The Budget-Friendly, Mostly-At-Home MFA

I would love to complete a MFA (Master of Fine Arts).

I’ve heard both the good and the bad about aspiring writers pursuing an MFA, but that hasn’t dissuaded me. What has dissuaded me is the cost and the time.

I was recently chatting with a writing friend who is working away at her MFA. I was lamenting about how now is not a good time for me to complete an MFA, and she gave me a great idea: “Why not do your own mini, mostly-at-home MFA for a fraction of the price?”

I’ve created a budget-friendly, mostly-at-home MFA program below. Of course this is no substitute for the real thing, but I hope this pared down MFA is useful those of us who can’t complete an actual MFA just now, or those who don’t plan on completing an MFA but want to continue improving their writing career.

The Budget-Friendly Mostly-At-Home MFA (BFMAHMFA):

Conferences (Meet people & learn):

Writing conferences are a great place to meet experienced and aspiring authors, to make connections, to get feedback on your writing (in Blue Pencil sessions) and to learn about the industry.

Try to find writing conferences in your area to save on travel costs. Even if you do have to travel to a conference, it’s unlikely that it’s going to cost nearly as much as a year of an MFA program would.

Writers-in-Residence (Get feedback on your writing):

I think of Writers-in-Residence (WIR) programs as mini-mentorships. I’ve talked about writer-in-residence programs before, but it bears repeating because they are so darn valuable, and free.

For those who aren’t aware, libraries and universities often offer writer-in-residence programs that allow you to submit your work to an established author to get feedback. These programs are a wonderful way to get expert feedback on your writing on a budget. (Did I mention they’re free?)

In Calgary we have at least 3 WIR programs that I am aware of: the Calgary Library program, the University of Calgary’s Distinguished Writers program, and the Alexandra Writers’ Centre program. Check your local libraries, schools and writing groups for WIR in your area!

Courses (Learning the craft):

There are several writing courses you can do right from home. I loved Sarah Selecky’s Story is a State of Mind course (highly recommend it!), and I’m now trying John Yeoman’s Writer’s Village Academy Course (so far so good). Watch your favourite writers-who-blog for courses like this — they seem to be popping up more often.

You can also often take writing courses at universities, community centres, colleges and writing centres. In-person courses are a great way to meet other writers in your area, and maybe even find a writing group.

Books, Books and More Books (Learning more of the craft):

I’ve talked before about my addiction to books about writing. I think I share this addiction with many writers :) Books that teach you the craft of writing can be helpful, especially when you’re trying to improve a specific skill or keep yourself motivated. Writing book exercises can be a great way to keep writing when you are resisting!

Read widely and voraciously. I see this mentioned in almost every author interview or writing tip list that I come across. Try to read what you want to write, but also read things that put you out of your comfort zone.

A Writing Group (Networking, commiserating & getting feedback):

A writing group is a great way to get feedback on your writing, but it can also be an outlet for those days when the writing life gets to be too much. Talking to like-minded people about writing can revive your inspiration, motivate you and get you back on track. If you can’t find a writing group in your area, you can always start one!

Gaps in the BFMAHMFA:

No MFA program is perfect, and neither is the Budget-Friendly Mostly-at-Home MFA. There are two main gaps in this plan:

  1. It can be tough to find a mentor that you can work with on an-going basis outside of an MFA program. I haven’t found an on-going mentor just yet, but it’s on my ‘classes to take next semester’ list.
  2. It’s hard to enforce deadlines when you’re not getting scolded for missing them. I haven’t found a way to set tough deadlines for myself for my fiction writing, although NaNoWriMo helps. Of course you can set self-imposed deadlines, but they don’t seem to strike fear into my heart the same way missing a school deadline does.

Do you have any suggestions for replicating the MFA experience at home? I’d love to hear them! Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.

Author: Carrie Mumford

Carrie Mumford is a writer and content manager living in Calgary, Alberta. She write short stories and non-fiction articles, and blogs about technology, editing, writing and (of course) books.

