Seriously Though, Do I Really Need An MFA?

47 comments

Master of Fine Arts. Has quite a ring to it, right? To be a master of anything sounds like a nice deal. To many a writer, an MFA program is the Shangri-La of instruction: A place to spend two years with nothing but an intense, laser-like focus on the craft of writing. 

But is a graduate degree really the ultimate end of all writerly pursuits? It's not like you can't be a writer unless you have an MFA, right? Hemingway didn't even go to college. 

I've thought about getting an MFA. I've thought about not getting an MFA ever. It's something I've been thinking about lately and I'm sure I'm not the only person who's considered it, so I thought, why not bring it to the denizens of LitReactor, for a little discussion? 

The Pros

There are a number of advantages to entering an MFA program (if you can get in to one). The aforementioned intensity of the instruction; how nice that must be, to spend so much time doing nothing but reading and writing. A lot of us may do this already, but this is structured, and there are goals and deadlines and incentives. There's a level of commitment here that's hard to achieve elsewhere. 

You get to work with professors of skill and renown (Amy Hempel teaches at Bennington!!!). Plus, students are pushed out of comfort zones, and they ultimately finish their programs with completed work and some connections in the publishing industry. All good things.

The Cons

On the flip side, MFA programs don't come cheap. The low-residency program at Bennington College (one of the most prestigious in the country) costs more than $38,000 to complete. Even the program at Hunter College (part of the publicly-funded CUNY system) runs $11,470 for New York City residents. (And yes, loans are nice, but you have to pay them back). 

And just because you complete an MFA program doesn't mean you'll be published. It's not a guarantee. Nothing in life is. 

In my research across the wilds of the internet, I've also come across people who've said the classroom environment isn't always friendly to genre writers, and for as much as writers are being pushed out of their comfort zones, they're being pushed into someone else's notion of what they should be doing. I can't speak to the veracity of that, having never been in an MFA program, but it's worth adding to the discussion.

The stigma

One of the things about MFA programs--and the thing that bugs me the most--is how some writers will look down on people who don't have MFAs. Like they're less committed, or just less skillful, for that lack of instruction. The whole MFA debate is another one of those ridiculous "intellectual" disputes in publishing (see also: eBooks v. print; literary v. genre).

On one hand, there's no debating that an MFA has the potential to help you and your writing career. But isn't the notion that someone is less of a writer without them sort of terrible? If I read a ton of books and write every day and spend a lot of time working at the craft of writing, it may not be as good, but can it be enough? 

What say you?

I've talked a lot. Now I want to hear from you. There's no right or wrong answer--every path is different. Have you made a conscious decision to spurn MFA programs? Are you in one right now? Are you getting more or less than what you expected? 

Let's talk MFAs. 

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Comments

Robin Hardwick's picture
Robin Hardwick from Oakland, CA is reading Little Bee, The Leftovers, Helter Skelter June 12, 2012 - 11:31am

Thanks, this was helpful. Sure, getting published is never a sure thing, but does having an MFA give you an advantage with other employment as a writer?

Jane Wiseman's picture
Jane Wiseman from Danville Virginia is reading The Iron Council, by China Mieville June 12, 2012 - 11:35am

On the practical side: getting the MFA is the degree you'll need if you want a teaching gig in the field, and college teaching gives you a very flexible schedule that looks attractive to many writers. That said: beware! For most of us, college teaching is a honey-baited trap to lure you into a low-paying job of endless paper-grading (mostly by students who can't write and resent having to learn and in fact don't and won't learn despite your best efforts) that sucks up your time 24/7. Yes, even in the summer when you have to teach at an even more intense pace just to pay the bills. Perversely, I love it, but then again, I don't get any writing done.

ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading A truckload of books June 12, 2012 - 11:43am

I've been having this internal debate for about a year. My research throws me back and forth...

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this June 12, 2012 - 11:49am

@Sparrow--what are the pros and cons, to you? 

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer June 12, 2012 - 11:50am

Do you really need an English degree, at all? In most liberal arts related majors a degree is less about qualifications and more about education. It won't make you more qualified for most jobs, but that doesn't mean it is useless.

That being said, I can't imagine ever paying 30K for an MFA. I am spending about 8K on a Master's of Liberal Arts with an empasis in Literary Arts. You can take part in a lot of workshops and other types of classes for 30K. The only real solid benefit is being able to teach creative writing at a college, but there are a whole lot of MFA's out there and very few jobs for them.

Doug Bruns's picture
Doug Bruns from The other Portland is reading Canada, Richard Ford June 12, 2012 - 11:54am

Timely, I just toyed with this question at my blog (http://thehouseilivein.me/2012/06/04/on-writing/). There, among other things, long- and short-winded, I said:

"A couple of years ago, with time on my hands, I considered taking the MFA. I went to a well-known school and attended a graduate seminar. Within minutes I knew I would not be able to sit the next two years listening to students read their works in progress. It was not a bad experience, and was likely quite beneficial for those participating. I simply would rather be home reading Nabokov or Cheever."

TommySalami's picture
TommySalami from New Jersey is reading Killing Floor, by Lee Child June 12, 2012 - 12:11pm

I have a BA in English with honors from Rutgers. The honors program forced me to write a short story collection, and thanks to a great professor, one or two stories from the dozen were salvageable, and one was published. The writing classes I took were mostly useless, and after college I lost the drive to write. I picked up again a year ago, and force myself to write for a few hours a day after work. Reading, writing, submitting to markets who will actually read your work, that did more for me.

If I went back, I'd cherry pick from Anthropology, Sociology, various Interdisciplinary courses discussing literature, history and so on, a few creative writing courses, and then pay for a writing workshop with a writer whose work I admire. I don't think someone else can teach you discipline, or imagination, or voice. They can teach you story structure, and tricks writers learn on the way, like trusting your voice and using it. 

