Wednesday, July 25, 2012

M.A. versus M.F.A. – a note to would-be creative writers

I applied to the creative writing Master of Arts program because I was scared. Scared that pursuing the three-year Master of Fine Arts without an English degree was presumptuous, overly ambitious. Scared my excitement over returning to the classroom after four years in the ‘real world’ would burn out after the first few stressful semesters. Scared I’d have a tough time juggling a fulltime job and grad school. Scared my personal life would progress, lead me in a different direction, before I could get through 48 credits. Scared I wouldn’t be any good at creative writing. I chose the 30-credit M.A. program because it was shorter. Safer.

Looking back a year and a half later, even after switching to the M.F.A., I don’t really blame my former self. There have got to be countless would-be students with similar issues – people who have always wanted to try creative writing but don’t have the background and aren’t prepared to dedicate three years of their life to the unknown. People who are interested in graduate study but have personal or professional obligations that don’t allow for a three-year commitment. People who want to write but don’t necessarily intend to teach in the future. For those people, the M.A. is a great fit – and more than that, a golden opportunity. Kudos to FAU for offering an alternative to the M.F.A. that still gives passionate but perhaps busy or apprehensive writers a real chance to learn, to write. It so happens that not too many people take that chance – at one point, I was the only student in the creative writing M.A. track – but it was undoubtedly the right program for me at the time.

To those of you deciding between the M.A. and M.F.A., know that the M.A. is a viable option that, though shorter than the more popular M.F.A., offers the same access to talented and insightful professors and fellow student writers. It’s a less conventional path to take in the creative writing world, but one that may be right for you. And maybe some of you, like me, will start on that path only to realize your initial fears were unfounded. Well, maybe not quite unfounded – it was nerve-racking to take my first workshop with students who had been writing and sharing their work for years. Being back in school after a few years in the workforce was an adjustment, and studying while maintaining a fulltime job continues to be a balancing act. My personal life did progress – I got married last semester.

But as I made my way through the program, as my confidence built and my excitement mounted and I became more inspired than I’ve ever been, I found that none of this threw me off the way I thought it would. Any residual stress seemed – seems – so worth it. Three years became a commitment I was not only willing, but thrilled, to make. I switched to the M.F.A. because my time as an M.A. helped me realize not only how much I love learning and writing, but how much more I have to learn and write. And I’ll always be grateful to have had the chance to ease into that realization on my own terms.

Risa Polansky Shiman is in her second year of the M.F.A. program. She holds a B.S. in Journalism from the University of Florida and reported on Miami’s local governments before moving north to work, study, and write at FAU.