Go on- get your MFA in a creative writing, and go into debt for it! I am, and it’s the best decision I ever made.
All the reasons that I’m going into debt for an MFA in creative writing, and really frikking happy about it. This is not a cost-benefit analysis. This is a journey into happiness, paid for with debt.
First of all, I’m not condoning the actually absurd costs of higher education in this country. I too have heard of some mythic good old days where people paid for college with part-time summer jobs. I have also scraped crusted ketchup off the inside of trash can bins as part of my undergrad, tuition offsetting, campus cafeteria job. One would have to guess that labor “offset” about 2% of my tuition.
But I am saying that I am now a year-and-a-half into my low-residency MFA program in creative nonfiction, and will be a little over forty thousand dollars in debt when I graduate, and mainly, am just so very, very glad I chose to pursue the degree and entered the program, debts notwithstanding. I’m not saying absolutely everyone should go ahead and rack up debt to enter grad school, that grad school will be that magic pill/button everyone on God’s green earth is always looking for, but for me, well, it kind of was. And if the price is paying a couple hundred dollars a month for the next ten years, so be it. (Actually, there’s no ‘if’-- that is the price.)
Facts: I’m already paying bills, for boring necessities and also for things like my growing collection of pants whose fit I am only ¾ happy with. How much better to have debts for something that actually brings joy, (and purpose, and direction) into my life? Also, I’ll feel better during all of those ten years I’m paying extra bills then if I hadn’t gone to grad school. How can I know? Because grad school has already changed my life so much. Forty thousand dollars-- over two years that’s $55 dollars a day. For only fifty-five bucks a day, (on loan, with interest) you, too, can have direction and purpose in your life. It’s exorbitant. It’s plain overpriced. it’s an amount that is not, and has never been, in my bank account. But this education, this apprenticeship, this totally legitimate-in-the-eyes-of-society immersion in something I love-- is worth that much to me. (Moreover, that’s what it costs-- and that’s in the low mid-range!)
When I was finally getting on track with this grad school thing, after years of wondering, taking the GRE and then doing nothing about it, feeling a sense of futility looking at the scheduling of many grad schools (start building application in spring, apply in fall, for hopeful entry into next fall) and googling the wisdom of going to grad school at all, etc., all I saw online was the following advice and warnings: don’t go into debt for grad school! Don’t go to grad school unless you get paid to do so! Are the risks worth it!? This has been the case for a decade.
Here’s a headline from a quick search today: MFAs: An Increasingly Popular, Increasingly Bad Financial Decision
All of the advice seems to point to the following prudent behavior: apply only to grad schools which will pay for a full ride. Get accepted thusly or do not go to grad school. Read: only a chump would pay for grad school!
A.) Applying to the full-ride programs-- what some professors teaching at MFA programs advised as the only option one should take-- requires waiting, organization, fees, and more waiting. I simply could not put the direction of my life into the hands of time and my own organizational skills-- all to possibly find out that I had, after a year of this, been offered no spot. I found it impossible to be able to think of planning my life that far ahead-- or rather-- planning on a plan that’s actually a gamble. And I felt it was a risk, timing wise, in my life: here I had finally decided on grad school-- I needed to do it now! I realize this is impulsive, impractical, not financially sound. But I also admit that all of those adjectives describe me. I can’t be the only one. The fact is, we are not all patient, and we are not all organized, and we do not all have the time and money to put in to all those applications (and wait.) If those are faults, them I’m paying for them (although maybe I would have had to anyway-- full-ride spots are coveted.) Anyway: I know my faults. And I’m fine with them. I’m paying for grad school: call me a chump. It’s still the best thing I ever did. That leads-- backwards-- to
B.) OK, I swear off the free ride: I still really want to go to grad school, though!
But...there was one other thing I kept coming across while googling grad school possibilities: a debate: NYC vs. MFA. As though the two were equal in opportunity. As though, obviously, you could either go get your MFA in hopes of becoming some form or other of professional writer-- or, you could just move to NYC. See? NYC, MFA. MFA, NYC. Either or! Three capital letters. So symmetrical, so similar. Wait-- what?
