About six months ago, a new acquaintance, a would-be MFA student, was complaining about being too broke to apply to nearby schools that didn't offer funding; unable to relocate to take advantage of programs that do offer funding; and unimpressed with the low-residency model. What to do?
I'm sympathetic to this dilemma because it's one I faced several years ago when the traditional programs I could reasonably commute to didn't offer much in the way of funding, and in one case offered me a "scholarship" that sliced the tuition, but only down to a level that made me gasp instead of pass out. I didn't think I would get enough out of a low residency program, and at the time (and I don't think it's changed much since) no low residency programs I could find offered funding that would substantially reduce costs. Eventually, I realized that for me it was going to be low-res or nothing (as is the case for many other mid-life, mid-career folks) and I found a low residency program to suit me, one that was more-or-less reasonably priced (in comparison, friends), got a loan and got on with it.
Which is what I told my new acquaintance. Leap, I said. He wasn't ready and wanted to know if he could get at least some of the literary training he longed for without disrupting his family, job, and home, or going broke, or both.
I told him there was good news and bad.
First the bad: Want to seriously write? It's going to be disruptive. You are going to need to steal the time, from somewhere – family, job, home, hobbies, sport, friends. I've yet to meet or read about any successful writer (and I’m defining success broadly here, not in best-seller terms) who describes their transition to becoming a dedicated, serious writer as a smooth one which pleased everyone around them.
More bad news: It's going to cost you. Maybe you don't need to fork over a tuition check the size of a house down payment, but you know what? If it's top quality instruction, guidance, coaching, and advice you are after – and not just that you want to spend more time writing – there's a price tag, even outside the MFA. Really fine writing teachers who take on private students or who teach in non-academic settings or non-degree programs have value and are priced accordingly.
A little more bad news: Debt is bad for a writer. I'm learning this first hand right now. Sign on for those student loans and sure, you get to pursue the MFA without working three jobs at the same time. But six months after graduation, those loan payments begin. True, they can be spread over 10 years, and as my husband keeps trying to explain to me, an extra monthly payment that's less than the combined cable/broadband/phone bill is manageable. Most months. Unless the entire economy tanks, throwing both of your self-employed incomes into a tailspin. Like now. The point is, if you are worried about paying for that MFA, if you find yourself having to take on work that's soul-sucking but better-paying just to whittle down that MFA loan – well, I can tell you that's not a great way to feel post-degree. But I wouldn't trade those two MFA years either.
The dilemma is, now that I finally feel I'm ready to write full time, my family's financial outlook isn't ready for me to do so. Maybe it's just me, someone who abhors debt, who pays off entire credit card balances every single month, who won't buy a car unless I can put down 50 percent and also get 0% financing. I'm sure others have much higher tolerances for debt. But a writer who is emotionally burdened over cash flow (hey wait, doesn't that describe most writers?) is not in the best of all possible creative places. But enough about me. I'll get the loan paid off, maybe later rather than sooner.
Back to my friend. Here's the good news. If the MFA is out of reach financially, or logistically, well -- forget about it. Concentrate on what is possible and create your own "program" to elevate your writing. I'd build it around having at least one traditional type of workshop-style "class" going most of the time. Writing coaches, authors and MFA-level instructors are all around, teaching a course or running a workshop here or there out of their homes, a writing or literary center, or community colleges – why? To supplement their writing income, or because they want to teach but don't want the administrative burden of a traditional faculty position, or because they just like the independence.
My friend located three excellent, well-published writers who teach privately, all less than 90 minutes from his somewhat rural town, at various price points, but all within his budget and right for his skill and craft level. He's starting his first workshop with one of them next week. Meanwhile, he's found a literary festival near his parent's house, with free workshops and lectures, so he's combining that with an overdue visit. He joined two writers' organizations, in two different cities, and one smaller one much closer to home. He's applied for workshop scholarships at two writing conferences, and is just now thinking about a few low-residency MFA programs in cities where he has relatives or friends who can offer free lodging. Last month, he attended a reading, lingered afterward, fell into conversation with the author, who offered (yes, without being asked or begged) to read the first chapter of his novel-in-progress and pass on some tips.
All good. But there is some bad news. The money he's spending on the workshop was supposed to be for a guys-only weekend to watch his old college football team. His wife tells him his writing life is cutting into their time together after the kids are in bed, not to mention how he's monopolized the basement corner she'd once planned to turn into a craft studio.
See? Disruptive. Good for him.