An Open Letter to Hannah Horvath About the MFA

This undated image released by HBO shows Lena Dunham in a scene from the series "Girls." Dunham created, wrote, directed, pro
This undated image released by HBO shows Lena Dunham in a scene from the series "Girls." Dunham created, wrote, directed, produced and starred in a half-hour comedy series about 20-something adulthood, femininity and sexuality. (AP Photo/HBO, JoJo Whilden)

Dear Hannah,

I hear you've been accepted to the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop. USA TODAY reports that, while that MFA program's director found your acceptance "a complete surprise," she "mentally added [you to] the list of people to call" as she talks with incoming students. Some people doubted your writing talent and seriousness, but you've shown those naysayers. Congratulations!

Now, though, the University of Iowa on the whole doesn't actually want you around. You probably understand concerns that you would be a distraction -- sometimes you probably like being a distraction -- and, yes, you might portray the university inaccurately. This rejection may lead you to think about whether an MFA is right for you and, if so, which program is the best fit. These are matters that any MFA applicant should think through, and you may want to look around.

Apply to MFA programs for reasons that match what an MFA can offer.

Creative writing is a discipline of practice, of doing. If you want to write, a couple of years in an MFA program may be a great choice. If you want to push yourself beyond what you can already do and are willing to hear criticism and revise your work, then you're probably ready for an MFA.

2014-03-31-SpacePen2.JPGIf you want to be a writer but don't really want to write a lot -- as in, pretty much every day -- then you should probably hold off on graduate school. If you just want to hang out with writers because we're the cool kids, you'll be wasting your time and ours.

If you think that an MFA and a teaching assistantship lead to a cushy job as a professor, rethink your decision because most of the few tenure-track creative writing jobs out there every year require a published book to get hired. Then, once you land the job, in addition to continuing to publish and teach, the job requires advising, committee work, and other tasks not directly related to writing. I'm happy being a professor, and you might be too, but a teaching assistantship is primarily designed as minimal financial support to help you during the MFA.

Sure, a TA-ship is teaching experience, but if teaching is your goal, consider K-12 certification, which also offers summers off for writing. If you don't really want to teach, look at programs with competitive fellowships or scholarships that don't require teaching -- a good gig, probably better than scraping by in New York City.

Apply to MFA programs that are a good fit for you.

The Iowa Writers' Workshop was the first and is still considered the best MFA by many. But if you want to write creative nonfiction -- and, Hannah, nonfiction may be your strength -- that's not the place for you. A lot of programs, including Iowa's workshop, cover only fiction and poetry, and many require you to decide and stick with your genre from the get-go. Others, like my own Chapman University in Southern California, cover more genres and a wide array of aesthetics and allow students to work across these areas. Look at the professors at different programs and see what they're up to in their published work and in their teaching because neither faculty or programs are cookie-cutter versions of each other.

In fact, though numerous programs are likely a good fit for a given student, differences among programs can matter. Many programs are two-year programs for full-time students, but timeframes vary. Iowa State University, near where you've been accepted, has a three-year program focused on environmental writing and writing about place, for instance. The Northeast Ohio MFA is a three-year consortium program in which students can take courses at four universities. Low-residency programs like at Warren Wilson College or Wilkes University would allow you to continue to live in New York City while completing your MFA in short residencies and via correspondence with mentors. If you didn't look at AWP's Guide to Writing Programs, you missed a lot of options.

Use the MFA in ways that work for you and for the program you attend.

Not all published writers earn MFAs. In fact, if you include all editorially reviewed writing that's published, my guess is that the vast majority of writers don't earn an MFA. Not all MFA students go on to publish either, and only a small percentage eventually publishes mainstream books. I know you want to publish your book, but move that goal out of the top-priority position for your MFA years and, instead, focus on learning the craft more deeply and becoming more aware of your choices as a writer and the results of those choices -- from decisions about point of view to word choice in a given sentence.

The time you spend writing in an MFA program and the guidance you experience there can shape your life in ways that lead to publication. But you should also take advantage individually of opportunities to read intensely and discuss what you read with other writers, to hear and talk with visiting writers, and perhaps to work on a literary journal, do archival work with literary texts, or develop skills in print and digital production. Create options for yourself that would be difficult or impossible without the context of an MFA program. Make friends with others who write; hanging out is part of how creative people share and nurture ideas. Build a writing life. Invigorate culture.

Hannah, once you've thought through your options, you'll make a good decision. And if the University of Iowa doesn't want you, another good MFA probably will. As you cast a wider net, consider advice that's out there about the application process, from Cathy Day's blog to the recent piece in Inside Higher Ed.

On The Daily Show, John Irving said that the Iowa Writers' Workshop saved him time -- that's all. But that's everything to a writer who knows how to spend it.

Sincerely, Dr. Anna Leahy