I've read some great books by MFA's, and some great books by the self-taught. I think they were both writers in the first place, and perhaps the MFA saved some time, in trade for money.

 

Arturo Bandini's picture
Arturo Bandini from Denver, CO is reading Beautiful Ruins June 12, 2012 - 1:00pm

There's a scene in Good Will Hunting when Will says (something to this effect anyway) "in 50 years from now you'll finally learn to think for yourself and realize you blew a hundred grand on an education you could've gotten for a buck-fifty in late fees at the public library."
 

That pretty much sums it up for me when it comes to MFA programs.  I'm you're not interested in teaching ENG Comp classes to pay back $20,000 in student loans I don't think an MFA is worth it.

If you put the same amount of time and effort into it that MFA programs require, you can improve as a writer just as well. It's not hard to even find the required reading and the syllabi online for some of the programs. Write at least 2 hours a day, then throw in some literary journals, books about the craft itself, and a couple of novels a month and you're well on your way. Then when you're ready for peer feedback, join a local workshop and get involved on a site like LitReactor.
 

Adean Van Dyk's picture
Adean Van Dyk June 12, 2012 - 1:21pm

 I wish I could afford to do a MFA in the States, but sadly this won't happen. Here in South Africa things work a bit differently:

After being accepted and completing a Masters in creative writing (what you call a MFA) - which consists of a manuscript and literary thesis - the degree also counts towards job possibilities, for example in academics, at publishing houses, etc. As jobs are scarce (internationally too), young writers tend to do a MFA at some stage in their careers as it serves for a double whammy. But yes, there are lots of published authors who never completed such a degree - or have a degree in any way remote to languages or literature. 

Thanks for the post!

Chris Davis's picture
Chris Davis from Indiana is reading A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews June 12, 2012 - 2:19pm

I remember Warren Ellis said something along these lines.

"Classes will teach everything except for that essential spark needed to be a writer.  If you write shit before you start schooling by the time you graduate you will write shit with good technique. The only thing I know you will obtain at university is the education needed to find Eddie Izzard funny."

I'm not sure if i feel the same way but the sentiment makes me smile so I thought I would share. 

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. June 12, 2012 - 2:24pm

I've always thought as an MFA as a teaching degree.  It would be awesome to be around that many writers always writing.  But that's why I'm a regular at Lit Reactor.  

Matthew McBride's picture
Matthew McBride from the rural woods of Missouri is reading Child of God June 12, 2012 - 2:27pm

If you're a writer, trying to write a book and get it published, getting an MFA may teach you to hone your craft and sharpen your skills -- but it will not teach you how to bring those seeds of thought from your head and plant them on a blank canvess. It will not teach you to write from your heart and your guts, because that is where your greatest writing will ever come from. An MFA will not teach you what publisher to submit to or what agent to query. Or how to deal with rejection. Because you will be rejected. Time and time again. But, rejection is the most valuable tool a writer has. Embrace it and accept it. Learn from it. Grow from it. You have to fail before you can ever succeed.

Spending thousands of dollars and several years of your life to get an MFA will undoubtedly benefit you in a teaching position, but it does not guarantee or entitle you to anything in the publishing world. Many writers with an MFA are unpublished and cannot get an agent. And some are even bitter at writers without an MFA who can. Personally, I have an agent in NY and a book coming out this year and I don't have an MFA. I have a GED.

The bottom line is this: good writing is good writing and good writing cannot be taught. It bleeds from you like an open wound and you paint the canvess with your blood. And an MFA cannot teach you how to bleed.

Michael James Sullivan's picture
Michael James S... June 12, 2012 - 2:35pm

I agree with Arturo Bandini. You can do it on your own through dedication and be tens of thousands of dollars (even more if you count the Bachelor's Degree) by a lot of hard work. 


In Outliers Gladwell puts forth that success can be achieved in any endeavor that you devote 10,000 hours to practicing.  I think that's just about right.  I think Stephen King (and a few others iirc) said that after 1,000,000 words you start finding your voice.  Looking back at my "pre-publication" years that sounds about right.  Actually I'm probably a slower student then some as I've estimated that I did 20,000 hours and about 1,200,000 before “making it.”


A few years ago I won a scholarship for a program that George Washington University puts on for aspiring writers and the professor, an award winning author, asked me why I was there (after finding out I had already published). I explained that I had no formal writing training through the university system, and thought I should check it out.  Her response was, "That's probably why you're successful."

Naomi Mesbur's picture
Naomi Mesbur from Toronto, Ontario, Canada is reading Burn Baby Burn Baby by Kevin T. Craig June 12, 2012 - 4:28pm

Thank you for this article. I've been debating with myself over the past few years whether or not I should earn a degree in Literary/Creative Writing. Most of the comments above have pretty well told me what I've been telling myself for the past few years - just keep writing, learn from my mistakes, and have other people help with editing. People who are not there to grade your work will let you know if they like your voice and like your stories. I want people to read what I write because they want to, not because they have to or because I'm looking for a grade.

And in the worst case scenario, I doubt if that 50 Shades of Grey lady has an MFA. But she now has the clout to be a guest prof somewhere...!

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. June 12, 2012 - 4:29pm

Has anyone here got an MFA?  I'd like to hear somebody who has one and is a successful writer talk about it with someone who has one and isn't a successful writer.

In my experience, taking lots of writing/reading classes makes people stop writing for years after they recover graduate from college.  They all thought they have to write perfectly and with all the theme and plot and characters magically right.  After years of forgetting all the time in a classroom, they began writing and reading again for the same reason they took writing classes in the first place - for the love of the word.  

