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Ask a Swoontern: What Is Getting An MFA In YA Writing Like?

Hi Swooners! It’s André, current intern at Swoon Reads. When I’m not helping out the amazing Swoon editors and/or reading great stories on here, you can find me attending classes at The New School’s Writing For Children and Young Adults MFA program. Wait, what’s an MFA degree? Well, you typically take a mix of writing workshops and craft seminars over the course of two years—all with the focus on becoming a better writer (and maybe even person).

Of course, getting published is something everyone dreams of (and it does happen!), but the real focus is on becoming the best writer you can be. I sound like Oprah, I know. My concentration focuses solely on children's fiction writing (which includes picture books, middle-grade, and young adult). I wanted to share the highs and lows of getting an MFA degree in Children’s Writing and why this may (or may not) be the right path for you.

The Good Stuff:

Community

Being surrounded by people who get and care about your writing is invaluable and so, so hard to find out in the big, scary real world. My concentration is small—only 13 people altogether—and we’ve taken the same classes for three semesters. Naturally, we’ve grown to become amazing colleagues, critiquers, shade-throwers, and, most importantly, friends. We’ll go to book events together, organize informal critique sessions, and chat in our Facebook group. Writing can be really lonely, so it’s always great when you can go out and vent to others about NOT KNOWING HOW TO LOCK DOWN YOUR CLOSE THIRD-PERSON NARRATOR.

Networking

Getting my MFA has provided me with amazing opportunities to get up-close-and-personal with some of the biggest children’s writers and editors: David Levithan, Andrea Pinkney, Andrew Harwell. The list goes on and on! While it’s been amazing to take classes led by them, it’s also been super humanizing to hear that even published writers face roadblocks in their creative process.

Cool, Nerdy Classes

A weekend masterclass on “Writing Cross-Culturally: Diversity in Children’s Literature”? Sign me up! The super-niche classes and discussions have been great! Especially because academia does not always treat children’s literature with seriousness. Yes, please, let’s spend two hours talking about how Miles, from John Green’s Looking For Alaska, is an unreliable narrator.

Discipline

Writers are infamous procrastinators. We’re always going to get started on that really-cool-idea “eventually.” But when you have a workshop submission due in 48 hours and an entire chapter left to write, suddenly you get a lot more motivation to type away! Learning how to juggle classes with writing, working, and, well, being a twenty-something in NYC has been an important lesson for me. It’s help me stop coming up with excuses to put off writing and just do it.

Confidence

Hands down, this is the biggest thing I’ve gained from the MFA program. Us writers are insecure, and we need a lot of validation! There’s no better feeling than when you see your classmates and teachers have connected with something you’ve written. You think, Oh wait, I can actually do this!

The (Maybe) Bad Stuff:

A LOT Of Opinions

It can feel like you’re in the hot seat when it’s time to get your writing critiqued! You get a LOT of opinions during workshop, and, as a writer, you have to learn what feedback you want to pay attention to. We’re writers, we want everyone to like our stuff. But no book has been ever universally praised. If you’re someone who is sensitive or feels easily overwhelmed by varied feedback, the workshop setting might be more frustrating than helpful for you.

Time-Consuming

Let’s look at two sides of the same coin. I talked about how getting my MFA has taught me discipline, but it has also taken up a LOT of my time. I’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices and my work/life balance has not always been the most healthy. Oh, and I’ve spent way too much money on coffee.

There’s No Kids Reading Your Book

Anyone can read children’s writing, duh, but there is the obvious absence of your biggest age demographic from the room. Therefore, especially when talking about younger-leaning fields like middle-grade and picture books, critiques can lean towards what me and my classmates liked when we were kids and not taking into consideration today’s young readers.

Cost

Getting an MFA is expensive. Very expensive (even with scholarships and financial aid). And while the skills and memories you get out of it are invaluable, it might not be enough to rationalize taking on debt (especially if you’ve already done so for undergraduate school). Which leads to my next point…

Doesn’t Really Increase Job Prospects

An MFA in Children’s Writing is not exactly viewed as something that will help boost your chances at landing a 9-5 job. While a lot of my classmates do work in the children’s publishing industry, they would say their past job experience and/or connections is what really helped them land the job.

Got any questions about what it's like to get an MFA in YA Writing? Let us know in the comments!

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André W.

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