  • Hi Carrie, I love all your suggestions. I agree with you that a formal MFA isn’t for everyone, and I certainly know it isn’t for me, but in pursuit of my craft I realize that I’m already implementing many of your excellent suggestions. I took a couple of non-credit creative writing classes last year at Mount Royal University. Not only did I have an excellent instructor, (Lori Hahnel, who will be the writer in residence at Alexandra Writing Center soon), I met other aspiring writers. We now communicate actively to share our writing, meet on a monthy basis, support each other at various events such as Writing in the Works. Today I just got confirmation for my application to a writing program at the Banff Center!
    And don’t even get me started on my addiction to books about writing. It’s been a whirlwind year, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The best advice to any aspiring writer is — Write! Find what motivates you (maybe that is applying to an MFA program, maybe not) and go for it!
    Thanks for inspiring words,
    ~Minkee Robinson

    • Congrats on being accepted into Writing in the Works, Minkee! I have heard great things about that program. You are so right about the best advice being just to write. I have this quote on my bulletin board above my desk, “You’re a writer. Now write.” It’s a good reminder each morning as I sit down at my desk. Thanks very much for your comment!

  • You can always use your writing group as an opportunity to create deadlines or contests to enter (I’m not a fan of the latter one, but sometimes this works well).

    Women’s Words, every summer through UofA in Edmonton, may also have interesting intensive classes that could work for you.

    Also, the Alberta Writers’ Guild used to do a manuscript reading service, if you’re looking for an outside eye/close critique of your work. I also know a lot of writers will do this on their own for a fee. This goes in line with finding your mentor, but once you find who you think you want it to be, you can always ask her/him. Never hurts to ask!

  • Great post! I too would love to do an MFA. The structure of school really helps me. I don’t have the discipline to work on my own. But i am going to give some of your suggestions a try. And I’m doing Camp Nanowrimo this April. Hopefully that will inspire me to get some hard core writing done.

  • Hi Carrie

    Thanks for such an inspiring post. I know how expensive it can be to attend college classes, as I have taken that route. Even though I studies for my MA in creative writing, I still found myself doing all the things you suggest, because you can never learn enough about writing if you’re serious about the craft. As to your mentoring question, there are editorial services which offer this – although they can be a bit expensive. Some competitions include mentoring as a prize, so that might be a good route to take. I’m actually thinking of going into mentoring myself. I run workshops on writing and really enjoy helping people grow on their writing journey. It never ceases to amaze me how kind and supportive the writing community is.

    • Thanks for your comment and ideas! I have considered paying for mentoring, and a contest with mentoring as a prize sounds wonderful. I’m going to have to keep an eye out for those.

  • Currie, am extremely moved with your ideas. I have gone through all that you posted in my e-mail account and I promise to do as you have instructed. I had no any idea at first, hopefully MFA has it all. However currently am working with my local university (Mzuzu University) to finish up my Bsc in Land surveying. I believe that after I have graduated I will pursue MFA on correspondance basis, may be with one of the universities you have mentioned.

    I really like arts besides sciences. For MFA will just be complimentry to my science life. Meanwhile, by and by am getting mentors in arts. I get together with exprienced writers in my area, and most importantly I joined the Malawi Writers union which is a national body. It comprises all kinds of writers.

    I also read extensively on books of writing, and I often visit our local libraries and at the end of the day I will have finish up my poetry book and novel. My novel project is scheduled to be completed in 4 years.

    At the moment I am very much inspired and motivated with different blogs I read and follow and one of them is yours. You really teach me new lessons on writing. Another person is Lorrie Porter, quite a long list to mentioned!

    Lastly, can I ask you one one thing? I am sourcing money to buy my personal computer, would you help me do that? I feel ashame, I call my self a writer but I type my work on pulic computers. I want to have mine. At the meantime I have solicited 250 dollars, but I need 1000 dollars for a laptop computer.

    Thank you for the info so far and God bless you.

  • What a resourceful post! It is just not realistic for so many of us to go back to school, or pay for school, take the time, etc. This is an awesome list of ideas!

  • I love this post! I’m a homeschooling parent, and I like to say that I’ve *homeschooled my MFA*. In fact I wrote an article about it, noting the similarities between what I’ve done with my kids’ learning as homeschoolers.

    Interestingly, I’ve done most of the things you’ve recommended here, with the exception of getting feedback from a writer-in-residence. The other thing I did was study a series of writers in depth (essayists in my case.) That turned into a yearlong series on my blog, which taught me a lot. (That project is also linked on my blog, in the sidebar.)

    On my blog I write for parents, encouraging them to be writing mentors for their kids. I’m linking this post for them. Thanks for it!

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