Why an MFA? Director Annie Finch on Stonecoast
Why an M.F.A.? — And Why Low-Residency?
(by Rachel Raffel, Maine in Print)
Excerpts from an Interview with Stonecoast Director Annie Finch
Many writers—particularly those who have already built careers— wonder about the value of an MFA degree in creative writing. Those writers committed to becoming teachers know about the value of the degree on the job market. But what about the rest of us? Is an MFA worth the time, money, and commitment? In these interview excerpts, Stonecoast Director Annie Finch shares some thoughts about the MFA degree.
Q. Tell me about the Stonecoast MFA program. How does it work?
A. Stonecoast offers an MFA in creative writing through a two-year “low-residency” program. Students work through mail or email, one-on-one, with members of our distinguished national faculty of award-winning writers of poetry, creative nonfiction, and literary and popular fiction. Twice a year, all the students and faculty gather at the University of Southern Maine’s beautiful Stone House in Freeport, for ten days of readings, social and networking events, workshops, and seminars.
Q. What would you say to a writer who might be unfamiliar with the low-residency format?
A. If I had to get my own graduate degree in creative writing over again, I would choose a low-residency MFA program. The low-residency format offers students numerous advantages over the residency model:
The one-on-one structure during the semester provides a much higher level of personalized attention from teacher to student, and allows students to follow their own unique pace and interests and to grow exponentially as writers.
The format offers practice and support in building a sustainable life as a writer while maintaining a job and home.
There is an exciting variety of other students from a great diversity of backgrounds, many of whom are already published writers.
The low-residency format offers each student access to a much wider range of faculty within their own genre (not to mention across genres) than a residency program. The semiannual residencies offer unparalleled creative stimulation, a dynamic network of visiting writers, and a supportive national community.
Q. There seem to be two schools of thought on the MFA. One, that writers benefit from the rigor of a structured program, that the academic degree is a means to better hone a craft. And two, that writers must simply write--that an MFA is unnecessary. How would you respond to this?
A. Both are true! Most of the great writers had no professional training as writers, other than reading. Reading well, along with writing, is still the very best way to learn to write, and you don’t need to be in school to do that. Still, the contemporary literary world is a hard place, and an MFA can give someone a head start and boost their confidence as a writer. In my experience, those students who choose to pursue an MFA do so for many reasons: to receive objective, professional responses to their work; to gain knowledge of literary traditions and techniques; to move ahead with careers in writing, publishing or teaching; to connect with a supportive community of writers and literary people; or simply to discipline and focus themselves to write more regularly and often. All of these are good reasons to pursue a low-residency MFA.
Q. What advice can you offer to someone who might be reading this interview, thinking "what can an MFA offer me in terms of practical benefit?"
A. Our students are committed to creative writing because they need and love to write. Insofar as fulfilled people are often more successful, an MFA can have great practical benefits, but it is impossible to say exactly how those benefits will manifest. The MFA is not a vocational degree, like a degree in technical writing. Many of our students consider the MFA a gift to their innermost selves. Who knows where such gifts lead? There are no guarantees—though it is also true that the MFA has helped many of our graduates get jobs in teaching, publishing, arts administration, freelance writing and editing, and other fields.
Q. What sort of students do you hope to attract to Stonecoast?
A. The writers who get the most from our program are dedicated to their craft, open-minded and strong-hearted, love to read as well as write, and hope to go on to contribute to literary culture in a significant way. We look for students of a diversity of cultural, ethnic, educational, geographical, and aesthetic backgrounds. We are looking for both "literary" writers and also for those with a sense of a wider audience who want to contribute to the general culture. We can be somewhat flexible about formal educational background, but whether students are self-taught or schooled, we hope to attract writers who welcome the influence of great writing by other writers, past and present, and who approach words and language with the patience born of love.