The Self-Taught MFA: Novel Idea or Fairy Tale?

Quick! Look out the window. On early autumn mornings, they fill the streets: writers of all types and stripes, skipping down the road to the first day of their MFA. Their brand-new book bags are stuffed with the first drafts these programs promise to lovingly and expertly critique. In their hands they clutch shiny red apples—a love offering for the widely published authors-turned-instructors, who will guide them to similar success.

Meanwhile, there’s you: nose pressed against the window of your low-paying job, low-rent apartment or lovely, well-appointed house that would be perfect, if only you didn’t live there with your parents.

“Should I be getting an MFA too?” you muse wistfully. “What secrets are they learning? Is it mandatory for success in this day and age? Are those apples even Fair Trade?”

When you count up all the full-time, online and low-res MFA’s out there, it can be hard not to feel like everyone is going through “The Program” or at the very least, that you should be.

But what can an MFA program really offer one’s craft? How can it help one’s career? How many, if any, of the benefits of a Master of Fine Arts degree could you replicate independently?

Some creative writing programs seem evil, but my experience at Irvine was totally the opposite, where I feel like they were really good at focusing in on each writer’s voice and setting.

—Aimee Bender

Here’s what a good MFA program can offer you:

A Community of Writers (At last!)

A Wise Person once said, “Writers are the orphans of society.” Ok, I’m lying, I just made that up. But think about it: As an aspiring author, you’ve probably spent your life living and breathing the written word. On the downside, chances are you’ve also felt like an outsider, with different interests and perspectives than the rest of society. Joining an MFA program can make you feel like you’ve finally found a “family”. You’ll find yourself surrounded by people who feel passionately about their favourite novels and authors, who are happy to dissect and discuss literature the way sports fans discuss the big game play-by-play. Most importantly, you’ll find other brave souls who dare to write despite everything: the naysayers, industry trends, the fact that Kim Kardashian is publishing a book of selfies, the fact that people will buy it. Sure, writing is, at heart, a solitary endeavour. But the opportunity to live in a community where you’re able to gain the strength and knowledge to continue that endeavour can be invaluable.

“Should I be getting an MFA too?” you muse wistfully. “What secrets are they learning? Is it mandatory for success in this day and age?

Great Teachers:

Many people decide where they will pursue their MFA based largely on which authors will be members of the faculty or guest lecturers. Writing programs give aspiring authors the chance to work closely with Pulitzer-Prize winners, bestsellers or merely the author who convinced them that writing was something they had to do. Granted, being a great writer does not make one a great teacher. However, most can offer the invaluable perspective of someone who’s beaten the odds, enjoyed success in a tough field, and knows what it takes to do so.

Structure:

Grad programs can instill the discipline necessary to succeed as a pro: how to work under deadline and within certain parameters, such as word count. Workshops teach not only how to give and receive criticism, but how to read critically. Assigned readings provide exposure to authors and literature that might have gone unexplored. The solitary nature of writing can make it easy to forget that the end result is to get our work into the hands of readers. Ideally, MFA students are taught how to make that work as polished as possible.

The Thesis:

“I have a great idea for a book,” a lot of people say. “But I don’t think I can sit down and write a whole one.” Final-year MFA students do all the time; they have no choice. Most programs have completion of a book-length thesis as a requirement for graduation. (And a real book too, not just the words, ‘Wow, this is like, super-hard,’ typed 30,000 times.) While those first books might not lead to breakout success, the fact that you wrote one means you have it in you to write the one that may.

It’s like Club Med for Writers!

Consider what the average, all-inclusive vacation offers:

  1. Fabulous locations
  2. Accommodation included
  3. Meals Included
  4. Events like on-site entertainment
  5. Tons of activities you might not have tried (or heard about) on your own
  6. The chance to meet new people! And get completely hammered with them!

Compare this to a full-time MFA program:

  1. Typically located in bustling cities or laid-back but fun college towns
  2. Provides students with or helps them find (relatively) affordable accommodation
  3. Lots of student bars offer free wings
  4. Events like seminars and “meet and greets” with industry professionals that could keep new authors out of the slush pile
  5. MFA students often have the chance to dip their adventurous little toes into everything from other liberal arts offerings to study abroad programs
  6. The chance to meet new people! And get completely hammered with them!

With all MFA programs have to offer, why would any aspiring author in their write mind (get it?) NOT want to be in one. Well...

I think you have to learn for yourself how to write. I'm slightly mystified by creative writing courses — God love them — because I can't understand how you can explain a process that I find so baffling.

—Kate Atkinson

You know all that free time MFA programs give you to write? Well, it ain’t exactly free.

Sure, there are TA jobs and other ways to fund your MFA, but let’s face it: most full-time students are going to graduate with debt. A lot of it. The average is around $40,000 for an MFA from a state school. But depending on program and location, students could be looking at leaving with up to six figures to pay back. And that’s not including any debts garnered as an undergrad. Of course, students in almost every field rack up debt for grad study. But the average writer is most likely not going to find a job as easily as a lawyer, doctor or corporate climber in order to pay it down.

Of course, the value of an MFA can’t be quantified in simple material terms like, say, a car. The question as to whether it was worth it can only be answered by the person who undertook it. Just bear in mind, that answer could easily be ‘no’.   

