For the longest time, I believed that I needed an MFA. However, over the years, based on advice from some of my published writing colleagues and my own realization, I realize that I don't need an MFA. But still, there are days when I am envious of my writing colleagues who do. Perhaps this "flip flop" resolution is because of the prestige, the status that I associate in having an extra three letters after my name. Or, due to the feeling that I would then belong to an exclusive club of literary scholars. Or, that I associate that I would feel more deserving of the accolades that my published works so far. Or, I would feel more qualified to speak on certain topics or teach other writers or be a published author of books. Or, that I would feel more like a writer and less like an imposter. Or, the fact that I already applied to two Creative Writing MFA programs-- one at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in 2011 and the other at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) in 2013-- and both times, my application was rejected. I was disappointed after all of those essay questions, reference letters, photocopying, printing, and transcript ordering. But the truth is I realized that I am extremely qualified and have been creating my own Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree program in Creative Writing without realizing it. Here's how... (so maybe you too can create your own MFA program without going thousands of dollars in debt although my opinion on this one changes frequently). Let me tell you how I managed to become a writer without an MFA.
1. Take courses... several.
For me to become a full-time student again is expensive. Thankfully, there are so many educational options that are convenient, flexible, and affordable. During my years in completing my undergraduate degree, I took courses in multicultural children's, post-colonial, and adolescent literature. In my thirties, I took night-time continuing education courses at George Brown College, a community college in Toronto. So far, these courses are Writing for Children 1 and 2, Writing Non-Fiction for Children, Children's Book Illustration, and Writing Science Fiction. I am taking a playwriting course at the Tarragon Theatre for the second time because I found the first one to be such a huge motivation. Each of these courses ranged in price from $240-$300 at GBC and $500 at Tarragon (Canada).
2. Find a writing mentor.
At some point in your writing career, having an experienced writer or coach walk alongside you while you complete your writing project is a necessity. These individuals can be found quite easily either through a community college or university course, search engine, or recommendations. I completed the Humber College School of Writers Correspondence Program in 2015 with my mentor author, Richard Scrimger. Over a six month period, I worked on and managed to finish my middle grade manuscript and receive valuable feedback. This program is normally about $3, 000 Canadian dollars but I applied and received a scholarship which knocked my costs down to $1, 000.
3. Create your residency by going on writers retreats.
A writing retreat gives you time to write but also a supportive community of writers who can give you unconditional encouragement, critique, listening ears, and love. In MFA programs, "retreats" are referred to as residencies but also involve classes, lectures, and intense work. In my experience, retreats are in natural settings away from the busy city and you have teachers or guides to help you and include room and board. You have no choice but to allow the creative literary juices to flow. I have completed three writing retreats. The first was in 2011 with a writing therapist through the Five Oaks, a United Church of Canada retreat centre, where I worked on my young adult novel and wrote an essay near Paris, Ontario, Canada. I have also attended retreats at the Highlights Foundation in Honsdale, Pennsylvania, United States. These retreats were the Revision Retreat in 2015 and Fundamentals of Writing Biography in 2017. Each of these retreats ranged from $600-$2000 and each time I applied for scholarships to reduce my expenses. Also see number 5.
4. Join writing associations and communities.
In every MFA program, you have access to your classmates and professors either through online discussions, face-to-face, or a combination of both formats. You can get the same experience by getting involved with your local writing community and organizations. Currently, I have memberships in the following writing organizations-- The Writers' Union of Canada (TWUC), Canadian Society for Children's Authors, Illustrators, and Performers (CANSCAIP), Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), and the Canadian Children's Book Centre (CCBC). These memberships range from $80-$200 Canadian in annual fees. The added benefits are that you qualify for exclusive information, you are represented as a professional on key issues in the publishing industry, receive newsletter and e-bulletins with important information, qualify for certain grants and funding such as Writers in the Schools, and access privileges.
Finding community is essential as a writer. Whether it is on a Facebook group, an online discussion group, or a face-to-face critique group, you need to find community to get feedback on your work and to stay connected. I have an online critique group, plus I joined two great ones like 12 x 12 and others. These are your MFA classmates. I also started my own called Sankofa's Pen (formerly African-Canadian Writers for Children and Young Adults). Join as many as your time will allow.