 

.'s picture
. June 12, 2012 - 5:13pm

Richard has an MFA, where is he?

I still consider getting an MFA, I mean if you're going to get a masters, why not make it writing ya know? But then I think about what Donald Ray Pollock says, you don't need an MFA to write, you just need to read a lot and write a lot to hone the craft. 

I would imagine that if there is a snobby stigma to it, than there will be snobs in the classroom who just want people to hear they're stuff rather than be helpful to other people's writing. Not a fact of course but that is what I would think. 

 

imsteph's picture
imsteph from Los Angeles, CA is reading Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany, Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante June 12, 2012 - 5:19pm

Thanks for this.  I applied to a few MFA programs in 2009 with a couple very short stories and a piece of my detective novel, which is in production now at a big house.  In retrospect, applying to MFA programs with a piece of genre fiction was as useful as and more time-consuming than lighting a pile of money on fire.  My ideal career looks like a combination of writing and teaching, so I might reapply at some point, but I'm not totally sold.  I don't know if the content is as valuable as the trappings.  So much of writing is just reading and discipline, and if you need a program to provide you with those, you might end up in debt with little gained.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like June 12, 2012 - 5:26pm

I tried to find a stat on success-with vs. success-without a MFA, but couldn't. "Success as a writer" is inconstant and, I suppose, can't really be measured. Some people write for a living, some have a job and write on the side. Some say just getting a book published is a goal, some are never satisfied with anything they write even though it sells. If I could afford a good master's degree, I'd already be comfortable enough to not want one. If someone gave me a scholarship, I guess I'd take it, for lack of something better to do, if nothing else.

Wayne Rutherford's picture
Wayne Rutherford from Columbus, Ohio is reading NOS4A2 June 12, 2012 - 6:36pm

If you were to ask me, the only thing essential for a writer is passion. With the passion for writing you can find a way to improve and master your craft and you wouldn't even need that expensive little piece of paper.

Having said that; I did consider entering an MFA. I'd looked around online and even wrote into a couple schools for more information. In the long run, I didn't think that the money I would be investing into the school was providing enough of a return on investment and decided to forego the MFA. At some point in the future I may change my mind, but if I do it would only be for fun and because I would like to have a Master's in something in my lifetime.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies June 12, 2012 - 6:44pm

Just saw this, I'll try to chime in. 

I have a BA in Advertising/Communications from Bradley University, which I got back in 1990. Yes, I'm ancient. I just finished my MFA at Murray State University in Murray, KY.

I have over sixty stories published, one novel out, a second being shopped by an agent I just landed, and short story collections coming out this year, contest wins, blah, blah, blah.

Matthew kind of nailed it. You don't NEED a high school diploma, a BS/BA or an MFA to write. You only need the passion, heart, drive, talent and vision that ANY artist needs. The basics of how to write can be learned here at LR (or previously at The Cult) or other local institutions. You can read books on craft (such as On Writing by Stephen King) and read a shitload of authors you love, and try to absorb it. 

Likewise, I wouldn't say that my MFA program TAUGHT me to write, but helped me to hone the skills I already had. I had many moments where I had epiphanies, such as Richard Bausch talking about "emotional truths," and I studied under a Pulitzer nominated professor, who really kicked my ass (in a good way). I read a lot of authors I never would have on my own (Cormac, Ron Rash, Mary Gaitskill, Flannery, DFW, etc.) My time with HIM was invaluable. $25,000 valuable? Maybe. The community I got to know there has also become very valuable, but I was lucky that I already knew how important a support group of friends, peers, and fellow writers was by hanging and writing at The Cult, Write Club, The Velvet, and other forums. 

Donald Ray Pollock just got his MFA as well (Ohio State) and he's13 years older than me.

To teach, as Jane said, at a university level, you MUST have an MFA. BUT, these days, you ALSO need a book deal (or two) with a MAJOR press. And many schools are looking for PhDs these days, which is just insane. With all of my success the last couple of years, I sent out my CV this year to 10-15 places and didn't get ONE FUCKING INTERVIEW. And that includes local two-year community colleges as well as bigger schools.

It's daunting. But success begets success. If you get an agent (about a 1% acceptance rate) and publish in the top magazines and journals (again, about a 1% acceptance rate) and THEN can also sell novels to the best presses (again, about a 1% acceptance rate) then the schools will probably love to hire you. It's like playing darts and throwing bulls eye, bulls eye, bulls eye. It can be done, I've done it, but MAN it is hard to do.

So, it's up to you. 

My advice, like anything in life, is do the things that give you pleasure, that are rewarding and fulfilling. My MFA was a low-res program (went down to KY twice a year for 10 days, and wrote from home and sent in packets). That's because I have a family and a mortgage and work to keep up with. If you can go to school full-time, and it makes you happy, and you can afford it (or better yet, get scholarships or funding) then do it. No regrets. If you want to work at Starbucks or Target or bartend or waitress or whatever and spend the rest of your time drinking and writing and expanding your mind, go for it. 

You don't need an MFA to be  a writer. But you do have to have a lot of heart, immense courage, thick skin, and a strong POV. 

I will add that this is one of the most talented communities of writers I know. So, GO FOR IT! You never know what can happen. Five years ago I had absolutely nothing published.

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this June 12, 2012 - 7:03pm

Thanks for weighing in, Richard. Your experience is a valuable resource for this discussion. Cheers. 

Christopher Provost's picture
Christopher Provost from Nashua, New Hampshire is reading The Zombie Survival Guide June 12, 2012 - 8:38pm

You have just convinced me to completely avoid MFA programs. I thank you.

