But she found that the landscape had changed. Marketing and editorial budgets dried up when the recession hit, and blogging took over spaces where she used to make money. So she decided to repurpose.
There were more reasons: She teaches food writing at Stanford Continuing Studies, and wanted to branch out. She wanted to go back to graduate school. And she wanted to learn about the art of memoir and improve her writing.
If you’ve dreamed of getting an MFA in Creative Writing, does it improve your writing and prospects? Here’s Tori’s take:
Q. First of all, what does getting an MFA in Creative Writing entail?
A. It means a 2- to 3-year commitment, although a few schools offer 1-year intensives. There are three kinds of programs: on campus, low residency, and online. Low-res means you are at the school for little bursts, like a few 2-week sessions a year, and then the rest of the time you work remotely. Even though I didn’t do my MFA this way, it’s a great option for people going back to school later in life, because you can take vacation time from work or real life to attend.
Then there are the genres. Most MFA writing programs focus on fiction and poetry, but with the rise in popularity of the memoir, what some call the “literature of real life,” many now offer nonfiction as well. That’s what I was after.
Then there’s the thesis. It’s going to nearly break you, but you have to get it done to graduate.
Q. How does getting an MFA improve your writing?
A. How didn’t it? I had no idea what an objective correlative was before I got an MFA –actually, I’m still not sure I do. I didn’t know what double perspective was. I didn’t know what a list essay was. In short, I didn’t know all the different forms my writing could take.
I had been writing recipe headnotes and food articles for so long, I was stuck in that catchy-hook/snappy-rhythm/circle-around-to-the-beginning-at-the-end rut. I sounded like everyone else. Exploring and experimenting with my writing really helped me expand my voice. Having my work critiqued helped me be more confident.
But the biggest revelation was reading critically again. At my program, we had workshops where we critiqued each others’ work, and seminars where we studied literature. I recommend this kind of hybrid program.
Paradoxically, reading fiction was the best model for improving my nonfiction. Some of my favorites books were We the Animals by Justin Torres, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and in non-fiction, anything by Geoff Dyer.
Q. Did it help you as a food writer?
A. Yes. When I started graduate school, I was determined to take a break from writing about food, but it kept inserting itself into my work. I realized I couldn’t reveal myself as a character without food, because that’s who I am. Now my food writing has taken on a more personal tone. And I’m still making my living as a food writer.
Q. Do editors respect MFAs? Do they add status for a freelancer or potential author?
A. Editors respect any attempt at becoming a better writer, but a good editor knows that you don’t have to have an MFA. All that matters is what is on the page.
However, getting an MFA in Creative Writing gives you lots of opportunities to meet authors, agents, and editors. They often come to speak at programs and students can apply to writers’ residencies and conferences where the literati congregate. See this great list.
My favorite food writer by far is Gabrielle Hamilton and she does, in fact, have an MFA. Her memoir was crystalline; every sentence served a purpose. And her columns for the New York Times magazine are each a form of mini-memoir. I don’t think she would have achieved that without an MFA.
Q. Where is the most prestigious place to get one?
A. Most would agree that the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is the most prestigious program. It was the first in the country, established in 1936. It was also famously featured in Lena Dunham’s TV show Girls. The low-res program at Warren Wilson is often ranked number one, but there are so many other factors to consider, mainly: Who is on the faculty and are they writers you want to learn from?
Also, geography matters. I wasn’t going anywhere but the Bay Area and it just so happened that the MFA program at University of San Francisco has a nonfiction thread. That’s the only program I applied to because it fit my top criteria: local, nonfiction, evening classes.
Here’s a list of MFA writing programs. Don’t be shocked. There are hundreds.
Q. What does it cost?
A. It varies, but mine cost about $37,000. Some programs have funding or fellowships, some are fully funded. In this case, students go for free, but teach undergraduates in return. Every program has financial aid. I saved up for this my entire working life, so I had the money to pay without loans.
Q. What was the greatest benefit?
A. Being a student again. I went back to school at age 54 and graduated in December, 2016, two months before my 57th birthay. Most students were 25- to 35-years old. We came from a range of backgrounds and places and wrote intimately about our life experiences. At times it was uncomfortable, but it stretched me in ways I hadn’t imagined.
The greatest practical benefit is that an MFA allows me to teach at any academic level.
Plus, I wrote a 140-page thesis that’s the basis of a memoir I hope to publish some day. That’s what I’ve been working on since I finished school, turning my thesis into a book.
Q. What is the biggest reason not to get one?
A. It’s hard work and it’s expensive. You have to write every day. You have make time to write every day and want to do it. And you have to write a thesis. That’s the third time I’ve mentioned it. For a reason.
Also, post-graduate teaching jobs don’t fall out of the sky. Teaching and writing are not an easy way to make money. But then again, neither is food writing.
Q. If readers want to pursue it, how would they proceed?
A. The Association of Writers & Writing Programs is the best place to start. Here’s their guide to MFA programs in the US. They also have a great conference for writers of any kind. Poets & Writers is also a good resource. Regardless of whether you want to get an MFA, you can sign up on their site for writing prompts.
Read this article in the New York Times about the raging debate in literary circles about getting an MFA. Like everything in life, there’s a lot of controversy around it.
And if you want more personal advice, you can email me at tori AT tuesdayrecipe.com.