When a writer chooses to take her work seriously, she will no doubt engage with the question that writers have been debating for decades: to MFA or not to MFA. By the time I was finally ready to take writing seriously, I was a new mother, living in my first house. With a family, a cat, and a steady editing job at Cornell University, suddenly the question of whether to MFA or not looked radically different than it would have just a few years earlier. No longer was I free to pack up and go anywhere to chase a degree with little practical value. In fact, I was still paying off student loans for another graduate degree I had completed half a decade earlier. But as far as I knew, an MFA was the only path to a writing life. What I didn’t know was that soon enough I would discover other ways to find the mentorship I craved.
I took stock of my options. The first looked daunting. I live within driving distance to two universities with fully-funded MFA programs: Cornell and Syracuse. However, they are two of the most competitive programs in the country. So I researched low-residency MFA programs and, at least on the surface, they appeared to be tailor-made for people like me except that the price tag was too big for my family to cover. I felt like I was at a standstill.
Fortunately, years ago, when I graduated from high school and was facing the choice of whether or not to pursue an acting career, my father gave me the most valuable piece of advice I’ve ever received. He said that most of the time people who love what they do will be eager to talk to people who are interested in their field. He said that if I have a dream, I should seek out people who are living that dream and ask them for advice. The worst they can do is say no. I’ve been delighted to discover that he was right. So when I was stumped about what to do with writing, I followed his advice once again. One thing was already on my side. J. Robert Lennon, a writer whose work I admire, is on the faculty at Cornell. I reached out to him, and he invited me for coffee and encouraged me to take a creative writing course. As a benefit of working at the university, I can take undergraduate courses for free with the same faculty that teach in the MFA program–as long as they are willing to accept me into their already-full classes. To my surprise, he and one other professor welcomed me, and they took me and my work seriously. Sitting among a group of undergraduates as an almost-forty-year-old felt like a baby step to say the least, but I was hungry for any guidance I could get. After completing my second class, I learned I’d been rejected from the MFA programs at both Cornell and Syracuse, but Lennon was generous enough to take me on for a semester of independent study, during which he helped me navigate the first draft of my first novel. By the end of that semester, thanks to his mentorship, I had enough confidence to keep writing.
The following year, the MFA programs rejected me again. I decided to table the whole MFA question and, in the meantime, work my butt off on the thing that had led me down this path to begin with–writing. When it came down to it, writing was, and still is, the thing that mattered most.
Around that time, I joined the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). Scrolling through one of their e-mail newsletters, an intriguing question caught my eye–as a member, would a writer-to-writer mentorship program interest me and, if so, why? By then I had come to believe that none of the opportunities aimed at writers would apply to me, but I responded to their question, driven by the idea that a program of this nature would at least help someone like me. Within six months, I learned that the program had been approved, and as soon as it launched, I applied. Then, much to my excitement, I received an acceptance.
AWP did an expert job of pairing mentors and mentees, and my relationship with my mentor, novelist Amy Wallen, was no exception. Although we live across the country from each other, from the start, Amy and I connected both about writing and on a personal level. And we were both eager to dig into the work. AWP provided a series of modules to spark discussion between us, on topics ranging from the craft of writing to the business of publishing to how to find your writing community. Amy and I enjoyed those conversations, but the bulk of our work together came in the form of workshopping my novel-in-progress. Or, as I’ve come to call it, novel counseling. Amy struck a perfect balance between encouraging my strengths and challenging me to improve. We had to work through a few difficult conversations in which she expressed that my work needed significant refocusing and revising. But these were some of our most important exchanges, and she never gave up on me. When the formal program ended, she said that she wanted to see me through to the end of the revision, and we’ve been working together since. After almost two years, I’m polishing up a final draft that I feel confident to share with literary agents.
I still haven’t given up on the idea of pursuing an MFA because I believe I would love to teach writing. However, the most important thing I’ve learned through seeking the support of both J. Robert Lennon and AWP’s Writer to Writer Mentorship Program is that there is no substitute for another writer’s belief in you and your work. Writing is solitary business, coupled with heaps of rejection. Those moments of support, whether they come from a friend, an editor, a teacher, or a mentor, are the moments I have come to cherish. MFA or no MFA, I am convinced that the most inspiring thing a developing writer can do is to seek out a mentor. As I’ve found, they come in many shapes and forms, and I’ve been lucky to have more than one. Now my highest goal as a writer is to reach a point in my career when I will be qualified to mentor an emerging writer in return.
Jennifer Savran Kelly lives, writes, and binds books in Ithaca, New York. She has written for film and print, and her fiction has recently appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review, Souvenir: A Journal, Grist: The Journal for Writers (Online Companion), and Stone Canoe. She has recently completed her first novel with generous support from the Writer to Writer Mentorship Program hosted by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.