I first met Paula McGrath when she came to the St Mark’s Florence Writer’s Residency in 2016, which I set up through the Irish Writer’s Centre Dublin. She was a blast and we had many a chat about writing, the value of further study, and yoga.
We interviewed her for The Sigh Press, a literary journal I co-founded with poet and artist Lyall Harris, and Paula gave some particularly illuminating advising on the merit of doing an MFA.
You have completed an MFA in Creative Writing and are now about to start a PhD. You’ve said graduate degrees could be considered a luxury rather than an essential step. What parts of the graduate programs fit into the luxury category? What about them is dispensable? By contrast, in what key ways do you think your higher degrees have influenced (and will) your writing?
Here’s the truth, and it’s ugly: no one wants to read your early drafts. Not your friend, not your partner, not your mother – no one. When you join a writing group, the understanding is that in return for reading their stuff, they have to read yours. This is what it means to do an MFA. A group of like-minded, similar-stage writers will read your work, and because they want to know how to improve what they’re writing, they will tell you what they think you can do to improve yours – kindly, if you’re lucky. Even more helpful, and more of a privilege, is the feedback you get from professionals who have been doing the job far longer than you have. The MFA is like using the carpool lane; you get there faster than you can when you’re on your own. For someone like me, who’s already had another career, and who is now in a hurry, the MFA has much to recommend it.
But like most luxury items, writing degrees are expensive, and only the fortunate can afford them. Luckily, they’re completely dispensable. Even if you’re in slower moving traffic, you can still get there on your own, or with the support of a writing group, and the many resources available online and through courses.
I believe that the production of a worthwhile piece of art requires study, research, and constant, rigorous interrogation. These requirements can be met either within the academy, as was the case with my first (published) novel, or without, as with my second. The PhD, and to a lesser extent the MFA, provides intellectual engagement and stimulation which feeds into my writing and, I hope, enriches it.
Read the full interview at The Sigh Press.