5. Attend conferences and workshops.
Often going to conferences, courses, and workshops gives you opportunities to meet other writers and publishing professionals (e.g., editors, agents, publishers) in your area but also those from other regions. You can find out about marketing and trends, improve your skills, develop your craft, learn new genres, network, and find out about publishing opportunities. I met all of my publishers and editors through workshops and conferences or have been recommended through these events. Often these events will have more specific sessions to meet your needs in such areas as theatrical adaptations, finding an agent, legal issues, dialogue, character development, "breaking in", middle grade, and historical fiction. I have attended the SCBWI International Conference in New York City (2015 and 2016) and regional ones in Ottawa (2016), and Montreal (2015). I attended the 21st Children's Non-Fiction Conference (CNFC) and Kweli: The Color of Children's Literature Conference both held in New York City in 2016. I attended the Voices of Our Nation (VONA) writing workshop in travel writing in 2016 in Miami, Florida. For example, I have also attended the Canadian Writers' Summit (CWS) in Toronto and the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) in Brampton, both held in Ontario, Canada in 2016.
The contacts that you make at all of these events is invaluable. These conferences and workshops range in cost from $99 to $900 US dollars in tuition. Sometimes, scholarship and stipend options exist through the organization that is hosting and in Canada, they may qualify for particular arts grants to which you can apply. They do not include room, board, or travel costs. If one is a presenter or writing an article about the conference (as I did for the Canadian Writers' Summit), the cost to attend may be waived, reduced, or offered as part of one's payment.
Sometimes, you can find workshops offered through webinars like those offered through CANSCAIP and SCBWI.
CANSCAIP, the Toronto Public Library (TPL), and other organizations also offer free writing workshops.
The workshops range in price from free to $60 Canadian.
Why do I no longer think I need an MFA?
Two things changed for me (this week). First, I realized then more than ever that I am a full-time writer and a full-time teacher. Secondly, I have been creating my own MFA program for all of the additional writing courses that I take.
This was my week. On Monday, I taught (I am a full-time teacher during the day) and during my breaks, I check my e-mails. I received twenty-two writing related e-mails. An all-time high. This does not include the several I received for my teaching job. That morning before work, I had just submitted a magazine article. I worked late to prepare my supply teacher's plans as I took the next day off to do two library presentations on Tuesday and meet a publisher. Then I headed to my night class in Writing Science fiction. On Wednesday and Thursday, I was back to teaching and in the evening I responded to e-mails, worked on grant and contest applications, and reviewed an article that I had received back from an editor for another deadline. On Thursday evening, I attended my playwriting class in the evening. And yesterday, I had a day professional development (PD) day for teaching which means that there was no school. I had registered to attend workshops which was my intention and an option for me but then found myself responding to many of the e-mails that I could not get to in the week, as well as completing three writing prize applications and one for a grant which also needed to be hand-delivered. I went to visit my friend and while I was there I worked a little bit on another assignment and opened another grant application. When I got home that night, I began writing this blog post and woke this morning to finish. I will meet with more friends on Saturday. Later on today, I will be having a meeting related to my writing and then I will continue complete the writing assignments for my classes, writing contests, my bimonthly newsletter, and plans for an event next week.
So my better judgement told me two things. I need more downtime to get my personal stuff done (hair, exercise, rest, etc.) and secondly, I am already doing my MFA.
Reasons why I don't need an MFA
1. I know something about learning, teaching, and program planning.
I have been teaching students for a living and have done so for the last 15 years. Before this, as a teen and young adult, I tutored, volunteered in schools, taught piano, worked at summer camps as a camp counsellor, and led workshops at an interactive science museum.
While attending York University for one year, I briefly considered completing a minor in Creative Writing if it was available but I did not think it necessary as I was on a different career track. Of all of the courses I took, I eventually completed a degree in honour's undergraduate psychology (BA, Hon) at the University of Waterloo. My plan, at that time, was considering possible careers in counselling, health, education, and even starting a Christian youth magazine.
In addition, I have Bachelor (BEd) and Master of Education (MEd) degrees and I am almost done my diploma in Early Childhood Music Education (ECME). Being a teacher means that I am a strong communicator, patient, resourceful, and researcher. As a an educator, I possess the knowledge and skills that transfer over into planning my own course of study in writing.
