Tips for older MFA students going back to school

Older students seeking graduate degrees in creative writing prove that age really is just a number.

Older MFA students climb metaphorical mountains when going back to school

In 2016, Anna Arnett of Chandler, Arizona, graduated with her Master of Arts degree in creative writing. This may not seem like news; after all, thousands of students graduate with an advanced degree in the subject every year. Arnett, however, had a powerful claim to fame.

She was 92.

Those who believe graduate school is reserved for people in their 20s should visit any Master of Fine Arts classroom across the country. The ages of students span decades – sometimes five or six decades.

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As adults consider mid-career changes and continue working long past what used to be considered retirement age, MA and MFA programs receive enrollment applications from parents with grown children and from grandparents, as well.

 

Tips for older MFA students

Lori A. May is the author of The Low-Residency MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Creative Writing Students. She also teaches in the creative nonfiction program at the University of King’s College-Halifax. She explains that the low-residency model – which requires travel to campus for about 10 days twice a year – offers students the ability to stay in their current city and in their current job – perfect for those who need an independent academic schedule. “Whether you’re a working professional or winding down into retirement, the low-residency model is perfect for setting your own hours as you complete a degree,” she says.

She advises prospective students to research the workload required by each program, and pay attention to location. “With so many programs to choose from, you can select a residency that’s close to home for convenience or far away in a dreamy location that’s been on your travel bucket list.”

May tells students to embrace the experience of being a student. “You’re likely to enter a program with an eye on completing a book-length manuscript,” she says. “That should be your focus, but you’ll also have plenty of other opportunities pop up that will enrich your experience.”

“The low-res MFA, no matter your age, is what you make of it. So get out there and mingle with agents and editors, grab a drink with mentors and peers, and enjoy the immersive experience.”

May describes Bill, a student in his 80s, at King’s College in Halifax who embraced everything the MFA program had to offer, including narrow beds in tiny dorm rooms. “Bill could have booked a cozy hotel down the road full of amenities, but he opted to stay in the campus dorms like everyone else,” she says. “He was in the MFA to heighten his writing skills, but there wasn’t a social gathering Bill missed.”

She tells MFA students to attend all public readings and get to know classmates at social events. “Enjoy this magical time,” she says. “The low-res MFA, no matter your age, is what you make of it. So get out there and mingle with agents and editors, grab a drink with mentors and peers, and enjoy the immersive experience.”

 

Becoming a better wordsmith

Iris Graville immersed herself in memoir and in building lifelong friendships with classmates during her years in the low-residency MFA program in creative writing through the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts (NILA) on Whidbey Island, Washington. She’d been living on nearby Lopez Island for almost two decades and didn’t want to relocate. “It was affordable and reasonable to be a ferry ride away for the 10-day residency twice a year,” she says.

Graville was 58 when she began NILA’s program. She already had one master’s degree and a 40-year career in nursing. “It wasn’t having the MFA degree that added to my motivation,” she says of her decision to enroll. “I didn’t have any illusion that it would add to my marketability. I felt that it would make me a better writer.”

Graville had taken in-person and online workshops with Washington author Ana Maria Spagna, whom she found to be an excellent teacher and a good fit for her own work. “I never thought I’d do an MFA,” Graville says. “I’d heard horror stories about the programs being dog-eat-dog and people not being supportive, but knowing that Ana Maria was a part of the program, I trusted it wouldn’t be that kind of environment.”

What she found was a community of writers ranging in age from early 20s to late 60s, encouraging and friendly and fun. “I had plenty of companions that were my age,” she says, “and we had a great deal to offer through our life experience. Younger folks have a great deal to teach as well. I never felt that age was an issue.”

Still, she found the MFA experience humbling. “Even though I’d written one book and had been writing and studying writing for 15 years, the MFA program was a different level,” she explains. “I was surrounded by excellent writers, and learning all kinds of new techniques and experimenting. I was a beginner again in a lot of ways.”

Graville hoped to earn her degree by the time she turned 60. Theoretically, the program took two years, but most students found themselves completing it in three. She completed two classes a semester while still working part time as a nurse and wrote while commuting by ferry to her workplace. “I always marveled at my classmates who still had young children at home or were working full time. I didn’t have those same responsibilities while maintaining a heavy workload at school.”

She went into the program with a clear idea of her thesis – a memoir she’d been working on for 15 years about life as a Quaker and a nurse after making the decision to move with her husband and young children to a tiny town in the North Cascades. She adapted as many MFA writing assignments as possible to work on the manuscript. In addition to prose classes, she took poetry. “Some of the very best memoirist were poets originally,” she says. “There’s just so much about writing in that genre that informs and improves prose.”

Her favorite part of each residency was the student readings, held in the mirrored dining room of the inn in which the MFA classes took place. “If you were the reader,” she explains, “it was the best audience anywhere. There was laughter and wild applause and hooting and hollering.”

During the MFA program, Graville and her classmates learned how to pitch short and book-length pieces for publication. She learned to use the Publisher’s Weekly database and research potential editors for her thesis. “I could look at what certain publishers had acquired, and what agents were looking for, and how you submit your work,” she says.

“If you find that you’re one of only two people with gray hair and glasses, you just have to remind yourself that you have every right to be there, and you have things to offer.”

In September 2017, Homebound Publications published Graville’s graduate school thesis, Hiking Naked, as a book-length memoir. She’s currently at work on a collection of essays.

