To MFA or not to MFA?

Credit: Brave Sir Robin

Today’s guest is author talented debut author Fleur Philips. Her first novel, I Am Lucky Bird, has been called “stunning and visceral, an extraordinary debut.” A captivatingly haunting coming-of-age, I Am Lucky Bird was selected as a general fiction finalist for the 2011 Book of the Year Award from ForeWord Reviews.

When her mother mysteriously vanishes from the small town of Plains, Montana, 12-year-old Lucky Bird’s childhood comes to an abrupt end. Left to defend herself against her suddenly abusive grandmother, Marian, and forced to endure the twisted predatory games played out by Marian’s lover, Lucky soon finds herself trapped in a nightmare.

Even when she manages to escape, the outside world can’t take away the brutal images of her past. Still haunted by her mother’s disappearance and the trauma that followed, Lucky is easily led down a path of self-destruction—a path that only the intervention of a young stranger and his family can guide her away from. But first, Lucky will have to confront her demons, and the dark truths kept hidden.

To MFA or not to MFA?

When I graduated from the University of Montana in 1998, I had no interest in ever going back to school. I had a degree, along with student loans that would haunt me for years to come. Besides, I was a writer. What was the point of going back to school? I’d write books and earn a living, and all would be good.

Twelve years later, my writing was a mere hobby in the chaos of what had become my life. In 2009, I was at the top of my game as the Communications Director for a prominent Beverly Hills dermatologist. I had a great income, I loved my job, and I was meeting fabulous people. And then something happened: Michael Jackson died, and I lost my job. I thought the world was coming to an end.

Life after Michael Jackson

I decided to take my sudden unemployment as a sign. I had disconnected myself from the writing community. It was time to go back. But how? Join a writing group through MeetUp? Take some writing classes online? And would that be enough to reignite the passion that had become a mere hobby? No. I wanted something bigger, something that would light a fire under my butt and make writing more of a priority. And so, I decided to go back to school to get my MFA.

Making the decision to go to graduate school isn’t an easy one. There’s a lot to consider, especially if you’re a few years gone from undergrad. First of all, can you afford it? I was still trying to pay off those undergraduate loans. In addition, do you have the time? I’m a single mom. I have no choice but to work while I’m in school. What kind of time commitment is expected when pursuing an MFA? What will I be required to do besides write?

I Am Lucky Bird by Fleur Philips
I was amazed at how many wonderful programs were out there! And it does take time to research these programs, so give yourself plenty to find the one that fits you best. One of my favorite resources was The Creative Writing MFA Handbook. There are full-residency programs that follow a more traditional graduate school format, and there are low-residency programs designed to accommodate students who seek something more “part-time”. Both are viable options and meant to accommodate any MFA seeker.

Choosing low residency

There are plenty of schools throughout the country that offer programs, so finding one close to home may be easier than you think. And with every program comes a list of full-time faculty and guest faculty members who are experts in their fields—some programs even share faculty, so if the person you hoped to learn from lives on the East Coast, it doesn’t necessarily mean he/she doesn’t also teach somewhere out West.

I decided to apply to Antioch University in Los Angeles. For me, I had to choose a low-residency program, meaning more distance education with short-term residencies. I also needed to find a school close to home so I wouldn’t have to worry about leaving my son overnight when I needed to be on campus. At Antioch, like many of the low-residency models, students meet twice each year for two, 10-day residencies.

These residencies consist of lectures and seminars by writing mentors and graduating students (as well as special guests), readings, and workshops. The rest of the time (what are called “project periods”) is spent reading and annotating, conferencing with fellow students on assigned novels, and WRITING! In addition, students are required to produce two critical papers and a final manuscript, and at the final residency, conduct a 20-minute presentation and a reading.

Social issues and field study

In addition to location and low-residency, I chose Antioch because of its commitment to social justice, responsibility, and action. This appeals to me as a writer for two reasons:  One, because my own writing tends to focus on a myriad of social issues; and two, because I’ve always wanted to do more for my community.

For my field study, I chose to volunteer for an organization in Los Angeles called WriteGirl, a creative writing and mentoring organization for teen girls. I’m a volunteer in their In-School Program. Once a week for two hours, I assist with a creative writing class at Asuza Cal-SAFE, a school for pregnant teens and teen parents. What an incredible experience to be able to

Fleur Philips, author of I Am Lucky Bird

provide these kids with an outlet where they can express themselves in a non-threatening environment. Their words are heartfelt and real. At the end of the eight-month program, WriteGirl publishes an anthology of their work.

Going back to school may not be the right decision for everyone. But for me, making that commitment to my writing by furthering my education, surrounding myself with other writers, and continuously learning and growing as a writer will undoubtedly be one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life.

Have you ever considered an MFA program or perhaps you’re a graduate of one? What can you share with our community about these programs and their merits for writers?

To find out more about I Am Lucky Bird and Fleur’s forthcoming novel, be sure to follow her on her website , Twitter and on Facebook. Also, don’t miss the I Am Lucky Bird book trailer! Write on!



  1. Ray Pace says

    MFA program or WriteGirl, there’s lots to be said for writers hanging out with other writers. There’s the common encouragement and usually gentle criticism. Questions about one’s work and suggestions, too are great ways to take this lonely pursuit of ours and at least give it some of the trappings of a team sport.
    Thanks Fleur for a wonderful article!