I actually live in NYC. So how, exactly, will living here suddenly elevate my lifelong habit of reading and writing and turn it into some equivalent of a degree program in the same? Am I to just, like, walk around, haunting bookstores on fall days, collegiate-colored leaves falling all around me, and I’m wearing a plaid skirt, and I’ll just sip coffee in a very NYC-looking cafe and write? Then what?
Honestly, that whole debate angered me, because it made me feel like a fool. I live in NYC. Yet I still want an MFA. What was I missing? Was there something floating in a rarefied air that my low-set nose could not sniff? Do I even have a low-set nose?
It is true that in NYC opportunities abound. They actually do: they float in the air and you lick your finger, stick it up, and see what’s caught on it. Or, you look up organizations and readings and classes and go to those-- there’s a lot, and they’re taught by and filled with people doing really great work. So I did that. I took classes in fiction, playwriting, non-fiction, non-fiction again, memoir. I purchased a weekend-long read-and-write-athon with lectures and classes by all the many (and there are many, many) NYC-living authors, one of which was Paul Auster, a hero of mine. He stood behind the podium, tall and besuited, being the weekend’s crowning event, and told the crowd, who’d paid for this writing school-ish atmosphere, that he didn’t believe in going to school for writing. But mostly, all of these classes revved me up, more and more-- but still, they felt like isolated incidents. It was really a reading that I went to where I first realized that my own, undoctored, writing voice was viable, fine-- legitimate, even-- perhaps even publishable! For there, right in front of me, live, were very talented people, reading beautiful works in their own voices. Somehow being able to attach the written words to actual people, in the same room with me, did wonders. I purchased all of these classes (which weren’t cheap) and I sought out readings and I thought: I could continue to do this, taking as many classes as I want, putting them on credit-- and I’ll still be paying less than I would for grad school.
But I’ll be honest: the reason, for me, that NYC is not MFA is that NYC is not kicking my butt. I can stay at home rather than take the train an hour from my far-Brooklyn apartment to a reading on the lower east side. I can cozy up, reading a book on my own, rather than trudge out and show up. No one’s waiting for me, nothing depends on me going. Except some far-off dream that I’m going to be them one day, a reader, having something polished to read from. Being a writer. But for the time being, what I mostly am is a server. A person with financial obligations, like rent, stuff like that, and those obligations have corresponding duties, like working full time, and then there’s things like your friends, partner, laundry, buying food, that show you want to see, that day you need to recover from working a double on your feet and so just lie in bed all day, reading-- oh yeah and there’s time for just plain reading.
The thing is, even with a passion, it’s easy to not give it time. Grad school, for me, solidified and legitimized my passions into--pretty much, duties. In grad school, I suddenly had a duty to read and write-- with an intensity like never before! I was going to be held accountable for it. I was suddenly “supposed to” read all the time, and write, things which I loved but which, before grad school, had slipped into, honestly, things I felt were guilty pleasures. Now, in grad school, I got to do them-- I had to. And this is what I’m paying for. I’m paying for it because otherwise, a great joy in my life, which could be made into what I do, what I get to spend all my time on, with reverberating effects on all facets of my life-- will remain a thing I have to sneak away to do, will remain an isolated thing I do when I find time, always with a guilty feeling that I should be doing something else.
I realized a couple days into my residency that, although I’d walked to the cafeteria three times a day, for days now, I didn’t know where the cafeteria was. I didn’t know how to get there. I stood there on the brick path in the middle of campus, wondering how this could be so. Oh, I realized: it was because I happened to be alone right now, and every single other time I was walked to the cafeteria, I had been deeply engaged in conversation with someone. Someone I had just met. Some new person with whom I shared such similar interests: a passion for writing, for explaining, for love of words. I’d been so immediately engrossed.
