I graduated from the University of Colorado, Boulder, with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing on May 9, 2014—three years ago exactly. It was a three year MFA program, so I have now been out of the MFA as long as I was in it. I thought this would be a good chance to reflect on my MFA experience in general, and on what I've done (and not done) since finishing the program.
A few people have asked me whether I recommend getting an MFA, and I can't say unequivocally yes or no. As a fantasy and science fiction writer, I think it's probably far more useful to go to the genre-focused workshops like Clarion, Taos Toolbox, Odyssey, or CSSF, or even just to spend a bunch of time in genre-focused critique groups such as Critters or Codex. Even at CU Boulder, which was a genre-friendly program, a lot of the teachers and other students valued very different things about writing than genre folks do, and that's not always going to help your writing move in the direction it needs to go. It's good to read outside of your comfort zone and seek diverse opinions, but my experience of workshopping fantasy and science fiction stories with non-genre readers is that they are often impressed with aspects that are cliché to genre readers, and overlook aspects that genre readers would want clarified or expanded. "Plot" and "Worldbuilding" were basically dirty words in an MFA workshop.
The summer after I finished the MFA, I went to the Clarion Workshop in San Diego. In the first class, instructor Gregory Frost said he would go over some basic writing craft concepts, so I just sat back and thought "I don't need to take notes, I've been teaching basic writing craft for the last three years." About five minutes into his lecture I was scrambling for my notebook. The next summer, I took the novel workshop with Kij Johnson at the University of Kansas's Center for the Study of Science Fiction. I was workshopping a new novel, but three days into the class, I realized all the structural problems in the novel I'd written as my MFA thesis—all the reasons it kept getting agent requests that turned into rejections once they read halfway through. I ditched the project I had brought and did major revisions on my thesis novel instead.
But I'd probably never have been accepted to Clarion if I hadn't done the MFA, because I wrote my admission stories there. Same with CSSF. Most of my classmates got in without that experience, but I, personally, needed it, to figure out what kind of a writer I wanted to be. And I'm lucky to have done any of them at all—these things are not cheap, and they're not easy. I also wouldn't have my publishing job without my MFA, not because of the credential, necessarily, but because of the experience, especially the Publishing Workshop I did with Subito Press. Interestingly enough, the experience of formatting my thesis, which I thought was utterly obnoxious and useless at the time, gave me skills I use on almost a daily basis now when formatting paperbacks for World Weaver Press.
I published quite a few stories while I was in the MFA program, and I had a great fear that I'd stop publishing once I was out. That's a strangely common phenomenon in writing programs. Some people stop writing entirely, whether because they no longer have deadlines and grades for motivation, or because they're burnt out, or because life gets in the way and they no longer have time.
My publishing output has definitely decreased since I graduated, and there are several reasons for that. First, I've spent a lot more time working on novels than on short stories (as-yet and probably-always unpublished novels). Second, a lot of the stories I published during the MFA were flash fiction—really short pieces under 1000 words. Nowadays, my short fiction tends toward 5,000 to 8,000 words, and there's more competition in that range. Third, I've tried to level up the type of markets I'm submitting to. Many of my MFA publications were unpaid or token payments. I broke into a pro-market once, and I've been trying to get back there ever since. The pro-payment genre magazines are often slow and don't allow simultaneous submissions, so I may be shopping around the same story for a couple of years before I exhaust all the pro- possibilities and either decide to trunk the story or start sending it to semi-pro markets. And fourth, yeah, time and real life have been an issue. For most of 2016, I was both working a day job and running World Weaver Press, and finding the time and energy to write and/or submit was difficult.
All of these reasons are why I only have three stories on deck for 2017, rather than eight or ten like the years I was in the MFA. But, ya know, that's still three. Nope, I still don't have those pro- sales, and I still don't have that book deal. But I'm still writing, I'm still publishing, and I'm working with books and with creative people every day.
I think the most important thing I've learned in the three years since I finished my MFA is that the learning's not over. Not by a long shot.