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. June 12, 2012 - 10:29pm

Richard that was great.  Thank you for writing that out.  I'd love to read more about your experiences with teachers - the lessons that you remember to this day.  You just made me want to do an MFA really badly just for the experience of being surrounded by writers (which, as I said, is why I am at this site all of the time).

I need to take a class at Lit Reactor.  It's my #1 priority now.

cshultz81's picture
cshultz81 from Oklahoma is reading Best Horror of the Year Volume 8 June 12, 2012 - 11:22pm

To address the notion that MFAs aren't kind to genre writers: in my experience that has proven true. I'm not currently in a program, but all my friends going for an MFA have moved away from sci-fi, fantasy, horror, or any genre deemed 'not intellectual.' Some of these people are not my friends anymore because they increasingly derided my 'kids' stuff.' I'm sure not all MFA programs breed this kind of snobbery, but I've seen it enough to know I'm not interested in pursuing one. Besides, I'm already $30,000 in the hole with my BA.

In the end, everyone's different. What works for me won't necessarily work for others.

Michael J. Riser's picture
Michael J. Riser from El Cerrito, CA (originally), now Fort Worth, TX is reading The San Veneficio Canon - Michael Cisco, The Croning - Laird Barron, By the Time We Leave Here, We'll Be Friends - J. David Osborne June 13, 2012 - 1:40am

God. All this stuff.

Great comments from everyone, but this is so much of what terrifies me. I'm so tired of doing what I've spent my life doing (mostly working in offices with people I can't stand, for people I can't stand), but the concept of being a writer seems just as terrifying because almost anyone you tak to about it will give you a big smile, tell you how much they love writing, and then give you about 1,200 reasons why you should never, ever try to do it professionally unless you like failure and starvation.

No, seriously. The outlook is almost always beyond grim, and it terrifies me, because at 30, I feel as though I've finally realized that this is what I really want to do. I've also considered going back to school, mostly because I never really did it when I was younger and always regretted it somewhat, but the more I talk to other writers, the more I get the impression that I'd be better off just avoiding school altogether unless I really had some personal need to accomplish that as a goal. But never because it's going to be that helpful.

I've made some fairly idiotic decisions in the last few years. My heartbreaking marriage ended, my best friend and I fell in love and then ripped each other's hearts out, I moved away from my home in California and decided to live off my savings in Texas while I did nothing but write, and then had most of that time wasted due to a lot of unresolved personal issues. So now I'm sitting on a lot of short story rejections, 45,000 words of an unfinished novel that I work on 4-5 hours a day, and the relentless terror that everything I've done is going to doom me to doing office work or (God help me) foodservice work until I die of malnutrition in my early 50's. That, or eventually moving back to my mom's basement when I run out of money and my girlfriend dumps me.

Stuff like this terrifies me. MFA or not? Hell, I'd love the chance to simply try something like that, but there's no way I could afford it if I wanted to. What I'd ask of you guys instead is this: if all I want to do is somehow manage to eventually write fiction for a living, should I even bother getting a degree? Part of my thinking was that maybe I could start doing some freelance writing work that, while not fun or interesting, would at least be writing for pay, since nearly all freelance jobs I've looked at seem to want at least a BA in something writing or English-related. I'd also love a more formal education in English literature. But is it really worth it? Should I just save every penny I can and write unceasingly for as long as possible until I'm forced to go back to work?

Granted, doing what I did probably wasn't smart. Logic wasn't part of it. I was half ready to jump off a building and decided that any desperate choice was better than staying the course I knew I couldn't manage. So I gave up and went for a dream. Looking back, I feel like I was an absolute idiot, but at the same time, I feel like my writing has improved by leaps and bounds. I've learned so many lessons even without having quite the focus I'd wanted. But I still wonder what I really should have done, and what I should really be doing.

Fylh's picture
Fylh from from from is reading is from is reading is reading is reading reading is reading June 13, 2012 - 2:21am

I did my BA in English Literature and Creative Writing. At the time there were no MFAs in the UK (there's starting to be a few places, it seems, that offer something like it).

I found it, on the whole, disappointing, and for my MA I switched to Philosophy and Literature. Now I'm doing a PhD in Comparative Literature and Religion because I've had time to reflect on my years as a creative writing student, and I've decided it really wasn't my thing. 

Some of the instructors were really wonderful. One of them I consider a close friend. But spending three years in a workshop at university level wasn't all that, really. The assumption was that we were "already" good to a point, and could be made "better" — but it didn't work out that way for most of us.

Bear in mind, as you read this, that I dislike workshops and don't really enjoy critiquing other people's work. So if you thrive in a group environment, then maybe this won't apply.

Overall, the contacts I made and the time I was given to write were more fruitful than the actual instruction and feedback. Being encouraged to submit creative work was great, but most of the time the feedback was lost on those who most needed it: those who were entirely derivative, pretentious or happily careless.

I'd be happy to do an MFA someday, but mainly because it would give me extra time.

M.E.Prince's picture
M.E.Prince from Georgia is reading En man som heter Ove June 13, 2012 - 2:51am

I'd say it's better to spend your higher education money on classes that have something to do with the kinds of stories you like to write. If you want to write crime novels, take a lot of criminal justice or forensics courses. If you're into romance, maybe psychology and marriage counseling are the way to go. Personally, I went mainly for anthropology, but mixed in a lot of bio, computer science, and criminal justice, and those are just the programs I majored in at one time or another.

With a more varied educational background, you've got a good base to work from. When you need to research something, you'll have a pretty good idea of what to look for, and you'll also have a better idea whether or not your idea is too far-fetched from the get-go.

