An MFA Gave Me the Ultimate Gift: Writing Habits

T.S. Lowry

Why MFA?

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Photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

When people contemplate an MFA, one question comes to mind: Will I be a published author at the end of my program?

It’s a fair question.

Ridicule, after all, is a common response from the outside world when you enroll in a major that doesn’t guarantee a raise or promotion.

While an MFA didn’t lead to a raise or better job for me, it did reward me with what I desperately needed: writing habits.

Before becoming an MFA student, I was working for a media company as a sportswriter and was, let’s say, unfulfilled.

The plan during my undergrad studies was to land a sportswriting job and write books in my free time. I secured the sportswriting part of the equation a couple of months after I graduated in 2014. But I was working more than I would have liked to — I was on call nights and weekends and my author dreams were nonexistent.

Before you say, wow, you paid thousands of dollars for habits, let me say this: You get out of an MFA what you put in, and I received more than anyone will ever know from my MFA program. Plus, people who are so against spending money on an education, I took out student loans for my studies, so that’s, like, so much better… (Okay, go ahead and cringe, you self-proclaimed perfect person.)

During my MFA, I built the habits of writing fiction and reading every day.

Creating reading lists became my new creating a meal/workout plan at the beginning of the week, meaning I broke and created them a lot. It became my new trying-to-be-healthy obsession.

Freelance writing was working for a period of time because it allowed me to work from home and write for a living (two longtime goals of mine). Over time, it became less fulfilling.

We always say we want to be something growing up. Especially when we make it to the college level or an alternative route, but we don’t really know what we want to be until we get a taste of it. Until we do something we thought we wanted to do and simply don’t like it.

I received tastes of what I want to do when I drafted short stories during my MFA program. I also get whiffs when I write essays.

Without an MFA degree, I doubt I would have known how badly I want to become an author, essayist, or anything in that ballpark because I probably wouldn’t have written fiction (side note: I took creative writing courses during my undergrad).

Now I’m unfulfilled when I don’t work on creative writing (freelance writing doesn’t do it for me) or read.

At the time of writing, I’m in Indiana visiting my dad and this is the first time I’ve written something in a little over a week. I don’t care for this feeling, not having written. It makes me feel empty, like I’m going through the motions and have no purpose.

Not writing/reading is like not brushing my teeth in the morning (don’t worry, I do), making my bed, or whatever habit I’ve built over the years. Writing and reading have become routines and they’re now part of who I am.

Yes, $20,000-plus is a lot of money to pay for habits, especially habits I could have built for free … habits that people do build for free. But without an MFA, I wouldn’t have pursued my dreams to the extent that I’m pursuing them now. I also wouldn’t have felt like a real, dare I say, writer.

Many people can’t justify the price tag of a degree, especially for a degree that doesn’t guarantee professional success. But the 2.5 years I was working on a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree … well, they were the most fulfilling years of my life.

Can you put a price tag on that level of fulfillment?

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At a certain time in my life, I would’ve taken partying, traveling, concerts, and entertainment over everything else. I was living a life of fun, who cares about responsibilities, and instant gratification, not worrying about a legacy … even though a legacy is installed whether we want that to be the case or not.

What my MFA program has helped me realize: Those are all just things and they don’t make me happy.

A once-perfect day for me would be partying with my friends or traveling to a new destination. Now I’ll take a few hours of writing and a couple more of reading. The only stipulation is the writing is what I want to write about, not writing for some random site that doesn’t get me any closer to my dreams. And, yes, I still believe traveling and experiences are important — because they are — but I will never be 100 percent fulfilled if I’m not working on my craft (experiences can also come from reading).

Writing habits, which my MFA gave me, have been the greatest gift. And I had to receive this gift over the span of 2.5 more years of schooling.

Everyone’s MFA journey is different. While a book deal would’ve been a nice present at the end of my studies, I got out of my MFA program what I got out of it. That’s all anyone can ever ask for, right?

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Just a guy who likes to cruise the aisles at the local 7-Eleven

Los Angeles, CA
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