To MFA or Not to MFA: That is the Question

If you’ve ever considered getting a Masters of Fine Arts to help with your writing, we’ve got a treat for you today. Marissa Graff visited awhile back, sharing info about her first semester in the MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Now she’s back to let us know how the second semester is going. If anyone has been wondering about whether or not to pursue an MFA, hopefully you’ll get some good info here.

VCFA logo

How can you tell if an MFA program is any good? Follow its students to the halfway point and see if they’re jumping for joy at reaching the milestone, or crying because the experience is going too quickly. The latter would be me. My experience at the Vermont College of Fine Arts is slipping right past me. The good news is that my writing is forever-changed from all that I’m learning. The even-better news is that I’m the kind of girl who likes to share.

Embrace the suck. Write the heck out of clichés and overplayed description (in your first draft). Consider them placeholders. You know the emotion you’re going for. Why pause and agonize over getting the moment just right? Sometimes we stall in our WIP because we’re afraid to move forward. Maybe we don’t even know where forward is. Instead, we iron the same pages over and over again, trying to get them “just right.” Danger. Getting snagged on description and cliché is a trap. Embrace the suck and carry on. For now. At some point, you will go back and you will revise.

Make body language do double-duty. Of course, Angela and Becca’s Emotion Thesaurus gives writers great ideas for what a character experiences both externally and internally when feeling a particular emotion. Be careful not to overdo it though, or your writing will start to read like, as VCFA calls it, an organ recital. Clenched fists, tightening chests, thick throats… The ET is excellent for giving you one piece of the puzzle and inviting you to fill in the rest. Get your character interacting with their world—maybe your character is tick-tocking her mother’s antique necklace pendant back and forth, or caressing the knit cap her baby brother used to wear. Those descriptions work so much harder for us because they say so much more than the clichés that make readers roll their eyes. Let the ET be the springboard that enables you to bring your characters to life. I never write without my copy next to me.

Look at the world through character-colored glasses. One of my favorite techniques to convey emotion involves stepping into your character’s shoes and seeing the world through their eyes. Ever notice how when you’re in a bad mood, you seem to hit every red traffic light, or maybe the tag of your shirt won’t stop itching the back of your neck? Or maybe you’re on an emotional high, and you get lost watching a pair of squirrels chase one another up and down an oak tree, or the puffs of clouds in the sky remind you of your favorite childhood quilt. Look for ways to reflect your characters’ inner moods through the way they see the world around them. When you’re in a good mood, you notice the good stuff, and vice versa. This allows your reader to intuit your character’s emotional state, and respects them enough to let them figure it out for themselves. It makes them work and readers like to work.

It’s not your story. Yes, I said it. That thing you’re writing belongs to your characters. This semester, I learned to take away the fabulous descriptions and snappy dialogue that was near and dear to my heart. I looked at every word and asked, “Would a child/teen actually say that? Would a child/teen really think that?” Sometimes it’s hard to let go of the things we think are clever and original, but if it doesn’t ring true to your character’s voice, it probably needs to go. Don’t confuse your voice with your narrator’s. We’re not writing for us. We’re writing for our audience. If you’re like me and you’re writing for children and young adults, that means seeing the world as they see it. If you think about the consequences of holding onto your clever line, it’s easier to cut. Imagine the reader saying, “A kid would never say/think that.” Bam. Your reader is yanked from the fictional experience and unfortunately, it’s difficult to recast that spell you’ve been working so hard to spin. Sometimes, you have to kill your darlings for the sake of authenticity. In the end, you’re actually serving your story by doing this.

My second semester at VCFA was all about achieving emotional honesty and authenticity. No matter the age of our audience, these are crucial elements in helping our readers connect with our stories in real ways. We’re working to write stories that make readers *think* that maybe, just maybe, it really happened.

Your turn! What techniques do you use to show how a character is feeling? When reading published work, what types of things yank you from the fictional experience? How do you evaluate what rings true in dialogue and narrative aimed at a particular age group?

Happy writing!


Marissa OcracokeMarissa Graff is a full-time student at the Vermont College of Fine Arts program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. When she’s not reading or writing, or thinking about reading and writing, she’s spending time with her husband, Crossfitting, or exploring Northern Virginia. Follow her on TWITTER and FACEBOOK for more on her MFA & Writing adventures!

The Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults is a low-residency program, meaning you attend lectures and workshop for ten days in January and ten days in July, while working one-on-one with an advisor during the months between.


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
This entry was posted in Guest Post, Writing Craft. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to To MFA or Not to MFA: That is the Question

  1. Dawn Allen says:

    I loved my time in the MFA program, and it does go too fast. It was worth it. 🙂

  2. Thanks for the insight into Vermont MFA. I thought I was original in keeping ET by my side as I write. But you took it one step further, and that’s fantastic. Thanks!

    • Marissa Graff says:

      Carol, thank goodness for Angela and Becca’s books, right? They always inspire me to push beyond whatever boring idea I’d have if I was left to my own devices! Best of luck in your writing!

