Yesterday, I taught a seminar at the Blue Ridge Writer’s conference entitled The Pro’s and Con’s of Getting an MFA. This is a small local conference that attracts primarily hobbyist writers, yet still they put together a very lovely program featuring some diverse classes. The keynote speaker, Joshilyn Jackson, was upbeat and fun. She’s been on a book tour and she was a featured author at the Margret Michel house in Atlanta earlier this month. I was interested in going to listen to her talk, but then Sonia had her heart attack and all personal interests were put aside. Her new book The Girl who Stopped Swimming was featured in a small blurb in people magazine, and again, when I saw that I was very bummed to have missed her. It wasn’t until yesterday that I realized she was the speaker at this convention. I was delighted to finally pick up her book, get it signed, and hear her lecture.
Joshilyn’s keynote lecture was about how writing is not the same as publishing. It’s a basic premise I’ve known forever, but her talk was humorous as she waded through all her past mistakes and shared her beginner anxiety on her journey to success. She wrote several books that never sold, but she explained they were learning endeavors and acts of love. She talked about letting go of a book you’ve poured your heart and soul into to turn your attentions to the next project. She made it clear there’s no easy road to writing well.
Her first class (which was in the morning so I was available to sit in) was Marketing yourself on the Web. It turned out to be an hour long lecture to say everyone should be blogging – not about writing interests, but about everyday life stuff. Humm… got that one down pat. Considering the senior seminar I taught to fulfill graduatation requirements was about the pro’s and cons of blogging and an in-depth study of the impact of blogging on writers (which demanded months of study and my reading dozens of articles, books, testimonials, etc.. on the subject) I know more about that subject than even the teacher, I’m guessing. Her next class was about how to get an agent to represent you, but it ended up a workshop sort of class where you evaluate the first line of your novel to see if it has a “hook”. This too was pretty elementary stuff, but very appropriate for the audience.
I sat there, enjoying the lectures, but knowing at the same time that I had far surpassed the need for the type of input gained from these kinds of writing seminars. I can’t see myself spending money or time on this sort of writing endeavor anymore, unless I was going to pitch to an agent. But considering I’m getting positive responses from agents by cold query letters alone, perhaps even that isn’t necessary. Nevertheless, I do recognize how important these learning endeavors were to me early in my writing journey and as such, I have great respect for their genuine value to people who love to write. I learned a great deal from these kinds of seminars early on, enough to convince me I needed a more in-depth learning experience. It’s all connected. And I enjoyed the camaraderie with other writers, the lunch conversation etc… I like people. I especially like interesting people, and those that write have a sensitivity regarding life that is interesting to me. In some ways, attending a conference does keep you on track and motivated and you can celebrate time spent with like minded people.
My class (assigned to me) was a hit or miss subject for this sort of crowd. Face it, getting an MFA is for people who want to take their writing to a higher level. The cost, expense, competitive nature of the academic writing world etc.. is not for hobbyists. I had four people signed up for my lecture. None of them showed up. One woman wandered in and in the end, I taught to her alone. She fit the profile of someone ready to step up their writing education. She was sincerely interested in an MFA, but she’d applied to one low-residency program and had been turned down, so she put the idea on a back burner. She’d attended all the same sorts of conferences and writing groups I’d toyed with early on. Talking to her, I realized that even if I had a room full of people with mild curiosity about what an MFA is all about, the person I’d really be teaching was her. I could make a difference for this one curious individual – so I dived in with a commitment to do the job well.
I’d done a great deal of research on the subject of getting an MFA vs. an MA or PhD, and in fact, I’ve learned more about what an MFA is and does by preparing for this lecture, than I ever knew by attending a low-residency program for two years and actually earning an MFA. While compiling learning aids, I kept stumbling over websites and books that put it all in perspective well, and thought, “Why the heck didn’t I do this kind of research before I applied to MFA programs.” Might have had an easier time of it had I’d known what to expect. I certainly would have prepared a more appropriate writing sample, personal statement etc.. for my application packet. (I was the classic example of what NOT to do – beginning with the discombobulated writing sample I sent in and ending with getting recommendations from well established, published romance authors (they are looked on with distain rather than respect in the literary academic world) rather than from teachers. Even someone unpublished, who might work at a community college teaching English would have been a given a more valuable recommendation, because it’s assumed they understand what sort of student the MFA program is looking for). Ah well – all’s well that ends well.
