten it several times since then, in totally different ways, but have not yet fallen in love with a discovery draft yet. I doubt either book will be complete by the end of the semester. But I imagine Shadowed will be much cleaner, more polished and significantly closer to being ready for publication. Hopefully I'll have a better idea of how I want to write out Entangled and even have a much stronger discovery draft--if not a rough draft carved out. I'm hoping to have gone through the first 100 pages of both books with my mentor by the end of the semester.
I've heard from a few transfer students that their are writing programs like this--they have you turn short stories in throughout the semester and nothing more. This often results in students graduating from college and never writing a story again, because they wrote to fill a deadline. Spalding, I'm told, wants to teach students how to fit writing into their daily life, which is why they have the mentorship working the way they do.
Creative Writing MFA programs don't teach you anything you can't learn on your own.
I believe you can learn anything on your own, from car mechanics to archery to martial arts to crocheting. Classes are always offered in those areas though. So, this statement is true in my mind, but I imagine you'll learn a lot more and a lot faster with an experienced mentor at your side. Spalding's mentors have all been published in their field. I know several of the ones in my field of concentration have won awards for their writing and have active careers. Each semester you're supposed to work with a different mentor, which would give you more/different perspectives and experiences in writing, and in your writing than working with the same person year-after-year-after-year. You're going to continue learning after the program--you never stop learning, but by the time I graduate from Spalding, I suspect I'll have a better idea of how to figure out how to improve my writing and use the resources I picked up on, which will make me improve faster, even on my own.
You also meet a lot of great people at the residency, which not only can help you with your writing, or promoting your book but can also provide you with the emotional support you need when times are hard. You also have a great potential resource of information in areas you may need later for other books. I met nurses, doctors, lawyers, waitresses, career-military, a baker...etc. A lot of great sources you're not going to easily get on your own.
Creative Writing MFA programs are expensive.
Depending on your program and your income, they can be expensive. The lowest-priced one I've heard of is $7,000 a semester. At the moment, Spalding is looking at $7,900 a semester. Some will say that's chump change, others, like me, will not. Their are options, grants and scholarships can help with the cost, even for freshman. Spalding doesn't offer grants and only a very select few get scholarships, from my understanding. Spalding does offer an assistantship program for those who want to go that route. The more you work, the more they knock your tuition down. I think the minimum they'll knock it is $1,000. And, of course, student loans. Spalding allows you to stay in the program as long as you need, so long as you graduate in ten years. My understanding of this is, you can apply for Spalding, pay $8,000 in cash for your first semester. Wait two years to save up another $8,000, attend your second semester and keep the pattern going until you graduate. You only need four semesters to graduate. It just depends on what you prefer and can afford.
Another way to think of it is that, sending your novel to a good, professional editor would cost approximately the same amount as you are spending on a semester at Spalding. (I've looked into the pricing but not extensively, so please correct me if you have better knowledge.) I don't just mean copyediting. I've been told my mentor will read every page, dissect every paragraph and question every comma. She'll make suggestions on how to improve my story AND help me get the story as grammatically correct as possible. That means I'd get proofreading, copy editing, substantive editing, and developmental editing. To get all those services, from what I've seen, you'll have to pay significantly more than $8,000 a semester. All the while learning a lot more about writing than one would from such an editor. I'm also not required to work on the same piece of writing for all four semesters. I can work on something different each semester if I want.
To me, with everything I know about Spalding's program, I think it'll be worth going to an MFA program. I would recommend it to whoever is interested at this point, but I know it's not for everyone. If this has tugged your interest and you'd like to know more about Spalding's program, feel free to ask questions. I'll do my best to answer them. As I've mentioned before, I also plan on recording as much of the experience as I can on this blog.
Are you in an MFA program? Tell us about your experience. Would you be interested in trying one? What would you most hope to gain from the program?