  2. says

    Congratulations on the book! Like you, I only got serious about writing when my distracting job got taken away by our wonderful new economy. I have considered an MFA–I am already publishing so it is not a priority–but I enjoy teaching too, so an MFA may be in my future.

  3. says


    Sounds like Antioch was a great fit. Your post pulses with the new purpose you found.

    Here’s what I’d like to know: How did the MFA program and process shape your writing itself?

    MFA programs by their nature seem to reward organic processes and literary values. Story frameworks are regarded suspiciously while authentic moments, what is “true”, are celebrated. Did you find that to be so?

    In my workshops I caution that thinking of oneself as a genre writer automatically puts one in a box. It makes it easy to reach for genre tropes, character stereotypes and even genre-specific language.

    But literary fiction can be it’s own box, too. I have no problem with genre stories *or* literary novels. To honor one’s influences is good. Yet to serve our stories I think requires that we follow our own paths, borrowing what is useful while rejecting what is only derivative.

    To add to my question, then, did you feel that the MFA process set you completely free or fenced you partly in?

    Thanks for a fine post. This topic is in the air. And sorry for the loss of Michael Jackson. Didn’t hit me quite as hard as you, but I did play “Man in the Mirror” quite a lot after he died.

    • says

      Mr. Maass,

      I think I was so separated from the writing community when I applied to Antioch, I had no idea what to expect. I’m sure every program is different, but at Antioch I felt liberated–completely free with no feeling of being fenced in. But others might feel differently. In each of the residencies, there were seminars on how the writing world has changed, how stepping outside of the box is a good thing, and those seminars were always packed. In my own experience of writing I Am Lucky Bird, I struggled with whether I could call it YA based on its content. I expected a mentor or faculty member to answer my question. Instead, they encouraged me to answer the question myself, and that in itself was liberating!

      I have a feeling I might have beaten you on the “Man in the Mirror” replay contest. He was a good, sad, lost man who loved his kids and was stripped of his own childhood. I have always believed that everything that happens in life, happens for a reason.

      Thanks for the questions!!


      • says

        I hope my experience turns out to be just like yours, Melanie. I’ve just started my MFA (and started blogging about it), and I’m really hoping it will make a difference. It was a huge decision, so seeing your comment made me feel a little better.

  4. says

    Fleur, thanks for a great post. I would love to do a low-res MFA, but I cannot swing it financially or the time commitment. All the best to you on the success of your book.

  5. says

    I completed my MFA completely online at Regis University with no residency requirements. I also had to work while going to school.

    To answer Donald’s question about being boxed in, I didn’t feel that way at all in my program – they challenged my own preconceived notions and help me think about a bigger picture. What I liked about the program was that they asked me what my eventual goals were and the program was modeled toward my long-term goals. The professors were all extremely helpful and knowledgeable and fantastic resources. They really boosted my confidence and pushed me to learn. I had to do everything from write a short story and submit it to a literary magazine to writing a complete novel for my final project.

    I probably didn’t need the degree to pursue my writing career, but I think it was beneficial for my confidence. The cost wasn’t outrageous either – huge plus!

    Congrats on the novel, Fleur, and I’m glad you found a program that worked for you.


  6. says

    I’ve just started my MFA and intend to blog my way through the whole thing, pretty much daily, just as a way of helping others make this exact decision. I think the content here is pretty much right on the money and followed my thinking before applying, so now that the money has been spent…it’s time to see, in real time, what happens, I think. And I am mostly a “genre writer” in a mostly “literary” program. We’ll see how it goes.

    Thanks for this post. I’m glad I’m not the only one thinking about this topic.

  7. Denise Willson says

    There is no such thing as too much education, our minds are sponges, meant to absorb everything offered. It’s what you do with that knowledge that matters. Kudos to you, Fleur, for reaching for your stars.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  8. Brooke Passey says

    Thanks for sharing your experience Fleur. I have often thought about an MFA, but this is the first time I have felt like it might be a practical option. I appreciate the positive outlook on such a loaded decision!

  9. says

    I’ve been debating about pursuing an MFA for a couple years. I have a BA in English and an MAEd, and I am also a part of a writer’s group where we have monthly workshops. There is also a wealth of workshops available through RWA, which as a member, are free to me. The cost of the MFA and access to all this other learning is what has kept me from pursuing it. I remain curious about how it could improve my writing and propel my career.

  10. says

    I’m applying for a variety of programs to start an MFA next September. It is a harrowing experience in some ways, sending my portfolio out, really for the first time. But it helped me realize that the submission process isn’t much different, and I’ve had pieces accepted for publication, so…maybe, just maybe, they’ll like me at X, Y and Z schools enough to admit me and give me TA-ships. (I’m not a single mom, but I still have to help feed the family.) I have been specifically looking for programs that either encourage or require cross-genre studies. For me, that is a signal that they mean to liberate rather than confine the writer’s voice. Having reviewed the faculties and their interests, I think I’ve chosen well. For those interested, the schools that encourage or require cross-genre study that I’ve found are University of British Columbia-Vancouver, University of New Mexico, UNC-Wilmington and some very interesting overseas programs at the Universities of Aukland and Melbourne. (I’m sure there are more, but I was restricted in my search by my husband’s search for Management PhD programs.)