My research uncovered a great deal of anti-MFA material too, books, websites and critics who think an MFA is a waste of time. In all fairness, I presented the negative opinions too, admitting some of the flaws in the MFA format. I suppose some people get their MFA and have a chip on their shoulder because they spent 40 grand on an education that doesn’t promise you a job or success. But the truth is, I believe getting an MFA made a profound difference in me as a person and as a writer, and for all that it was difficult on my ego and heart, and for all that I wanted to quit the entire time, I’d do it again. You can not expose yourself to so much wonderful literature, serious contemplation, harsh honesty, caring criticism and personal challenges and not come out changed for the better. Evolved. And I’ve never been one who needs tangible evidence or measurable returns to justify money spent. You can’t put a price on life experience or personal growth, and if you demand measurable returns on every dollar spent, you’ll probably forgo the best investments of your life. You’ll end up poor in spirit – and in the end, you’ll simply spend the money on something else -something “practical” that will wear out or be used up in time and as such, doesn’t prove nearly as lasting.
As someone who did everything wrong, I feel I have pretty good insight about what NOT to do in regards to pursuing an MFA, which makes me a perfect candidate to teach the subject now. I began with the premise that if I can get into an MFA program, anyone can. That put my one student to ease and gave her hope. We had a wonderful hour together reviewing my notes, discussing my experience, and looking over my resource list. In the end, I packed up my books on MFA schools and gave them to her along with some literary magazines and the Writer’s Conical. I certainly don’t need them, such publications become obsolete in short order. I picked up these materials as visuals for the class and had thought all along I might distribute them to anyone with sincere interest. I was glad to see they’d be put to good use. My student felt she had won the MFA information lottery and I felt I had helped someone a lot like me several years back.
I used to think I’d have had a far better dance career, if only I’d had a teacher like me when I was a young passionate student. Sounds funny, but I knew I gave more to my students than any teacher ever gave to me, and I was always proud of that. I left my seminar thinking my student (Deborah) will have an easier time of it all should she decide to carry through. I certainly know I inspired her to reach higher rungs. It felt right and good.
I told the organization they didn’t have to pay me for lecturing, because honestly, I know it’s a small fledgling group that could use a break and they need the money more than I do (I’ve chaired enough arts seminars and struggled to make them break even so I understand how difficult it is), but they insisted on paying me something. I’d been handed my check at lunch. It made me smile. I’ve been teaching seminars (in dance) for 25 years, and my average check is 20-50 times this amount. But that check gave me a profound sense of joy and accomplishment.
I waved it in front of Mark when I got home and said, “See that! Now, all I need to do is earn $39,900 more from my writing and my MFA will have paid for itself!”
Mark looked at the check, grinned, and said, “You go, girl.”
Teaching comes very naturally to me. I’ve been a public speaker for years and years. Being a master teacher in dance, organizing comprehensive teacher’s training seminars, writing syllabus’s, and working with literally thousands of students at every stage of the learning curve gives me a broad understanding of how to best organize material for better understanding. I have an innate sense of respect for what my audience needs at any particular stage of development, and I try to always leave the people on earlier stages of the journey with a deeper understanding of the big picture – rather than focus on a single subject mater and expect the poor student to figure out how and why it’s important on their own. It was nice to discover this isn’t a dance skill, but a life skill that transfers easily to other subjects.
“There are no bad students – only bad teachers. Stop blaming the students and making excuses for their inadaquacies. Take responsibility for what your students know and don’t know, dig in and do what it takes to make them better!” I always said to my staff, to their total annoyance, I’m sure. I hated to see professionals tredding water, going through the motions of teaching without truly making an affect, just to get a check to support their dreams.
Believing it’s the teacher who makes the profound difference in the development of an artist enhances the importance of my roll if I dare accept the responsibilities of instructor or mentor to someone else. How much I’m going to get paid, or how many people will benefit from my lecture, shouldn’t affect how much effort or energy I’m willing to invest in my seminar. Reaching one person has to be enough to make the time invested count.
For me, it did.