Guest Post by Teri Carter: Lifting the Veil, or What Really Happened While Getting My MFA

Posted on 22 June 2011

Teri Carter joins us today with a guest post I find fascinating. As someone who has hemmed and hawed for years over whether to pursue an MFA, this was an eye-opener. I’d also like to point out that Teri possesses the gift of compelling me to immediately go out and read a book that she highly recommends. I get reading recommendations all the time, but none makes me act so fast as one of Teri’s. That’s power, people.

You can read more of Teri wise words at Carter Library. Thanks, Teri, for this guest post.

If you Google the phrase “To MFA or Not to MFA” your browser will call up dozens of articles about the generic pros and cons of MFA programs.  What you won’t find – or at least what I couldn’t find – is anyone telling you what really happened while they were holed up in all those workshops, chasing their degree.

Thanks to Laura for letting me take over her space to share a few real-life anecdotes about this writer’s MFA gig.  The following may or may not include some busted myths, my all-out failures, and what success sometimes tried to look like.

The Workshop. The most appealing part of being in an MFA program is the promise of being ensconced in a safe zone with other writers.  You fantasize about sitting around that workshop table with your peers, discussing the finer points of structure, point of view, voice, and what it means to write “in scene.”  All of this happened in my program.  I learned much.  It was great fun.  But I also realized that much of the feedback I doled out and received wasn’t all that helpful.  We were such a hodgepodge of genres and subject matter.  Travel Writing is not Fiction Writing is not Memoir is not an Epic Historical Novel.  We were supportive, but we were also on diverging paths.

You’re here to write your book! You often hear someone is getting their MFA because they need time to write.  My biggest surprise was how little time I spent writing.  A good 2/3 of my program requirements involved not writing.  Between the literature seminars, academic papers, workshops outside my genre, the foreign language requirement, reading and critiquing other people’s work, and providing free labor (though it was a labor of love) for the in-house literary magazine, it often felt like the writing of my book was an extracurricular activity.  My own fault?  Sure.  But the fact is I rarely worked on it, or even thought about it, while classes were in session.

Budget cuts and back-office politics.  Call me naïve (really, go ahead), but I was clueless about the politics, gossip, and jockeying for position that go on behind the scenes in a university English department.  There are professors, and then there are professors. Who knew?  Throw in budget cuts, non-tenured profs worried about losing their jobs, and tenured profs teaching 9.23% less because they’ve taken a 9.23% pay cut, and voila.  It’s no surprise that your little manuscript isn’t even remotely on anyone’s radar.

That little thing called your Thesis. For the first 2 years of my 3-year program, no one mentioned the book I was supposed to be writing.  It wasn’t until I had to submit my thesis proposal (a 30 page document, plus writing sample) that I got serious about writing my book.  Writing my book!  The reason I’d applied to this MFA program in the first place, right?  To make time to write?  In the end it took an extra semester and untold summer weeks of holing-up in the back corner of a library to get it done.  Shock of all shocks: the book is only going to get written if you actually write it.

Everybody – and I mean Everybody – is working on a book. Your professors, just like you and your fellow students, are drowning in deadlines and trying to focus on their own projects.  Everybody is looking to get published or publish more.  Publish or perish.  You’re all sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated, and just trying to put one word after the other.

Speaking of publishing. In my very first class, the professor told a story about how she got an agent and a book contract before even graduating from her MFA program.  It was the first book she’d ever written; she’d never even published a short story; she was ecstatic.  When she shared her good news with her peers, however, the reception was more than a little chilly.  Only two people congratulated her.  No way! we all gasped.  How could this be?!  We soon learned that yes, sadly yes, this could be.

Meeting my dream writers, up close and personal. I had a front row seat for Salman Rushdie, Dorothy Allison, and Junot Diaz.  I debated short story strategies with Denis Johnson, had ZZ Packer over to my house for a barbeque, chatted with Lan Samantha Chang about her job as Director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  And that’s the short list.  I was within breathing distance of so many of my literary icons. I feel like I remember every word they said.  It was heavenly.  My tuition was worth this alone.

Read.  Then read some more. I learned far more about writing in my literature classes than I did in workshops.  I learned my narrative theory by reading narratives, not by studying theory.  The old adage is true: if you want to write, read.  It’s that simple.  The best writing teachers are books.  And not books about how to write.  Real live books, with stories in them.

Teri Carter’s essays and short stories can be found in Columbia, West Branch, Redivider, and other journals and anthologies. She has a B.A. in English from the University of Minnesota, where she was awarded the Marcella de Bourg Fellowship in creative writing and received her MFA in 2010.

Teri lives in northern California where she’s working on her first book, a memoir about family and racial tensions in Missouri.

20 responses to Guest Post by Teri Carter: Lifting the Veil, or What Really Happened While Getting My MFA

  • Teri says:

    Somebody just e-mailed me about funding, so I wanted to add this. Some MFAs are funded, some not. There’s huge appeal to being accepted into an MFA program that IS funded. I’m all for that!

    There’s another kicker, too. Your ability to relocate. My program was not funded, but it was the closest to where I lived and, therefore, made the most sense. My husband did the working while I did the schooling. Moving was not an option for me.

  • Averil Dean says:

    I find this oddly comforting, as someone who has taken the Abe Lincoln approach to education–although I do envy the experience of meeting other writers face to face and getting immersed in writing.