A Class by Yourself:

Occasionally, a program will just be the wrong fit: the atmosphere will be claustrophobic or impersonal. Among the students, you'll find you don’t click with anyone and the world-renowned teachers will be lazy or crazy or just plain mean. Maybe you’ve found—too late—that when it comes to you bringing your A-game as a writer, there’s no place like home. Now all you want is to pick up your rickety Ikea desk and your hefty, non-refundable semester’s fees and go back. Extricating yourself from a degree program can be a tricky and painful process, but so can sticking out years in one you’ve quickly realized is the wrong one for you.

The Voices in Your Head:

Some may find that their journey towards an MFA becomes too much about everyone else: the groupthink many workshop classes fall into, the criticism of instructors who seem determined to mold everybody into Mini-Thems. Even if you manage to avoid the politics, there’s the sheer fact of your reading load. You may get stuck reading a lot of books that you don’t like and/or don’t feel will help you. You will definitely get stuck reading many, many pages of many, many student works. Sometimes unpublished work is unpublished for a reason. Not your stories, of course. Your stuff is yet-to-be discovered diamonds in the rough. But a lot of other student stuff blows. One of the downfalls of a program is that it can feel like you spend too much time with the blowing and not enough time with the hoeing. (Hoeing your diamonds of course. Not the kind of ho’ing that could pay off those student loans.)

Connections? What Connections? Oh, you mean the Wi-Fi

Once upon a time, the MFA scene could be compared to a wide-open field where talented writers and literature-loving agents had plenty of room to spot each other, connect and then frolic away arm in arm—the start of a beautiful relationship. Now there are soooo many programs, soooo many aspiring writers and so many publishing professionals—not all of the latter aesthetes—that things as they are now would be better compared to the train at rush hour. Best case scenario: if you’re very aggressive and very practiced, you may find a seat. Worst case: you’ll end up shoved into a corner next to someone who tries to hump your bag.

If the only reason you’re considering joining a Master’s program is to meet agents and publishers, you might want to explore other options. While the opportunity to get to work with and learn from talented professionals will be there, the chances of being able to parlay this into some sort of career advancement are not assured, to say the least. For every story of a writer meeting the publisher, agent or author/mentor of their dreams, there are countless others for whom these relationships, if developed at all, did not “stick”. There’s a better chance of meeting great friends at your program or even the love of your life. But hey, you could do that at Club Med.

What if an MFA is not the only way?

I teach in MFA programs now, and I think that's a great way to become a novelist, but I mourn that Pete Dexter and Joan Didion's route is maybe less likely because there are fewer of those jobs. I always liken it to playing piano in some great dive jazz bar. You didn't pick the songs, you played what people asked for, but you got your chops.

—Jess Walter, author of The Financial Lives of Poets                                                               

At the end of the day, all education is valuable. It’s one of the few things, like traveling, that they can’t take away from you. However, while it seems like there’s never been a time when an MFA is more necessary, there are also more options for forging your own path than ever before.


Next month, we’ll discuss how to go about obtaining a self-taught MFA or how to build upon the one you already have.

Naturi Thomas-Millard

Column by Naturi Thomas-Millard

Naturi is the author of How to Die in Paris: A Memoir (2011, Seal Press/Perseus Books) She's published fiction, non-fiction and poetry in magazines such as Barrow St. and Children, Churches and Daddies. At Sherri Rosen Publicity Int'l, she works as an editor and book doctor. Originally from NYC, she now lives in a village in England which appears to have more sheep than people. This will make starting a book club slightly challenging.

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Comments

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami September 19, 2014 - 11:17am

Actually my reasoning for joining an MFA, is to be able to teach college level writing. Even if technically I could give advice to aspiring students, it just wouldn't look very qualified without one of those things.

Deadlines are the worst bit for me, though I'd love to get better at that. Whenever I think about a deadline, I'm more likely to just freeze and move onto something else. Like doing illustraitons for a webcomic.

I think of I take one, I think I'll take it up North.

Matt L.'s picture
Matt L. from Texas is reading Tenth of December: Stories September 22, 2014 - 9:05pm

Nice perspective Naturi. I've contemplated applying for an MFA program many times (as I'm sure most writers have) but always come back to it not making sense. I've got a pile of student loan debt that keeps me living check-to-check. I'd want to go full bore with a residency program, but my wife and I have deep roots where we are now (though the woman is a saint and would move if I asked).

When weighing the potential pros:

  • time to write
  • mentors
  • fellowship/critique
  • industry connections

versus the potential cons:

  • time spent reading/critiquing works that I may not see the value in
  • being made into a "mini-me" writer
  • moving for a residency program
  • making no valuable connections
  • leaving my not-sexy but bill-paying job only to accrue more debt

I keep arriving at the conclusion that I ought to try and do it "on my own." Quotations because I'm blessed to have friends and family that are terrific supporters.

So I try to set aside funds for books and time to read and write. I study the craft and keep up with writing buddies. It’s not the immersive, freeing experience that I imagine a great MFA program can be, but life ain’t a cakewalk, right? Maybe I'll have the means to go for an MFA at some point, or at least decide it's worth the gamble, but for now I'll just keep plugging along wriiting nights and weekends.

Looking forward to the next installment.