Wayne Rutherford's picture
Wayne Rutherford from Columbus, Ohio is reading NOS4A2 June 13, 2012 - 3:36pm

@Michael - One of the options that you could do is you could work a part/full-time job, you know...to pay the bills and what not, and you could write in your free time. That's what I have to do and I'm almost positive that I'm not the only one doing it. Writing is a tough gig, as you read over and over and over and over again on this and any other site like it. But, if you really, REALLY want to do it, then you'll find your way to work it out.

As for the whole education question; I received my degree in English/Pre-Ed just on the off chance that I would ever want to finish getting my teaching degree and I LOVED my English program. I had already been through school once and I wish this is the program I had chosen the first time though. It's never a bad idea to go and improve your education because, like Extra Credit, it can only help you and never hurt you.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies June 13, 2012 - 5:34pm

@howie - well, mostly what my prof got me to do (and this will also be a reponse to those that say that genre fiction gets pooped on in MFA programs) was to write a strong literary story. most of the professors DO allow genre (crime, fantasy, SF, horror) BUT they try to educate everyone on the classics. it's kind of like learning all of the grammar rules, but then throwing them out the window when you write (allowing sentence fragments, etc.)

my novel, Disintegration, was written my first semester at Murray, at least the first half of it was. and my professor (not the Pulitzer nominated one) actually read Baer, Clevenger and others to see what i was up to. she loved my work, and we got along great.

the NEXT semester I was put with the Pulitzer nominated professor who tore me a new asshole. he told me my novel wasn't thesis material (in other words, wasn't GOOD enough). i almost broke down in tears, seriously. i spoke to my first professor and i decided i had some choices: leave, write the novel anyway, or study under the Pulitzer nominee and soak up every bit of his knowledge that i could. i think you know which option i chose. (i finished Disintegration on my own the next year).

i read all kinds of literary fiction, but of course, the DARK HORSES of literary fiction. Denis Johnson, Mary Gaitskill, Flannery O'Connor, Cormac McCarthy. i wrote papers on Ron Rash, Holly Goddard Jones, TC Boyle, George Saunders, Mona Simpson, Joyce Carol Oates, Andres Dubus, Jill McCorkle, Ray Bradbury, William Gay, and Kate Braverman. EVERY single one of these authors taught me something, and there isn't one person on this list that I don't love reading. If you don't know these names, look them up. 

you have to stretch yourself. i thought i knew everything, coming into this program. he forbid me from writing anything but literary fiction, no gratuitous sex or violence, and no twist endings. IT WAS BRUTAL. but man did i evolve. i learned to write a story and not rely on my flowery dark prose, or sex, or violence, or trickery. it's harder than you think. i will be eternally grateful for his lessons, and when he introduced me for my thesis/graduation reading, i almost cried again. it was like hearing the words a father never told you, thinking that he hated you, thinking that you sucked, that your work was flat and worthless. many people told me that he never spoke about his student like that, that his hight praise was very rare. it was quite humbling and i'll always cherish that moment, as a writer and human being.

in other words, i learned a lot, i grew, and i became a better writer. you get out of life what you put into it, be it an MFA, your relationships, your writing and reading, and of course your careers. only time will tell if the work and money and time was worth it, but i think it was.

do what works for YOU.

PS: i do still write neo-noir, of course. but i'd like to think combining literary and genre fiction, i've improved in both directions, and across a wide spectrum or genres and sub-genres

Michael J. Riser's picture
Michael J. Riser from El Cerrito, CA (originally), now Fort Worth, TX is reading The San Veneficio Canon - Michael Cisco, The Croning - Laird Barron, By the Time We Leave Here, We'll Be Friends - J. David Osborne June 13, 2012 - 5:37pm

@Wayne - Yeah, I did that for a very long time. Unfortunately I never felt like I got anywhere. I was always so tired, just never was able to give the real me to my work. In fairness, part of that was because my wife was disabled and required a lot of care and emotional attention, which exhausted me almost as much as my horrible job. Still, I just never felt like I got anywhere. The year I've spent writing since has taught me so much. I feel like this last year, despite not being quite the distraction-free thing I wanted it to be, taught me more than the last 10 years I spent working and writing.

Wayne Rutherford's picture
Wayne Rutherford from Columbus, Ohio is reading NOS4A2 June 13, 2012 - 5:46pm

@Michal - I understand completely because that's how I feel about the whole working and writing thing. But, as I said, I don't have a choice but to do it that way for now. So, I always take one day out of the week and get up early, before I head into work (I work 2nd shift) and I go out to the local coffee shop where I caffinate myself HEAVILY and dig down into whatever it is I'm working on. I've been doing that for a few months and I've gotten some pretty decent progress made, I think. Enough progress that I've been thinking of joining the Workshop and, at least, seeing what others think of it.

Regardless, it sounds like this is the path that you really want to travel and so I think you'll find the way to get to your Valhalla. Everyone here is extremely willing to help you along the way.

Michael J. Riser's picture
Michael J. Riser from El Cerrito, CA (originally), now Fort Worth, TX is reading The San Veneficio Canon - Michael Cisco, The Croning - Laird Barron, By the Time We Leave Here, We'll Be Friends - J. David Osborne June 13, 2012 - 8:31pm

@Wayne - Absolutely. I don't think I've ever felt so good about a decision so quickly after making it as when I joined LitReactor. Within probably two hours of signing up here and paying for a month of workshop, I was already feeling good vibes.

I'm glad you're finding a system that works for you, though, even if not ideal. I know how hard it is to figure it out when so much else demands your attention every day. We never have the ideal we want, I guess, but have to work within our limitations. Maybe that's just something I need to get better at.

Thanks for the encouragement, either way. If you do decide to join the workshop, I'll make sure not to keep you waiting on a read.

Zackery Olson's picture
Zackery Olson from Rockford, IL is reading pretty much anything I can get my hands on June 14, 2012 - 8:39am

This is a question I've been wondering about for a while.