    Well done. Post, education, all of it.

    • Teri says:

      Thanks, Averil.

      Would you believe my daughter just sent me this e-mail: “You have an orb in your picture for the guest blog. Blow it up! I don’t necessarily believe in all that hoopla, but you never know. Maybe someone is watching over you…”

      She’s right. There’s an orb on my chair. Dear lord.

      • Downith says:

        Yup, just clocked it! Cool.

        • Teri says:

          To get weirder … That photo was taken while I was taking my 3-day-long MFA exam. Around the same time, a friend talked me into seeing her psychic. The woman told me that my mother is a constant presence, but that she was never a hugger and so she continually hugs me from behind, both to support me and to stay out of my way.

          I’m off to have a good scream now.

      • Averil Dean says:

        Aaargh, you’re right! And I love that you visited a psychic. I went myself, decades ago, and watched each prediction come to pass. I’m a devout atheist, but embarrassingly susceptible to ghost stories and things that go bump in the night.

  • Great post, Teri.
    If only I had known what I know now…

    My graduate course of study was not as romantic but I admit I’m nostalgic for my college years. Oh, to be enveloped in a world of creativity, inspiration, freedom, and opportunity! Whenever I hear of a young person getting ready to set sail for their own adventure, I can’t help but feel a little jealousy rearing up inside me. If it weren’t for the debt (and this little concept known as children), I’d go back to school in an instant.

    • Teri says:

      And in that same vein, MSB, I’m terribly sad when I hear a young person is not going to college, not even going to try it.

      One of my nieces just graduated from high school, she’s moved in with her boyfriend because she’s fighting with her parents, and she’s just lost right now. I sent her graduation card with a few bucks and wrote her a long note, encouraging her to look for solace and guidance and a path — in college.

  • Lyra says:

    Thank you!

    Meeting the authors, having them over for barbeques, that alone would be worth the price of admission.

    I only took one creative writing class in college, and it was similar in that what I took from that and what I have gleaned from my own reading, there is no contest. Read everything, read for voice and style, structure and to loosen up your brain when it cramps from overexposure to your own work.

    I was thinking about it recently, what I’d do when I’m ready for someone to read my work before it gets sent out. And I thought, who has time to read this massive unpolished mess when everyone is so stretched for time and needs to use that time for their own stuff? Seems I incidentally hit the MFA dynamic on the head.

    • Teri says:

      I’ve kept in touch with several undergrad friends who all went on to various MFA programs around the country: the high and low brow, the expensive and the funded (free), ones with famous writers and without. What’s the common thread we all discuss now that we’re finished? The lack of time for students and teachers alike, and how most programs stuff too many other academic hurdles in with the writing — which, of course, they have to do to justify it as a masters degree. It’s a conundrum for sure.

  • Downith says:

    Great post Teri. Sounds like your program was way more hardcore than mine. I don’t really know how much I learned, but it got my engine started – where I drive to is still anyone’s guess.

    “Shock o f all shocks: the book is only going to get written if you actually write it.”

    Ain ‘t it the truth.

  • lizisilver says:

    Hi Laura,
    I’ve visited your blog before and was quite excited to see your article in Poets and Writers (“I ‘know’ her!”). I’m a bit awkward with initial hellos, so Teri’s guest post is a perfect way for me to come out of lurkdom.

    Teri, this answers so many questions that have been wading around in my mind lately. The program sounds like both hell and heaven. I think I’d start to feel resentful if I wasn’t getting any writing done because I was busy meeting degree requirements. There’s quite a tension there.

    On the other hand, schmoozing with literary heroes? The chance to hang out and geek out with fellow language lovers? [insert appropriate O face here].

    I’ll be selfish and suggest that this topic, To MFA or Not To MFA, could be endlessly explored on your blog (please!). In the meantime, thank you- you’ve given me lots to consider.

    • Teri says:

      Go for it, Lizi. There’s a silly Lotto commercial that runs like a rip cord through my head when I’m on the fence — You can’t win if you don’t play.

      Annoying? Yes. And a little too true for comfort.

    • Hi Lizi! Yes, I agree the MFA topic is a tempting one to explore further, and I’m sure I will. There are so many sides to the MFA issue…maybe I’ll interview some current and past MFA students to get even more perspectives. Teri’s post was a fabulous start.

  • Lisa Golden says:

    Oh the turmoil. Some days I just want someone to tell me what to do.

  • amyg says:

    almost ten years ago, i started working towards my masters of english with a concentration in creative writing. it wasn’t an MFA, but the closest i could do. i didn’t finish because i realized that if i wanted to write, i just needed to do it. it took about 18 hours of graduate classes to take myself seriously. i did get to take a few classes with sena neter jaslund who had just gained fame with Ahab’s Wife.

    the orb is spectacular.

  • Like Amy, I decided to started mine several years back, when the University where I work was talking of starting a master’s in creative writing. My job pays for us to take a class each semester, so I figured I’d get there slowly but surely.

    I took one fiction workshop, with Craig Holden as guest lecturer, and then the University decided not to continue the degree program after all. Can’t afford to do it myself somewhere else, so I’ve concentrated on my writing and taking short workshops (like the two I did this summer). But boy, am I envious and proud of you for pursuing yours!

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