Guest Blog Posts

MFA after 50? If not now, when? – guest blog post by Kim Jacobs-Beck

In June, my husband Dan and I were on a road trip out to California to see our son. Somewhere in the Rockies, I said to him, “You know, I think it’s time I went back to get that MFA.” When we returned home, I applied, was accepted, and by August, was attending my first poetry residency at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I am 53 years old.

Why would anyone attend graduate school in middle age? I did not return because I needed to for career reasons; I am a tenured professor of English and currently serve in an administrative position. Call it an unscratched itch. I’ve been writing poetry with some success and great enjoyment since my early teens, and double majored in literature and writing in college. As an undergraduate, I was happy with my growth in poetry, but I felt I needed to know more–a lot more–about literature to write the way I wanted to. I was strong literature student, and my advisor encouraged me to pursue a PhD and become a literature professor. As much as I loved writing poetry, I felt that pursuing literature in graduate school would be more practical, giving me a better chance to support myself, and I told myself that I would go back and pursue an MFA as well. That is exactly how my career worked out, much to my enduring surprise.

What does it feel like to return to school at 50-plus? I’m in a low-residency program, so I suspect that has made it easier–the students in my program range more widely in age than I thought they might, but I believe I am the second oldest. I have a lot more in common with the faculty who run the program than with many of my classmates. I am older than my mentors. I was very nervous driving to the residency that first day, as nervous as I ever have been. The program is new and small, with just six student poets and two poet-mentors, and quite supportive, collegial, and fun. That helps, a lot.

The fears and insecurities I have always had about my writing came roaring back, as though they were placed on pause for 30 years, and then reset. I think I have decent technical skill as a poet, but I struggle with what to say, with what makes for good topics for poems. This is an echo of my concerns from when I was 20 or so–do I know enough? Do I have anything worthwhile to say? I write from where I am–a straight, white, politically progressive, financially comfortable married mother with a full-time, somewhat stressful job. The topics I write about, from that unexceptional life (well, except for an amazing love story, which provides plenty to write about), seem to work, if feedback from my mentors and poems accepted by journals are an indication.

I’ve been surprised by what else has returned to my life since I returned to school, things I’d left behind me, like reading Tarot cards, exploring my spiritual self, recovering poetry I loved but had forgotten about. Returning to poetry has created lovely synchronicities, like discovering that the poet Lorine Niedecker, whom I now admire greatly, yet had never heard of until poetry workshop, was briefly a student at my undergraduate alma mater, Beloit College, or that I’ve alluded to a bit of John Donne in a draft, only to discover that my mentor is currently re-reading his work. These kind of happy coincidences signal to me that I am on the right path.

Pursuing an MFA as this stage of my life is one of the best decisions I’ve made. It’s thrilling to discover, or rediscover, skills and abilities I did not value enough when I was younger. Should I have done it sooner? Maybe, but I have the wisdom to realize that I’m at the right place in the right time. I asked the oldest student in the Miami program, Margaret Faiver, for her thoughts about returning to school; here’s her answer:

“In the last trimester of my life, I feel as if I am giving birth to myself. When I turned sixty, eight years ago, the ticking of the clock of time sounded an alarm in my ears as it moved closer to midnight. Determined to fulfill my life-long dream of earning a BA, I asked myself the question, If not now, when?  After a fifty-year hiatus, I headed back to class. Sometimes I was greeted with caution from faculty and students alike. But, overall, my eagerness to drink every ounce of juice from the apple of education was greeted with appreciation and respect. I can say with all honesty, that I learned as much from students just starting out in life as they indicated they did from me.

Of course, the greatest lesson of undergraduate studies is the heightened awareness that there remains so much to learn. Thus, I now find myself a graduate student in the Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing program at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. I consider it a profound privilege to sit in workshops and lectures with faculty and students whose creative minds are there to support and critique one another's work. Is a Ph.D. looming on my horizon? It is possible. The question remains, if not now, when?”