A couple days in-- or was in the first day?-- of my first residency at grad school, I thought I was about to have a breakdown. A breakdown of identity: I had forgotten what it felt like to really want to be exactly where you are: or, more accurately, to be so in the place you belong that your mind doesn’t wander, you have no thought of anywhere else. I was so used to assuming that what I really like is not where I am: it is by myself, at home, with books and notebooks. Old parts of me stirred inside that I’d thought were dead-- I now realized I’d just forgotten about them, or they atrophied but were instantly perking up, given this food. I was happy. It was a me I hadn’t felt in years. I was so happy and alive I thought: I’m definitely about to crack. The old me frame cannot fit this new feeling.
Before joining this group at school, my passions were so solitary as to seem intangible. This thing which connects me and fulfills me, makes me cry and shiver and look up from my book and feel sublime: I’ve just read such a beautiful sentence. A sly sentence, a funny sentence, a sentence that makes me feel the world harbors these pleasurable things, and I get to hunt them out, and what a wonderful arrangement. Or, I look up from writing, or typing, with that supremely pleased feeling of my own well-put sentence, and fairly purr in self appreciation, or maybe with the new joy of having wrapped words around an invisible but large mood, issue, thing-- and finally then was able to see its shape for the first time. All these things were wonderful, a reason for being: but they were also totally disconnected with the rest of my life, my life outside my mind. And my writing—boy, that was disconnected. My heart would nearly stop If anyone stepped within three feet of an open journal of mine (one foot if the journal was closed.)
But now, I have polished, finished essays under my belt. I’m consistently adding to them (and agonizing over them.) I have learned to write long-form essays. I learned to persevere in writing beyond my normal sense of patience and strength. I learned to submit articles, to read my work from behind a podium (I once garnered whoops and hollers from behind that podium. And now I can die happy.) I read amazing writing from my peers, I heard them read aloud their amazing writing. I have the pleasure of editing my friends’ poetic, deeply touching writing. I’ve visited publishing houses and literary agents-- all with my school. In short, I feel myself to be a part of a group whose work I admire. I got to bring my previously private hobby into the daylight and meet others who also had that hobby. That formerly far away thing-- being a writer-- became more normal-seeming as I met writers, working writers, teaching writers, fellow student writers.I wrote alongside writers who got agents, book deals. The far-off possibility was seeming more real, and could be reality for me, and this is how you do it: I was learning. I had found my place, where what I loved was not an anomaly, or a thing to enjoy after everyone had gone home-- but instead was the reason for the party, and what everyone wanted to talk about. And it was fun. And I did not want to leave the party. And, I paid to get in.
Should we forgo all of this because we are not organized and patient enough for twenty applications to funded school possibilities a year off? Because we don’t believe in ourselves enough to even see the point in such a gamble? Or because some stoic inside us says we should be able to do all this on our own, through simple and focused striving, some home-based, isolated MFA? I know myself: I’ll pay, on credit.
Grad school is a project. It takes a formerly isolated passion that perhaps people, and perhaps yourself, formerly squinted at, and invites you to a world where we all dress up like that, and we all dance around like that. Grad school forces you to finish and polish and work like hell so that you have represented yourself well: this is not writing in your journal. Grad school can kick your butt, if you are disinclined to kick it yourself. Can I kick it? Yes, I can!-- but I’m paying forty thousand for the initiative. And I’m glad. Because otherwise I would go unkicked. Some things have price tags.
Grad school is not going to be magic for you if you’re doing it for the magic, to locate some magic you are unaware of but looking for. But if what you want to study is magic for you- then please, don’t be afraid of the debt. By all means, try for scholarships, and go if accepted! But paying is not shameful. Paying is not the end of the world. All these people saying don’t rack up debt for school are probably carrying debt themselves-- debt for housing, cars, and random credit card life. To me, student loan debts are every bit as worthwhile-- and more-- as any of that. This debt paid for me to commit to my calling. To bravely push it into legitimacy. To say this is what I do-- out loud. And to hear- for the first time, so very, very sweet, others saying, yes! Do it! It’s good!
Ellen Croteau is a writer living in Brooklyn and working on her MFA in creative non-fiction writing at a low-residency program--which she loves!--at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.