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Do MFA programs help students get published?

Someone reached out to me a couple of months ago after she read my post on MFA programs – pros and cons. She had been accepted to a couple of low-residency programs, including Lesley University (where I earned my MFA in Creative Writing), and she had a bunch of questions about my experience, including this one: How supportive is Lesley in helping its students get published? Are there networking opportunities available to meet agents/publishers?

For better or worse, here was my response:

Here’s my theory based on nothing but my observation and reading on the industry for nearly twenty years. MFA programs are designed to produce stronger writers. In other words, writers who have a better understanding of craft (e.g. creating scenes, writing dialogue, developing characters). The publishing conversation is like the big white elephant in the middle of the room. Many students want to talk about it, but are afraid to ask. The literary types—and you’ll run into them regardless of where you go—will want you to focus on your art first and foremost, and not worry about the publishing piece (and, to a certain extent, this is good advice, especially when you first start). Everyone else won’t necessarily have the best or any advice. MFA programs everywhere are filled with artists and artistes who want to discuss story and craft and metaphor and not the stinky, messy, commercial world of publishing that sullies the work and sometimes forces writers to “sell out” and enter the dark side, otherwise known as “business” and “marketers of books.”

Again, this is just my impression, and I don’t have statistics or even strong “evidence” to back up these impressions.

The good news? (And yes, there’s good news – I wouldn’t leave you with such a sad outlook.) It’s all OK. The goal of a writing program is to write. A lot. Write more deeply, take risks, revise, stretch yourself in directions you never thought you’d go. When you have a short story or novel (or both) that you feel in your gut is ready to send out into the world, there are plenty—and I mean plenty—of online resources to guide you through the journey to publication. MFA programs just aren’t built that way. YET. I say “yet,” because the publishing landscape has changed dramatically since I started at Lesley in 2006 (Kindle hadn’t been released, nor had iPads; no one with any pride would consider self-publishing…I famously swore up and down that I never, ever would. Never say never, right?). So I do think that programs will need to re-think how they guide students when it comes to publishing…right down to defining “what is publishing?” and what does it mean “to be published.” And you might actually witness this transformation.

So take everything I’ve just said with a grain of salt.

In terms of my own experience, Lesley offered some sort of publishing panel/seminar during each residency. Typically, it’s made up of agents, editors, some folks from lit journals, people like that. It’s usually causal, Q&A type stuff. I attended at least two, and they were good, but I didn’t learn anything new (only because, as I said, I’ve been a publishing junkie for two decades. I swear I devoted the bulk of my 20s to reading about the damn industry and “how to get published” rather than focusing on having something TO publish. That became the focus in my 30s :)).

I will say that everyone at Lesley—staff and faculty advisors—WILL be cheering for you. They want to see you succeed and to grow as a writer and to get published. They can and will definitely help you with the “grow as a writer” part. As for the publishing part? That will be up to you (although that could change, as I said). And you never know whom (who?) you might meet during your journey.

Do my no-holds-barred answers help? 🙂

Readers with MFAs in Creative Writing…what was your experience in your program? How would you have answered this question?