My Love-Love Relationship with the MFA: How it Put Me on My Writing Path

by Tess Enterline
published in Community

Hello DIY MFA community!

It’s truly a privilege to join you today as the newest member of the DIY MFA team. I’ve been part of this awesome word nerd tribe for a while. Thank you, Gabriela, for inviting me to now come onboard as the new Creative Nonfiction columnist.

I love creative nonfiction, especially memoir. I’m not, however, a better CNF writer than any of you who delve into this genre. I look forward to putting some ideas out there and starting a discussion. We’re all in this together, and constantly learning this craft called “writing.” The DIY MFA community is one of the best out there as a means of learning and supporting one another in this labor of love. I’m honored and thrilled to share my writing life with all of you!

Each time I’m out walking my dogs (Enzo and Toby, or “the boys,” as our family likes to call them), I’m usually thinking about the writing projects I’m working on, such as the memoir I’m writing, a blog post, or, these days, this column. Recently, during one of our walks, I was formulating some thoughts for this column when three words suddenly came rushing forward, leap-frogging over every other thought.

Those words were, “Find Your Path.”

“Yes!” I said out loud, probably making the boys wonder why I was suddenly so excited about the tree they had stopped to sniff. I became excited because I realized that those words—Find Your Path—beautifully sum up the message I’d like to share with you today.

Leaving an MFA Program (once, twice, thrice…)

I didn’t think of my actions in that way early last fall when I departed the MFA program at Goucher College, but I now realize that that’s exactly what I was doing—finding my own path. It’s advice that can be given to just about anyone, no matter their pursuit. But, as a creative nonfiction writer, especially in memoir, it held special significance for me as I moved forward in my writing.

Let me explain.

As I just indicated, I am a former MFA student. Actually, I’m a former MFA student three times over, having started and stopped the same program three times. (I’ll be forever grateful to the program director for her understanding and compassion.)

I didn’t leave the first, second, or final time because of any ill-feelings. There was illness, as my dad’s being in the final stages of a terminal illness certainly weighed on me. But, I loved the MFA in Creative Nonfiction program. Still do. The MFA curriculum at Goucher is solely focused on creative nonfiction. The Program Director (Leslie Rubinkowski), faculty mentors, and community of students are all dedicated, talented, and inspiring. I learned so much, even in the short time I was there. My decision to leave for good was difficult. I agonized over leaving that wonderful community.

So, why, you’re probably wondering by now, did you leave?

Because, despite my love for all of the above, I finally decided, in September 2018, to love myself more. I decided to love myself enough to walk away. The MFA, I decided, was not for me.

Accepting Yourself and Your Own Needs

This realization didn’t come to me quickly. It took a couple of years for me to acknowledge, and then accept (wasn’t easy), some things about myself. None of these things are bad. For a while, though, I just didn’t want to accept that I’m:

  • An introvert.
  • More comfortable doing things on my own.
  • Eventually resistant to and resentful of anything (e.g. other writing assignments) that puts constraints on what I want to be writing, which is usually my memoir.

I imagine these are common traits among writers. So, I had to ask myself: How come so many people make it through an MFA program and I could not?

The answer, and, again, not easy for me to accept: I am also a huge people-pleaser.

And here’s where being a people-pleaser is especially problematic if you write creative nonfiction, and even more if you’re a memoir writer—you cannot write to please others, and you cannot write what you think others want to hear. You have to write your truth … you have to tell your story. (One time, in response to my apology for using the f-word in a personal essay I had submitted, the writing teacher said, “NEVER apologize for anything you write!”)

The memoir I’m writing is a very personal, as well as a difficult story to tell. I share some of my experiences as a hospital chaplain trainee dealing with trauma cases which ended in death for the patients involved, and my resulting journey through PTSD. I also write about motherhood and how I questioned God’s faithfulness. Time had to pass before I could even begin to write about those years.

Letting go of Writing to Please Others

In the Fall of 2015, I learned about the low-residency MFA program at Goucher College, a close eighty miles from my home. I met with Leslie, the Director, submitted an application and writing samples, and was accepted. Everything felt right when I started the program in July 2016. Over the next two years, though, I completed only one full semester, buried my dad, and could never quite push myself past the early stages of another semester. Each time, I could feel myself reverting back into the writer I thought others wanted, rather than the writer I am.

I’d like to make one thing clear: My mentors in the MFA program never suggested that I write anything but my true story; they were marvelous. It was on me. I just couldn’t get out of my own people-pleasing way, and constantly wrote to please my mentors rather than to tell my story, my way. It rarely occurred to me that it could be one and the same. Obviously, self-doubt was also an issue. Again, common among writers.

Especially while working on the “shitty” first draft, a writer has to “let ’er rip.” Get it down on paper as if you are the only, and hopefully not too critical, reader. Again, I couldn’t give myself that sense of freedom from judgment. I became my own hindrance and distraction.

So, how would I remove the barriers and distractions? What setting would best accommodate my telling my story? I had to find my own path.

Finding the Writing Path that Works for You

In September 2018, I decided for the final time to leave the MFA program. I’m now writing and editing my first draft on my own, and then I’ll share it with a professional, to be scrutinized and edited again…as it should and must be.

All of us who dare to call ourselves writers have at least one goal in common—to keep getting better at our craft. A solid MFA program will certainly help you along that way. If I turn out to be any good as a writer, much credit can be given to all that I learned while I was at Goucher.

But an MFA is not the only way. There are classes (in-class or online), conferences, retreats, workshops, and writing groups galore. And, of course, there’s Gabriela’s marvelous book, DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community.

Writing is hard work. If you’re writing memoir, you may be stirring up lots of emotions. Be kind to yourself. Be forgiving of yourself. Celebrate yourself. Read great writers in a variety of genres.

Friends, find your path. Allow yourself to follow your heart; listen to your soul. Be who you are, and do it your way. Maybe that means an MFA; maybe not. Whichever way you choose, put yourself in the best position to write your truth and your story.

And, as memoir writer and teacher Marion Roach Smith has said to me, “Be brave.”

Tess Enterline is a creative nonfiction writer, currently working on her first memoir. She’s also a wife, mom, former hospital chaplain, dog lover, and fountain pen/stationery enthusiast (i.e., addict). You can visit her on her website at

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