  3. Mart Ramirez says:

    Thank you so much for sharing all this, M! Love how you said it’s not your story, you’re writing belongs to your characters. 🙂 That’s so true!!!

    • Marissa Graff says:

      Mart, that’s been the hardest lesson of all for me in the last few months. I had an advisor this past semester who actually also works as an editor by day for a publishing house. She was always redirecting me to those spots that were a little too neat and tidy in my middle-grade manuscript. Whether it was too much of an adult thought or too mature of a line of a dialogue, she truly helped me kill all my little darlings for the sake of the story. The hunt continues 🙂 Thanks for your comment!

  4. Rosi says:

    So much learning going on. Good for you for going for this. Thanks for sharing so much with us. I look forward to future posts.

    • Marissa Graff says:

      Hi Rosi! Thanks for your comment. VCFA is making my head burst. There’s no doubt I’ll be chewing on all the takeaways for years to come. But it’s important to say that we’re so lucky as writers to have resources like this website for access to free knowledge. I’ll continue to share as much as possible. Best of luck in your writing!

  5. #1 is awesome advice. Too many times I’ve caught myself using a hoary old cliche which, in turn, makes me stop and obsess over how to say it differently. The whole creative process seizes up like an old engine on a cold day. Sometimes I’m able to get the rhythm back but most times, it’s a slogfest after that. I’d never thought about just rolling with it then dealing with the cliches during edits. Thank you!

    • Marissa Graff says:

      Teresa, first off, loving your sock monkey avatar. I happen to be a huge fan of the sock monkey 🙂 I know, important things, right?

      I’m so glad you feel #1 is valuable. What I’m finding is that the more passes I take once I’m in the stage of doing revisions, the more I’m able to focus on scenes…down to the very moment where I want the emotion to truly count. I may have the character fidgeting to show she’s feeling discomfort in early drafts. By the time I’m done smoothing it down (this takes several passes), she’s noticing a picture on the wall hanging crookedly or an uneven pile of books perched on a nearby shelf. It’s funny how these things can accomplish setting details AND emotion all in one fell swoop.

      Keep at it! You’re *far* from alone 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

  6. along the lines of “write bad” is “write like a first grader.” thanks for sharing.

    • Marissa Graff says:

      Love that, Michelle! We don’t give ourselves permission to play, or fall and skin our knees much, do we? Thanks for your insight 🙂

  7. John Yeoman says:

    I particularly love that insight, Marissa: ‘Write the heck out of clichés and overplayed description (in your first draft). Consider them placeholders.’ Our job as writers is to get that story written. Drivel is a wonderful thing, provided it’s restricted to our first draft!

    A wise writer once said ‘There are no great authors, only great editors’.

    BTW: I used to teach an MFA (MA) class in creative writing and that revelation was possibly the best thing my students ever learned. They came to the class with so many ‘rules’ in their heads they had writer’s block from day one. Just drivel, I’d tell them! (Happiness ensued…)

    • Marissa Graff says:

      John, cracking up! It’s so true. We sit down with this huge black cloud over us of rules. No pressure, huh? Funny thing is that our readers don’t even know these elusive rules we cling to so desperately. They don’t care. When we get lost reading a truly engaging story, all the words evaporate and we’re lost in the story world. If only making it churn out that way on the page was as easy as it seems after endless revision. Thanks for weighing in, especially as someone who has taught creative writing!

  8. I really love #1. One of my mottos while drafting this novel came from Dean Wesley Smith: Dare to Be Bad. I have this need to make the first draft as good as it possibly can be, which makes me want to go back and change things during drafting. It slows me down. So, yes, we absolutely have to embrace the suck. Thanks for posting, Marissa!

    • Marissa Graff says:

      Becca, isn’t it so hard to let go and just keep writing? For me, it’s way less about wanting to get it right and more about lingering out of fear I’m not sure what’s coming ahead. What I’ve learned at VCFA is that even when you think you’re getting it “just right,” it still really sucks until you’ve had space from it 😉 At least that’s the case for me! Thanks for commiserating 🙂

  9. Wow, it sounds like you are learning so much, Marissa! And you are bang on about being authentic to the character and not overdoing body language. I think in high emotion scenes it is very easy to overdo by focusing too much on the body and not enough on the sensory detail that is triggering the emotional waves to hit. A great, intense scene has enough of both.

    Thank you again for coming by to share–I look forward to all your posts as you work toward your MFA, and I am so happy you are finding the experience such a rich, rewarding one!


    • Marissa Graff says:

      I came to the conclusion last semester that emotion is like perfume–it’s so easy to overdo it, or not do enough to convey it. Using your book is *always* huge for me, as well as looking for ways to tap into the scenery. It’s a constant struggle to find a good balance and respect the reader enough to know they’ll get it without me hammering them over the head!

      I’m in love with VCFA. While it’s not possible for all or even desirable for everyone to do an MFA, I couldn’t be happier with my decision. Thanks for having me on!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.