Monday, September 10, 2012

MFA Programs: The Golden Ticket?

   It's Ask a Teaching Author time again.  This week's question is from Joanna Moore who wants to know our thoughts on MFA writing programs.

    I have an MFA in Writing for Children from Vermont College. Bottom line, my time in the Vermont MFA program was the best two years of my life.  At that point, I had been writing for thirty-something years, but I knew something was missing from my work. How did I know that? I knew because my rejection letters all said the same thing..."you write really well but..."  But what?  Nobody would tell me.  My MFA program did.

   I had been searching for that missing "something" a long time.  I went to every writer's conference I could find (although for some reason, the Society of Children's Book Writer's and Illustrators--SCBWI---never showed up on my radar.)  I read "how-to" books, lots of them.  I still stumbled around in the wilderness, looking for answers.  Through a series of incredible events, I found myself at Vermont College in the first MFA program dedicated exclusively to children's writing.

    Did I find my answers?  Yes.  Is an MFA like Willie Wonka's Golden Ticket?  No.  Having an MFA does not guarantee you a book contract, an agent (I still don't have one) or a Newbery medal.
What you are guaranteed is this;  if you keep an open mind and take advantage of every learning opportunity, you will be a better writer and teacher.

   I can only speak about my experience as a graduate of the Vermont College Summer Class of 2000.  I don't know if the Vermont program has changed, or anything at all about other programs. Taking that into consideration, the one-on-one intensive mentoring at VC was invaluable to me. As a low residency program, nearly all of my work was done through monthly mail packets. (At the time, e-mail was not as widespread as it is now, and most of my faculty mentors did not even have email accounts.)

     I turned in a set number of pages of "new work"-- a goal agreed on between my mentors and I during the on-campus sessions -- and a certain number of pages of revised work.  The packets were returned with copious notes and suggestions for revision.  I have worked with any number of editors over the years, and while my editors are all geniuses (really!), none of them has given me the attention and focus of my Vermont mentors.  There is a good reason for this.  As a student, I shared my mentor with no more than four or five other students.  An editor has any number of ongoing projects, even though you always hope that yours is the most important. My four Vermont mentors--all successful and renowned  children's authors--spoiled me with their extremely thorough critiques.

    MFA programs are not for everyone.  I am blessed that there was a time in my life when I had the time, money and energy necessary.  I went into the program with a specific goal; I had the idea for Yankee Girl, but not the slightest idea of how to write it.  I wanted to do justice to my idea, whether it was ever published or not. I knew almost nothing about plot, setting and characterization. Two years and four mentors later, I knew a lot more.

   I'm still learning.

   Don't forget that the deadline for entering the giveaway for the poetry anthology is 11 pm CST, Tuesday (as in tomorrow!)

    Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Jessica Leader said...

Very cool, Mary Ann! I agree that my advice from my grad-school advisors was amazingly in-depth and helpful. I wonder if you could explain the difference between their advice and that from editors. I'm relatively new to working with editors, and I wonder what I should expect that is different!

mary ann rodman said...

Jessoca--Good question.To put this is as briefly as possible, the difference between editors notes and those o my mentors would be this. Mentors notes are more of the brainstorming type ("What if this character did this or that What would happen if this were a novel instead of a picture book") The mentors try to make you see all the possibilities, in addition to helping you hone your prose style. Editors, for the most part, assume that your work is already on a sound foundation. They won't buy a picture book and suddenly decide it would make a better novel. They take what you have already written and look for inconsistencies in style, plot etc and help you dig deeper into the interior life of the character. If this is TOO brief an explanation, I suggest that this might be a good topic for our next "Ask a Teaching Author" question! Good one, Jessica.