She advises potential MFA students to be very clear about what they want out of a particular program. “Not everyone’s goal is to be on a best-seller list or to publish a book or to teach writing,” she says. “You may have other things you hope to accomplish, so be clear with yourself about that and honor it. And be open, because it may change.”

She urges people over 50 to get comfortable with their age. “If you find that you’re one of only two people with gray hair and glasses, you just have to remind yourself that you have every right to be there, and you have things to offer,” she says. “You have a great opportunity to gain so much from people with different perspectives.”

 

Investing in oneself

Mark Shavin spent over 35 years as a journalist, mostly in TV newsrooms. He was 59 when he enrolled in the low-residency MFA program in narrative nonfiction at the University of Georgia. He had no interest in retiring but no longer wanted to work in television. “I wanted to reinvent myself,” he says.

His original passion had been books and writing, and he’d always wanted to earn an MFA degree. “I’m basically just investing in myself right now,” he explains. “I’ve got three children, two of them through college. It sets a good example for them to see their dad changing up his life and doing something new.”

Shavin chose the University of Georgia because he’d been an adjunct instructor in the journalism school there and wanted the flexibility of the low-residency program. “It’s very different to go from a newsroom to a classroom,” he says. “You have to flex some different muscles. Rather than being in a constant, frantic deadline, you have to really close down on your writing.”

He’s devoting his time in the MFA program to working on a book-length piece of narrative nonfiction about a story he’d come across decades before – a drama involving shifting roles and power dynamics in a Southern family. “It’s a remarkable story, like something in Flannery O’Connor’s territory,” he says.

Shavin has found his program’s advisors to be tremendously helpful as he works on the manuscript. “I don’t always hear what I want to hear, but I hear what I need to hear,” he explains. “I’m not looking for someone to tell me my writing is great. I’m looking for someone to push me and make me better.”

“Know that it’s going to be challenging, and at times you’ll wonder if you’re crazy, but you’ll meet really bright people interested in the world of books and writing.”

The positive affirmations, he says, must come from within. “It’s a leap of faith. When you’re in a newsroom, you’re watching the clock all day, getting a newscast on air, and then you’re done, you go home, and the next day you start all over. This is different,” he says. “It’s me by myself in my home office looking out at the river, but I’m not interacting with anyone very much. It’s hard to work like that.”

It’s been challenging as well, he says, to keep up with the reading and writing requirements. Students read eight books a semester, write papers on each book, and submit creative writing projects. Classmates and instructors discuss the books in person or via conference calls.

“It’s very rigorous,” Shavin says. “I’m not the fastest reader in the world, and you’ve got to be reading all the time. The good part is that I feel like it’s my job to read. Mentors point you toward very fine writing that you might not discover on your own.”

He tells people over 50 who might be contemplating an advanced degree in creative writing to go for it. “Know that it’s going to be challenging, and at times you’ll wonder if you’re crazy, but you’ll meet really bright people interested in the world of books and writing. It’s inspiring.”

 

Summer camp for writers

Both of Patricia Marshall’s parents are educators. But instead of going to college right out of high school, she moved to Eugene, Oregon, and worked for Burley Design Cooperative, a worker-owned co-op that produced bicycles and apparel. She earned her undergraduate degree at age 41 with two of her three kids still in high school. A decade later, she earned her MFA in creative writing from Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.

“I’d been juggling – raising children and working and going to school for so long,” she says. “When I got to Goucher for the two-week residency, I felt like I’d gone to summer camp. You went and stayed in a dorm room and ate on campus. We had study hall every night, and it was awesome – a ton of work, but it was time just for me.”

She chose Goucher for its proximity to her family back east. “I was able to combine the residencies with visiting them and caring for my mother, and I could keep my job,” she explains.

As one of the oldest students in the program, Marshall discovered another woman exactly her age with three kids of similar ages, as well. “She was my East Coast counterpart,” she says.

Goucher classmates grew close thanks to both lively residencies and field trips to New York City. Marshall’s class visited publishers and the offices of The New Yorker and The Paris Review. “The MFA gave me the language and knowledge to be in the literary world,” she says.

“Be clear about what your goals are, while being flexible about what could happen.”

It also gave her discipline to finish the first draft of a nonfiction manuscript exploring the demise of the Burley Cooperative. “It started out as a really hippie alternative co-op in 1976,” she explains, “and dissolved in a really ugly way in 2006. The story was happening as I started graduate school.”

To writers thinking of jumping into an MFA program, she says, “Do it. Think of it as time and investment in yourself and in your career. Be clear about what your goals are, while being flexible about what could happen.”

Marshall urges people to research each program and the specific degree and credentials you’ll earn. “One of the things I learned about the MFA – it’s not a teaching degree,” she says. “I wish I had realized that before I went in. Still, it was really fun, and it opened the door to other things.”

One of these things is Luminare Press, the self-publishing service she founded in Eugene, Oregon to help writers produce high-quality independently-published books. “The MFA gave me a window into how a wide variety of writers and editors work,” she says. “I can speak knowledgeably to my writers. I know how to make each sentence better.”

She still keeps in touch with the classmates in her cohort years later. “I really liked the people in my program,” she says. “Writers are thoughtful, interesting people. We’re trained to think about a lot of different things in a lot of different ways. It’s a luxury to be with people like that.”

 

Contributing editor Melissa Hart earned her MFA in creative writing from Goddard College in Vermont. She’s the author, most recently, of the middle-grade novel Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016). 

 

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