 

On the one hand, I'd love to spend that much time doing reading, writing, and tinkering with the craft.

 

On the other hand, I'm almost entirely sure that I'm idealizing the experience and that I'd end up hating it because formal education is always less gratifying to me than informal education. Being able to learn what I want, when I want, and at my own pace is very valuable to me--even if it means I sometimes end up screwing around and don't get as fmuch writing done as I wish I had.

 

Also, it's something that has to be looked at from the socioeconomic perspective. My current field of study--assistive technology--is one that is constantly growing, and the oppertunities for lucrative employment are better than in many other job markets. Also, there is almost always a shortage of qualified professionals in the field, so for those of us that have the technical expertise of knowing how to use the equipment and the personal experience of having to figure out how to optimize the usefulness of the equipment, the amount of high-paying freelance work we can find is good as well. I mention these things because I would have to change my current field of study to be eligible to enter an MFA program at some point. From an I-gotta-pay-my-damn-bills perspective, it may not be worth it.

Wayne Rutherford's picture
Wayne Rutherford from Columbus, Ohio is reading NOS4A2 June 14, 2012 - 8:46am

Ah, the eternal struggle of everyday life vs fulfilling ones dreams...

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. June 14, 2012 - 8:52am

@Richard, thank you.  That was awesome.  I agree with learning Literary writing to improve Genre writing.  Everyone benefits from a solid foundation.

Emily Thrash's picture
Emily Thrash June 14, 2012 - 12:33pm

There are quite a few things that you are not taking into consideration.

I graduated with my MFA from University of Memphis (a mid-range, residency required program).  I walked with a novel and a collection of stories that I was proud of and had seen the advice of some wonderful literary minds, and only a very small addition to my undergraduate debt. (I only paid the $3000 of my first semester out of pocket, the rest was funded with a stipend on top.) I could have gotten the novel and the collection in other ways, since it essentially came from me, and I could have found a writing group to help me hone them.  However, that is not all I walked with.

In order of importance to me:

Life-long connections to a fairly large and diverse group of writers.  A couple of weeks ago I read during one of their weddings, and I'm the godmother to another's new infant. These people aren't going anywhere.  While it's true that in a structured writing program you have deadlines and other such things to help you keep up the work, there is nothing more valuable to a writer, in my opinion, than a permanent circle of close friends who know what it's like and will hold you to what they know you are capable of producing.  I'm not in the program anymore, so I have no teachers to chastize me for not meeting my goals--but I do have friends who send me research related to my projects, links to contests and publications they think I am a good fit for, what they are working on and requests for what I am working on.  Sure, through them I have "connections in the industry,"  but there is more to it than back-scratching and introductions.  It's something that will keep me connected to what I'm committed to do, or trying to do. There are other ways, I know, to get this kind of support.  But I got it this way, and it was worth it and more.  Sure, you can say that all you need to keep going is passion, but writing is essentially a lonely, lonely job.  I couldn't keep it up forever without these people.

More practical things:

Three years paid teacing experience teaching comp, fiction writing and literature at the university level.  In my program, a teaching job was not contractually guaranteed, but everyone got one, with a fee waiver and a stipend comparable to what an adjunct makes. While the relationships I describe above are priceless to me, this is what made the degree finacially viable.  I learned much more from teaching writing than I did in my writing classes.  I developed my own theories of pedagogy and what makes writing really good.  To me, you don't really know something until you've had to explain it to someone else.  After graduation, I got a job at a good private school that allows me time to write and indepence in how I teach, and I'm in a higher pay scale because of the Masters. 

One year of experience (unpaid) working with a national publication.  And that was enough for me to realize that I did not want to work as an editor, which is what I had thought I wanted to do.  (Other than write.)  I could have continued and would have been in a good position to move into publishing, but I went the education route.

An editor's eye.  Through practice teaching and working on the journal, I developed a  sharp eye for grammar and mechanics.  There's nothing better grading stacks of papers or copy-editing hundreds of pages of fiction for being able to spot a comma splice a mile away.  My writing is cleaner for it, and it's opened some doors for free-lancing positions. 

The classes equivalent of a MA in literature, which will allow me to skip the first year of a doctoral degree should I choose that route.  I like academia, and I'd love to be tenured in an university position someday.  While that dream's not for everyone, I learned a great deal about literature, and it's something else to keep up a good, concentrated study of the great works.  It reminds me of what I'm aspiring to be a part of, and that's at once thrilling and humbling.

 

All that being said, here are situations where I would not recommend entering a program:

You already have a good job in education or in publishing, or you really, really don't want a job in either of those fields. The workshops are the least reason to get an MFA. THE LEAST REASON.  If you want to continue your current career and work on improving your craft, there are free, or at least cheap, ways to do it.

You are not in a position to do a residency program.  Actually, don't do an MFA if you are not in a position to make it the center, or close to center, of your life.  You won't get funded, you won't get on the job experience, you won't have the complete writer's life immersion. If it's a nights-and-weekends thing, it will probably be a collossal waste of money.  (I agree with @Richard here, you get out what you put into it.)

You are exclusively a genre writer, with no interest in expanding or stretching into other styles.  There absolutely is a stigma in most programs against genre. (And it is something I would like to one day work toward changing, which you can really only do from the inside.) There are some legitimate reasons for the attitude towards genre,  but many of them are outdated, elitist, and blind to some of the great things that can exist in the middle-shelves of book stores. Going into an academic program with the intent of writing serial paranormal romance or the next great american zombie novel would be an uphill battle indeed.  My own writing "dances on the cusp of genre" as my favorite professor was wont to say, but I learned a great deal from writing straight realistic fiction.   I like to think of it as taking away all the toys and flashing parts that occasionally make it hard to see what is fundamentally moving (or not moving) about writing.

