Why the MFA Was the Right Choice for Me

July 26, 2016 § 8 Comments

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Jayme Russell

Jayme Russell adds another helpful perspective on the MFA as Calling Card discussion:

Although Emily Smith’s piece “The MFA as Calling Card” was posted weeks ago, I have still been thinking about it. I think Dinty W. Moore and Kevin Haworth addressed most of my concerns in their own posts about why students should consider fully funded and low residency programs. In all three of the posts, non-traditional students and students struggling financially were mentioned. I thought it might be pertinent to give the point of view of a non-traditional student who recently graduated with both an MA an MFA in creative writing.

My first day of as an undergraduate, I couldn’t walk through the classroom door. I was a twenty-year old single mom without a job, without financial support, and without any real direction. I walked back to my car and cried. The next day, I went back and walked into the classroom. I had no other choice. I didn’t want to go back to waitressing, which was the only job I could get in the small West Virginia town where I lived. It wasn’t a career I could stay in forever, and the paychecks did not cover my living expenses.

I naturally gravitated toward an English degree and flourished thanks to many wonderful professors. I scheduled my classes around my son’s preschool time. I studied for hours after he fell asleep. I got my BA and am very proud of that. I also got into debt. It was unavoidable for me. I had no support. No scholarships. No job. No job interviews. I couldn’t even get a job on campus. I had the choice between putting myself into a hard situation, going into debt, or do nothing at all.

Dinty briefly touches on the problems of the educational financial system when he says “Clearly, college tuition rates, state funding of education, and financial aid are all broken systems, not just for undergraduates but for graduate students as well.” However, none of the blog posts address the fact that undergraduate students with debt can use their time in graduate school to forbear loans a little longer, in order to gain more experience before going onto the job market. I used my time in graduate school not as a time to go further into debt but a time to help me get out of it.

Emily notes that she could either get an MFA or grope blindly. I did not feel like I had the choice to grope blindly, waiting to see if I got a job when I was getting absolutely no response to job applications. I was already “saturated” in debt and, as a recent graduate, had no job experience whatsoever. I had no experience. I decided to apply to MFA programs and MA programs in Creative Writing. They would allow me to write, which is what I wanted time to do, and teach, which I wanted to learn how to do.

I paid application fees. I paid for the GRE. I got into an MA creative writing program. I wanted a job. I wanted to have a flexible schedule, so I could spend as much time with my son as possible. I wanted to write. My MA gave me all of those things. In the end, I graduated with a better understanding of the world of academia and the world of writing. I graduated and was very proud of the work that I had completed. I planned to write and teach the following year. That didn’t happen.

I didn’t write. I was teaching, but for such a low wage that it was hard to get by. I was left anxiously wondering if I would have a job the next semester. By this time I loved teaching, yet the instability of the job made me so anxious that I could not continue as an adjunct. I applied to the MFA not for prestige, but for stability and freedom.

I got into an MFA program. I wrote more than I ever had before. Workshop gave me confidence, support, and feedback. After graduating, I finally had a few pieces accepted by print publications. My submissions still get rejected a lot, and I didn’t get on an automatic book or academic job. The MFA didn’t solve my problems, but it taught me to be a better writer, it introduced me to a diverse cohort of writers, gave me two university jobs, and helped me to get the position that I hold now. I don’t make an extremely large amount of money, but I am slowly paying off my student loan debt. It feels almost insurmountable at times, but I still made the right decision to pursue these degrees.

That is not to say that I haven’t felt shut down as a young female writer in certain writing environments. I have. I think it is important to note that in Emily’s original post she related an incident in which an older male writer did not continue a conversation because she was simply seeking her BFA and not an MFA. I’m not sure why this particular writer was so rude, but Emily’s age and gender made me think that more was happening than she expressed. When people are not taken seriously, it is so often as much about gender, age, race, sexuality, etc. as qualifications.

I’ve seen students not taken seriously by other students, teachers, and visiting writers for so many reasons. A female writer friend of mine was told in workshop that her sentences were too simple. Also, she needed to write literary fiction, not young adult novels. At times, I feel as though I personally haven’t been taken seriously because of my gender and age. As a woman writing about violence, I’ve been told that I shouldn’t write about certain subjects. I’ve received the written comments: “You don’t know what you are talking about.” I’ve also been laughed at by a visiting writer for expressing my interest in obtaining a career in academia. Most, but not all, of these things have been said and done by white male students. This is a problem that is constantly being battled against in the literary world, and elsewhere.

The truth is that not everyone you will meet in the (writing) world wants to help and support you. There is competition. Not everyone will take time to talk to you about your work. Not everyone has the best advice, or constructive criticism, or patience, or kindness. Some do.

For me, getting three degrees and continuing to write, even when it is hard, has been so rewarding. It has made me the person I am now. I am educated. I am willing to stand up for my own thoughts. My financial situation and the negativity of others have not stopped me from doing what I have wanted and needed to do. However, my hard work is not over. I have a BA, an MA, and an MFA, but no calling card.


Jayme Russell received her M.A. in Poetry from Ohio University and her MFA in Poetry from The University of Notre Dame. Her work can be found in Black Warrior ReviewPANK, Tenderloin, Tiny Donkey, and elsewhere. For more information on her work and writing process visit her website.

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§ 8 Responses to Why the MFA Was the Right Choice for Me

  • Thank you, Jayme. As a single mother, I love to read about other moms who have made their way by using resources. I loved to hear that you were able to manage your education, and that it was also a financially sound reason for continuing it. I have struggle to find a way to go back to school, knowing that it may interfere with my job. I would love to hear how you managed living expenses, if you get the time.

  • jnelson30second says:

    Such a wonderful piece of writing about one woman’s journey in the writing world. Keep up the good work. Thanks for sharing your story with us.

  • Mrs. Mother Dirt says:

    Really wonderful and thoughtful post. I always draw inspiration from hearing other people’s stories and experiences. Your persistence is refreshing. Thank you for sharing your story.

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Good job, Jayme Russell.

  • I’m glad you chimed in Jayme. I’m also a single parent getting into debt to gain an MFA because my first Master’s wasn’t marketable. Like you, I have to write.

  • Kim Gorman says:

    Good for you for not allowing the naysayers to break your writer’s spirit. Keep believing in yourself and what you have to offer the world through your art. I had a similar experience as it relates to attempting to teach creative nonfiction, with a goal of self-expression and personal growth, which I blogged about this week. I’m not sure if this is allowed, but in the event that it is, here’s a link if you’re interested (in it I also share an excerpt from Pat Schneider’s essay You Are Already a Writer; she founded The Amherst Writers and Artists Method): https://kimgorman.com/2016/07/24/what-makes-a-writer/

  • […] Why the MFA was the Right Choice for Me, by Jayme Russell […]

  • Thank you Jayme. I’ve been thinking a lot about getting an MFA in Creative Writing and getting some criticism about it, but your experience has shed light on the importance of purpose and I’m going back to the drawing board to be honest with myself on why I want to pursue it.

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