2. I have been getting my 10, 000 hours in.
Writer and researcher Malcolm Gladwell says that in order for a person to become an expert, they will have had to acquire 10, 000 hours of work in a particular field.
I have been writing throughoutmy whole life and started making books at the age of 6. I have written articles for my high school, university, and community newsletters. I have maintained a journal since the age of 9. In addition to the school assignments that I received, I would enter contests and write out of pleasure. Some of these books that survived. When I read my work in comparison to the 4 to 18 year olds I have taught, I see now that my teachers were right. I possessed a gift-- a clarity of voice, creativity in my stories. I even won the English award (and art) at my eighth grade graduation. The signs for a life of writing were there all along. Unfortunately, it took me several years to really acknowledge and recognize my gift.
3. I have been published.
My first item published was a letter to the editor of a now defunct Black Canadian magazine called Ember when I was thirteen years old. I have been an editor for a national thyroid cancer and college newsletters. I have completed an internship at Psychology Today magazine in New York City in 1998. I have since written for highschool, university, and community publications. I have had published articles on blogs as well as in literary magazines.
I am the author of four traditionally-published books (Malaika's Costume, Malaika's Winter Carnival, Music, Media) with a fifth (an early reader on Harriet Tubman) on the way. I am currently trying to sell my sixth and seventh books while writing my eighth.
An MFA does not guarantee that one becomes traditionally published. I have been able to do this on my own and without an agent so far. Although, I am currently looking for an agent.
4. Canada has only four MFA programs in Creative Writing which includes the MFA in Creative Non-Fiction.
Currently, Canada has 4 MFA programs in Creative Writing:
- University of Victoria (UVic) in Victoria, BC
- University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, BC
- University of Guelph (UGuelph) at the Humber College north campus in Toronto, ON
- Dalhousie University (Dal.) in Halifax, NS (only for creative non-fiction)
Only one of these programs, the MFA at UBC, offers a low- or non-residency option (means that students have the option of attending) otherwise I am having to quit or take a leave from my full-time job and moving thousands of kilometres across the country to attend all except UGuelph (which happens to be close to home). Financially, this is not an option for me at this time. The average writer in Canada earns $12, 000 which is not a liveable income and funding options for students in these programs increases do exist but do not cover the entire tuition and/or living expenses.
Perhaps one reason why there are so few MFA programs, it is actually rare to meet a Canadian writer with such a degree which means that most writers in this country are published without one.
Going south to the United States is an option as there are several MFA programs as well as those with low-residency options which would mean not having to move but there would be travel, room, and board costs too. I did apply to one of these programs back in 2013 but did not get in at that time. In the US, an MFA is almost a necessity in order to teach as well as often a precursor to publication.
5. It is quite expensive.
Let's face it. MFA programs are quite expensive. In Canada, they are cheaper (tuition tends to be under $20, 000 Canadian) however, the income loss from studying full-time is a challenge. The low-residency options in the US are available but the tuition costs are high (over $20, 000 US dollars).
I am also still paying off my student loans from my other three degrees. It would not make practical sense at this time to then begin another degree. An MFA degree does not ensure publication and even if it did, it would not indicate that you have the next bestseller which would equal a large payout. Basically what I am saying, as a writer in Canada, you may not earn back what you shell out in an MFA. Until this happens, or I come upon a large sum of cash or the costs come down, for now, I will continue to create my own DIY MFA.
My journey is not for everyone. But, I hope that I have provided you a living example of an alternate route of how to become a writer without an MFA. Also having spoken to many MFA-degreed writing colleagues, I have learned that the additional courses, workshops, retreats, networking, and conferences are things that they also do regardless of possessing an MFA or not. I know that this circuitous path will not work for everyone and it is not for everyone but it works for me. Completing a DIY MFA requires a certain creativity, resourcefulness, tenacity, passion, innovation, and drive which are all qualities that I have been cultivating for years. Regardless, I have not completely ruled out the possibility of completing an MFA program in my life. I would do it in a heartbeat but in the meantime, this DIY MFA program works for me.
I got this!