You can't get at least partially funded. While I'm not much better off financially than right out of my BA, I'm also not any worse off. 

 

My MFA was the best decision I've ever made, but I've known those who wish they hadn't bothered. 

Good lord, I did not intend to write a comment longer than the original post, but I hope this helped someone!

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies June 14, 2012 - 2:29pm

@emily - great post, thanks for all of that. my program was low-res, so a lot of those options weren't really there for me, unfortunately.

@howie - glad to help. one of the interesting things about reading the HUGE Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, was that you'd run across a "genre" writer here and there. Ray Bradbury's "The Veldt" was a fantastic story, and it showed that it's the authors that are ABOVE genre that transcend genre. In other words, it's a SF story for sure, but he speaks to the emotional, relatable, and disarming conflict of authority, family, selfishness, and love. Those moments can be in horror, SF, fantasy, lit, etc. on any planet or in any setting. That's the common thread. Not the tech, the futuristic room that creates a fake African jungle, it's all the OTHER stuff.

Cigarro's picture
Cigarro from Portugal June 16, 2012 - 8:22am

1st - I'm from Portugal and sorry for my english.

great column. I've enjoyed every single reply.

this is actually something I'm struggling quite a lot. my mom, my aunt, my ... are always with their thin voice at my ears with one hand on her hips and other waving like a lunatic towards my oxygen, saying «what are you doing all day long? again! reading», «go do something. go to college. go to writting classes. speak/listen to others» «(...)» you guys get the picture. despite their small stature, when they open their mouth they begin to get bigger and bigger - it's quite claustrophobic and I'm actually a big guy.

Rod Serling (twilight zone) and Woody Allen are two tremendous individuals for whom I have great great respect. they both said (and many many others): writing and creativity cannot be taught normaly, it is someting we "born" with and develops through years and years of training...

my mom is a teacher and an english teacher who is a really good friend of her write short stories. once or twice a year his short stories get published. all the teachers, friends, students - you name it - they all buy the book and they «LOVE IT». once, my mom told me to write something and show it to him. at time I haven't read nothing from him and was quite on a fence towards showing my stuff. so, one day, I picked up a book from him. read it all. hated the whole thing. there was no character development, bad psychology, meh writing (imho), obvious twists and ends... and I was like - WTF! if he is "good" I might be god on ideas and on writing. I'll be one of the greatest writters ever... but in the next day I read some of Oscar Wilde works and I root my feet on earth once again. «you might/are be the problem» some said. basically because I'm used to read Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Kafka, Hemingway ... the classics. but I love Harry Potter, Game of Thrones and tonnes of others as well :D

I think is the same (for example) as digital art - which I also love. btw http://cigarro-da.deviantart.com/gallery/ my folio (people might get curious, or not). now I'm getting to the point. all the artist, or, the majority of artists either in digital art or writers who attended college they all dress, move, smell, talk, draw, write, think alike (between 3/4 stereotypes). I have nothing against college but it seems, in my eyes, they all leave those places formatted - which may be a poor assumption...

good thing about MFA programs (perhaps the main)  - people make connections within the industry.

but when we are good we are good. and from day to day we always need to get better from who we were on the day before.

Brandt's picture
Brandt from Portland, OR is reading Jack Ketchum's Red June 21, 2012 - 12:01am

A few posters have mentioned the camaraderie and rigor of an MFA program. I think that there are other programs/groups, such as Dangerous Writing here in Portland, that can offer the structure, criticism, and opportunity to grow a literary vocabulary and mechanical skills. All this for far less money and without the need to deal with elitists for two years.

Wayne Rutherford's picture
Wayne Rutherford from Columbus, Ohio is reading NOS4A2 June 21, 2012 - 6:16am

There's always other options, but a lot of people like the appeal of getting that expensive piece of paper that comes with the MFA.

Jane Wiseman's picture
Jane Wiseman from Danville Virginia is reading The Iron Council, by China Mieville June 21, 2012 - 10:11am

Wow, somebody had a good experience at Tiger High *winks @.Emily*

Joshua's picture
Joshua from Little Rock is reading DOVE SEASON June 23, 2012 - 12:56am

I'll follow-up on what Emily and Richard have already written. I took my MA in Creative Writing at the Center for Writers at The University of Southern Mississippi. It was the most intense two years of writing in my life, made more so by a great bunch of professors and a really professional group of students. We had our ding-bats, for sure, the narcissists, the nail-biters, etc. But, most people knew this was their two-year shot to get in as much work as necessary.

The best lessons were, as Richard pointed out, some of the hardest (I had a similar, hard-as-nails experience). What I really learned was Craft, in a way that I think is hard on your own or with a good non-formal writing group. No one can be as brutally honest as a 25-year-old MFA candidate. But, that brutal honesty will compress years of work into a very short period of time. Then, you can get on with the business of writing.

As Emily said, these same 25-year-olds, in many cases are very busy trying to become the next Raymond Carver or Cormac McCarthy. And they do not suffer genre writing lightly. However, spending the time learning the craft can make your genre material VERY strong in the long run.

If you have or can get a group of writing companions who can consistently call "bullshit" on your mistakes without having to worry about damaging your ego, you can achieve much of the same effect. And, while the non-res program may be necessary for your current circumstance, nothing can compare to the experience of a residential program. I learned just as much arguing with other students into the wee hours of the morning as I did in class.

What it comes down to is community. An MFA program is an artificially-generated writing community. Someone mentioned something earlier about Hemingway never having gone to college. However, I would submit that his time in Paris (and Faulkners', etc.) was his MFA program. Kerouac, Ginsberg, etc., also come to mind here. These weren't always mutual-admiration societies; they took the piss out of each other plenty. But, they had that with each other as a community.