I agree with Margaret: there is so much more to learn. I returned because I need to write poetry, to challenge myself and grow as a writer, because the music of verse in me is not quite voiced by writing critically about poetry, and because I admire women who keep going well beyond their young womanhood, and I wanted to join them.

Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts. 

Contact me here if you are interested! 

Kim Jacobs-Beck was born just outside Detroit and has lived in the Midwest for most of her life. A first-year student in Miami University’s low-residency MFA program, she also serves as Interim Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of English at the University of Cincinnati Clermont College. She holds a Ph.D. from Miami University in British Romantic Literature. Her work appears at Love & Ensuing Madness/Rat’s Ass Review, and Thank You for Swallowing and is forthcoming at NILVX and Muddy River Poetry Review.

19 replies »

  1. Trish Hopkinson, your piece is as timely for me as can be. I have pondered the idea to return to college for a creative writing degree and MFA for the past two years in Florida.

    I have waffled back and forth for the past six months as I prepare to return to living full-time on the road as a nomadic travel blogger and writer.

    I think I will give it another look after reading your blog posting.

    Thanks for the inspiration young lady. 🙂

  2. In lieu of a MFA. low residency or otherwise, another option open to us now is an online tutorial with an established poet. Many of them offer this option now. I had loved the work of a poet for many years before I found out via her website that she offered tutorials by phone/email! This was a flexible arrangement that suited me well and allowed me to grow as a poet immensely. Since then I have also attended workshops and other online classes, but that intense, one-on-one attention was invaluable.

    • Yes, there are so many options to continue learning. I’ve been calling it my “Personal MFA” and have it as a category here on my blog. I’ve really enjoyed taking workshops either online or locally, and have even taught some. I’m trying to get as many different approaches to poetry as I can and trying to learn from each. Thanks for commenting!

  3. This is much what I did. Years ago I got my MFA and then went to a different university and got a PhD and taught literature. Then when I retired I got a certificate in writing from Stanford (online). The MFA was poetry and fiction. The certificate was creative nonfiction. It really brought me back into my writing head to take courses.

  4. I plan to do something like this. Or attempt it, at the very least. I will be retiring in two years at 53. I have a B.S. in Business Administration. I will return to school to earn a B.A. in English. Then, with luck, I will be get into an MFA program.

    • I just finished my Bachelors in English end of 2013. I decided to continue learning on my own, which is what inspired the blog. I may decide to do an MFA later, but so far I’ve really enjoyed just attended workshops and running projects. Congrats on your decision!

  5. Thank you, Kim for writing this, and thank you, Trish for posting it. I’m approaching that “trimester,” and I had the feeling that this upcoming birthday was a start of a new beginning. My poetry has been developing steadily, and I see a chance for more recognition ahead. Kim’s student’s statement, “I feel as if I am giving birth to myself,” would have made me jump out of my chair if not for arthritis. That’s a good way to put it!

    In no way could I afford an MBA , so I made my own program. My texts are Timothy Steele’s “It’s All In How You Say A Thing,” and Turco’s The Book of Forms. I write formal poetry, and I see continuous development of skill.

    Again, thank you, sisters!

  6. How about at 71? Not exactly doing MFA but summer residency in MFA program in creative writing. Applied and was accepted if I wanted to do full program, which I don’t, but can change my mind…

  7. You are all inspiring!! And a great reminder that knowledge is a lifelong journey. I just took my first class toward getting my MA in English in Professional Writing. My first class was an accelerated 5 week class that covered Foucault! I survived…barely. Best of luck to all of you, enjoy the ride.

  8. I received my MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults at 49 and my next master’s at 58.Without the MFA I wouldn’t be teaching creative writing and children’s lit as an adjunct in the English department. Without that experience, I wouldn’t have pursued the next MA in History and wouldn’t be teaching in the History department. Now I’m an independent scholar and I’m taking online classes and working one on one with mentors in poetry and creative nonfiction when I can afford it.
    But one cautionary note: A leading university in my state told me last year I was too old for its PhD program and my application would never be accepted.

Leave a Reply