What My MFA Taught Me & What I Learned on My Own

by Robin Farrar Maas
published in Writing

It’s been almost ten years since I graduated with my MFA in Creative Writing, so I’ve had a little time to reflect on the experience. Fresh from my graduation in 2012, I was certain I’d whip through finishing my novel and the book would be out the next year.


Wrong. It’s 2022, and my debut novel is finally coming out! So, what happened? What did I still need to learn?

A lot, as it turns out.

Full Disclosure about My MFA

I want to say up front that I am not out to trash MFA programs. I definitely feel my MFA experience was worth it—I found community with other writers, benefited from great mentoring, and learned a lot about workshopping my own and other writers’ work. 

As an introvert, it got me out of my cave, interacting with other aspiring writers and with faculty members who were experienced, published authors. Most of the reading and writing I did was valuable. 

Just taking myself seriously—and being taken seriously by others—as a writer was valuable. Committing to the leap of faith that is the writer’s life was valuable.

My MFA Experience

The biggest disappointment of the program for me was not about the program itself. It was the painful realization, seconded by my mentor, that I wouldn’t have a complete first draft of my novel by the time I graduated, as I’d hoped, because the book’s opening was untenable and had to be rewritten. 

To succeed, the story needed to be built on a better foundation.

So, yeah, that explains a lot of what happened during the past ten years!

But when I look back on my MFA experience, here’s what I think: many of the seminars were too theoretical for me, focusing on the quirks or private theories or esoteric philosophical musings of the faculty members. These were interesting—even exhilarating—at times. 

But I realize now that what I needed was much more concrete and practical: the nuts and bolts of how to structure a whole novel, even how to structure a scene, how to create believable characters, how to identify my themes and use them to deepen and enhance the story. The kind of down-to-earth help I’ve since gotten from the books of people like K.M. Weiland, Donald Maass (no relation, though I wish he was!), and Jessica Brody.

I have a B.A. in English lit and I’ve been a voracious reader all my life. You’d think I would have known what a plot point was, but in relation to my own writing (not English major-type analysis of other people’s writing), I didn’t have a clue. 

I don’t remember anyone at my MFA program talking about basic three-act structure, and, as amazing as it seems to me now, I never heard the term “inciting incident” even once.

Finding Discipline

Full disclosure: I’ve always been more of a pantser than a plotter. I tend to resist strict outlines, preferring to “discover” things as I go by writing into them. Which is fine, but, as I found out, definitely more time-consuming!

The discipline of stepping back and being made to look at what the three acts of my own story were composed of would have helped give me the clarity I often lacked. Looking at fundamental questions like the purpose of a particular scene, or my story’s thematic principles, or my characters’ goals in specific situations would have been a huge help in diagnosing why a particular scene wasn’t working or why the narrative seemed to have suddenly veered off-track. 

K.M. Weiland’s analysis of scene structure in her book, Structuring Your Novel, is worth the price of the book alone. More recently, I’ve been using Jessica Brody’s 15 beats (or essential plot points) from Save the Cat Writes a Novel to create an outline (yes, I actually did put together a rough outline!) for my second novel.

Again, I don’t mean to be negative about MFA programs; my point is that no one in my program talked about these things—and I needed them. True, I might have resisted them, but I needed them. 

I think it’s similar to practicing scales in music. Learning them can seem boring and tedious, but you can’t start riffing—the fun, creative part—till you have that foundation.

My Most Important Takeaway

So, what did I get out of my MFA experience? What was my most important takeaway?

One word: accountability.

I graduated in August 2012 with my newly-minted MFA, and by that November, I was floundering again. I’d invested too much time and money to walk away from the mess that was my novel, so, on the advice of one of my fellow graduates, I hired a writing coach. Though it was hard to make that financial commitment (especially just coming off an MFA!), it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself as a writer. I will never write another book without one.

What my MFA program ultimately taught me was that I could not write a novel on my own. There are just too many ways to go wrong, to veer off course, to fall down rabbit holes that don’t serve your story. None of these things are unrecoverable from, they’re just time-consuming.

Here’s what I found: you need a coach/companion on the journey—someone who reads you, someone who gets you. Gets who you are and what you’re trying to do, and even, if you’re lucky, loves it. 

But at the same time, someone who can tell you the hard truths about what’s working and what’s not; someone who will encourage you to keep going deeper until you say what you really mean; someone who’s even willing to offer the occasional shoulder for you to cry on.

There is no single right way to write a book—any book, fiction or non. But there are many wrong ways, and by wrong, I mean diversions and detours that can end up sucking the life juice out of you and your story, or worse, derailing it altogether.

When I get off the phone from my monthly call with my writing coach, no matter what she’s said to me—and she’s said some pretty hard things at times—I always feel excited and energized to get back to work. Most of the time, I think, wow, I can’t believe I get to have this much fun.

And, MFA or no, that’s what is ultimately going to help you keep your rear in your chair, finish your book, slog through all the revisions—and become the published author you’ve always dreamed of being!

I wish you the very best of luck.

Robin Farrar Maass is a lifelong reader and writer who fell in love with England when she was twenty-two. She enjoys tending her messy wants-to-be-English garden, painting watercolors, and traveling. She lives in Redmond, Washington, with her husband and two highly opinionated Siamese cats. The Walled Garden is her first novel, and she’s already at work on her next novel set in England. Learn more at www.robinfmaass.com.

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