If you look into my writing background it’s fairly easy to discover that I do not have any kind of degree in literature, writing, or English, let alone an MFA. Given that fact, one might think I don’t have room to speak on such a topic, however I will say that at one point I seriously considered getting an MFA and have done a fair amount of research. Regardless of anything I might say in this post, I don’t think MFA’s are pointless degrees, not at all. Some of my favorite writers have come out of MFA programs; Shannon Hale and Kristin Cashore are just two off the top of my head. And some of my favorite writers have no formal education in writing or literature.They just do it.
A few years back I attended a workshop of an MFA program. It was well presented. The teachers were professional and intelligent and obviously knew a thing or two about teaching the craft of writing. From what I could tell, this MFA program was professional, well-structured, and staffed by some very talented writers and teachers. (Whether it was worth the tuition, I’m not entirely certain.) At some point they all came to each table and spoke to us and allowed us to ask questions. This was my questions:
What can I get from your program that I can’t get in any other way?
The professor stumbled over her answer and said something like, “It really jump starts you…There are so many things you can learn much quicker that might take you years of making mistakes.”
Not a wrong answer, but a weak one in my opinion. At this point I had been writing for at least five years and had been published in reputable magazines. I had taken a 2-year long writing course and had attended a few writing conferences and worshops. I was well into writing my first novel. I certainly wasn’t going to pay 30k to learn how to avoid pitfalls. I could get that for free any day, and I already had.
At the beginning of my writing journey, I didn’t feel comfortable investing so much money into my writing until I was absolutely certain I wanted to be married to books and writing for the rest of my life. (Can you imagine? 30 grand later and then suddenly “Oh never mind. I really don’t like writing. I’d rather be a tax accountant.”) By the time the assurance had rested upon me, I believe I had already made a great many mistakes, learned from them, and am a better writer for that trial-and-error phase. Even if I could go back, I wouldn’t change that time for a “jump start.” There’s something to be said for slow and steady learning, allowing it all to marinate and sink in.
So what is the value of an MFA? In short, I think there are three things:
1. Time for your writing. Many writers, especially those starting out, simply need a structured environment, something to force them to get their butt in the chair and actually write. An MFA program will give you assignment and deadlines, something to motivate you. It seems more necessary to write when you’re going into debt for it and a grade is hanging over your head. You’ll also get plenty of feedback from your instructors as well as other students. You’re constantly work-shopping, which is so valuable to your progress.
2. Networking. Many MFA programs offer real time with real editors and agents. You are also making connections with other writers, many of whom will be future authors and possibly very successful. Just like any other business, sometimes it’s helpful to have a few connections to get your foot in the door. And when you do get published, you will want other people to champion your book.
3. A terminal degree. If you want to teach writing, it’s often necessary to have a degree. An MFA is as high as it gets in the creative writing field.
As far as I can tell, #3 is the only thing you can’t get on your own. 1 and 2 are things you can do for free or for a lot less, especially #2. There are many, many wonderful conferences and workshops where you can workshop your writing and meet editors and agents and other writers. I’ve met some of my best writing pals at conferences.
In defense of the MFA, I am positive that people come out of them better writers, and I have no doubt I would benefit as well, no matter where I am in my writing journey. There has to be great value in being made to produce a certain amount of writing every week and then have that writing held under a microscope and analyzed and torn apart by other professional writers. Maybe some MFA writers hone their craft and gain insights in ways that wouldn’t have been possible under any other circumstances. And I’m certain an MFA will fill you with all kinds of tricks and skills, not only in writing craft, but also the in the general publishing industry, which can be a dizzying maze to navigate, to say the least.
So in the end, and MFA is a very individual matter. You need to ask yourself where you are in your writing journey and where you hope to end up. How might an MFA help you achieve that goal, and what other methods are available to you? Is it worth the cost and time? There’s no one path for every writer, so whether you choose the MFA or the Lonely Road, the important thing is that you love writing and that you do it. Everything else is confetti.
A few valuable resources, courses, and conferences:
A List of the Top 50 MFA programs in the country for 2011
http://www.institutechildrenslit.com/ I am a graduate of ICL’s course on writing for children and teens and feel it can “jump start” you very well for a fraction of the cost of an MFA. They also have courses for writing for adults.
The Creative Writing MFA Blog
Gotham Writer’s Workshop: Writing courses, workshops and various resources in New York and online
WriteOnCon- A FREE annual online writer’s conference with some pretty amazing editors, agents, authors and illustrators.