The last lesson was write, write, write. James Dickey once said that a great writer doesn't write less crap than a bad writer; he writes more of it.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies June 23, 2012 - 9:26am

^excellent post, joshua. 

Michael J. Riser's picture
Michael J. Riser from El Cerrito, CA (originally), now Fort Worth, TX is reading The San Veneficio Canon - Michael Cisco, The Croning - Laird Barron, By the Time We Leave Here, We'll Be Friends - J. David Osborne June 30, 2012 - 9:10am

This really is a great thread. Thanks to everyone who's contributed.

William Arsenis's picture
William Arsenis from New York City is reading BAD GUYS (ZACK WALKER) August 23, 2012 - 4:18am

I've had an agent reply to my query letter saying that she couldn't consider me, even though I'm already published, because I don't have an MFA. That was only one rejection letter, however, and I've had many.

In conferences, I've heard agents say that having an MFA helps. Agents say a lot of things. They are almost impossible to please. 

That said, to a small, undefinable extent, the agents are probably right: having an MFA does help, especially if you are considering a traditional path to publishing. Why? Because in this economy especially, traditional publishing houses don't want to take risks with unknown authors. If you have an MFA and a bunch of awards and you have a knockout query letter (perfectly catered to the agent in question), you might find an agent willing to read your first few chapters. That's assuming, of course, you have exactly what they're looking for--right genre, right word-count, right style--at exactly the right time.

Is it worth getting an MFA just so you have something to put in your query letter that could possibly help you land an agent? Not in my opinion.

And while I don't disagree that getting an MFA could potentially improve your writing, I believe you can do better simply by spending 10% of your time reading books on writing and the rest of your time actually writing.

The reality is, MFA or no MFA, traditional publishing or independent publishing, you will need to acquire marketing skills if you want to see any kind of significant sales. You'll need to invest a major chunck of your time doing something that has nothing to do with art of writing, but everything to do with actually making a living writing fiction.

And if you want to get an MFA so that you can get into teaching as a sort of Plan B in case you aren't able to support yourself as a writer, chances are, you'll wind up with a teaching job at a community college or worse (because Plan B's by their very nature tend to follow a path of lesser resistance)--and that's if you're lucky. (Universities these days want PhD's and post-secondary school teaching experience.) 

If you want to write, write. If you want to get published, get published. If you want to actually make money writing novels--possibly even a meager living--then write, get published, and market, market, market. (There are plenty of books on how to promote your books, but beware--most cater to non-fiction writers.)

If you're young and you have the money and time, then I think getting an MFA is a great idea. You'll be giving the economy a few more years to recover and you will be setting yourself apart from millions and millions of aspiring writers.

Otherwise, don't waste your precious time and money.

Instead, follow these four steps:

1. Write. (Though this is what you dream of doing all day, unless you're Dean Koontz or Stephen King, believe it or not, this is not the most time-consuming or important step.)

2. Get Published. (Easier said than done, I know. But, sadly, long gone are the days when getting published means making a living as a novelist, even if you hit the jackpot and land a deal with a major publishing house.)

3. Market Your Book. (And this is the key. Even the major houses don't have much of a marketing budget for first-time authors. How many times have you told yourself, "This writer sucks. I can do better in my sleep"? Great books don't necessarily become bestsellers. Great books don't even necessarily get published. Great marketing is what creates great book sales.)

4. Repeat.

 

DmNerd's picture
DmNerd from Orlando Florida is reading The Moon is a Harsh Mistress September 24, 2012 - 9:51am

I'm a little late to this game but I really appreciate this thread. I've been searching for feedback on MFA programs for some time now. Some things I enjoy learning on my own and at my own pace, but with writing I know (at least for now) I do better when I have someone pushing me and/or holding me accountable. I think the structured school setting would be a great benefit.

However for now I think I'll try to find a good local community of writers to tap into and then re-assess how an MFA looks down the road.

jdjdjd's picture
jdjdjd October 15, 2012 - 1:07pm

Good posts here... and the reasons I chose not to do an MFA.

You already have a good job in education or in publishing, or you really, really don't want a job in either of those fields.


I did my undergrad in writing and film, so I think I already had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do. However due to the economy and being the self taught computer nerd that I am, took a job doing IT work (managing websites/content and databases) as it paid well, definitely didn't like it that much but it paid more than most editing jobs, and it's close enough to that in terms of detailed work which I'm not that into.

I have no interest in teaching, nor do i have any interest in publishing.

My main interests of employment would be feature/documentary journalism (not reporting), travel writing, writing or producing for tv and film, or freelance writing essays/short stories/novels. Any of those would be fine but hard gigs to get, but I don't mind spreading my multimodal narrative skills around. Basically, I want to produce material across mediums of writing and film, whether it be non fiction (journalism) or fiction. I'm not sure an MFA is worth the investment, but could very well be worth it if you wanted to work for a literary journal or teach college comp/creative writing.

I have thought about the prestige of a PhD and the knowledge I would gain, but in the end I wouldn't want to be compromised by the market and have to move to some small college town somewhere and hope to get tenure, in general I hate most locations of universities in this country I'd actually have a chance to teach at and prefer big cities like NYC, LA, Chicago, SF, London, etc...really the only places I have lived or would even consider living at this point in my early 30s.

I have been to some writing workshops and groups which were free or virtually free just to keep my deadlines in check and produce material.

Anyway, don't feel bad about not getting an MFA... many of my friends who weren't the brightest in the class went on to get graduate, law and other professional degrees, didn't mean they were smarter or should be looked at on a higher pedestal, nor does it mean they have more talent.