MFA in Creative Writing – Pros & Cons, As I See It

13/12/10 11:00 AM

I read an interesting article the other day in Slate Magazine called “MFA vs. NYC: America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?” It’s one of those subjects that’s been around since the dawn of MFA programs, although it’s evolved with time.

I received my MFA in Creative Writing in 2008 from Lesley University’s low-residency MFA program in Cambridge, Mass. I debated with myself a long time before I made the decision to apply to a program (and I have a very distinct memory of printing applications to other full-time MFA programs, like Brown’s and BU’s, on September 10, 2001. We all know what happened the next day. To say I lost focus after that is an understatement).

I’m a commercial writer, not a literary one (or, at least, not what I consider to be a literary writer). As you can tell from this here blog and website and Facebook page, I have no problem promoting myself (I’m a marketing copywriter by day), which is something that many literary types loathe. The bottom line for me is I want to be the best writer I can possibly be and write stuff that matters to a passionate tribe of fans. Not everyone will like what I write, and that’s okay.

So why did I finally decide to go for my MFA? A few reasons. At the time, I thought I might want to teach full time (I’d been an adjunct professor at Mass School of Law), and the MFA is considered the terminal degree in the writing field. I thought being involved in a program would help take my writing to the next proverbial level. And I thought the degree would provide validation: to family, friends, and myself.

I don’t regret my decision at all. But I’m not pursuing a teaching gig (and I don’t see that in my future, but never say never). I had an epiphany over the summer (with the help of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird) that validation needs to start with me. All that said, my writing did reach the next proverbial level, I think. Would that have happened anyway over the course of two years? I’d like to think yes, but who knows? I do think it happened faster because I was in a program.

Like anything else, there are definite pros and cons to an MFA program. Here’s my list, as I see it.

Pros

  • Justified time (one to two years) devoted to your writing (I say justified because for those people in your world who don’t understand that writers need to write, it’s much easier to say, “I have something due for school” and have the person understand and accept it)
  • Someone else – faculty members – devoted to your writing
  • Meeting other writers
  • Expansion of thoughts and worldview: new books, new ideas, new ways to think and do things
  • Terminal degree, which is needed if you want to teach writing at the college level
  • *Might help your queries or submissions get noticed (I am a true believer that in the end it’s about the writing…but if someone is willing to read a couple of extra pages – be it a fiction reader or editor – because of the MFA, well okeedokee)

Cons

  • Writing programs are filled with published writers who teach. A published writer does not a good teacher make. I actually have a theory that editors would make better writing instructors because a good editor will see what’s working with your piece, your voice, your vision and will help you shape it and take it to the next level. Too often writers who teach don’t know how to teach beyond the way they write. This isn’t criticism. It’s merely an observation.
  • Some writing programs are notorious for being cutthroat and ultra competitive. Personally, that’s not an environment I would flourish in, although maybe it works for some people.
  • More debt, as in school loans, and often later in life when you’re likely to have a mortgage and kids’ educations to think about.

Some other thoughts, and these are just my opinions, so accept or reject at will.

  • You don’t need an MFA to write quality fiction, nonfiction, or poetry.
  • You don’t need an MFA to get published.
  • You don’t need an MFA “to be a writer.”
  • You do need an MFA (yes, there are always exceptions) if you want to teach writing at the college level.
  • You don’t need an MFA to learn to become disciplined.
  • You don’t need an MFA to make connections.

That said, an MFA can help with all of the above, if you decide to work it that way. For example, if you decide to pursue an MFA because you’re serious about taking your writing to the next level, well, then, you likely will. But it’s you who is making that happen – not the MFA (however, the MFA program might give your subconscious a “reason” to focus…and the MFA program will likely provide an environment that will help you succeed in your goal – a thesis deadline will do that for a person).

An MFA can be a good “excuse,” if you need an excuse, to focus on your writing for one to two years.

So, you might be wondering, if I had to do it all over again, would I?

That’s a good question. I definitely grew as a writer during the program, and while I’d like to think that growth would have happened anyway, I have no way of knowing that with any certainty. The biggest thing I got out of my program is the different writing I was exposed to. Yeah, I love to read, and I know, as writers, we’re supposed to read widely, but it does help to have some guidance from veteran writers on just how wide to cast the net…and where to cast the net. I loved the reading lists my faculty advisors and I put together for my first three semesters (I’ll share those lists in another post). I’m not sure I would have found some of those writers on my own, even with my good intentions of reading widely.

Okay, now it’s your turn. Are you considering an MFA? If yes, share your reasons, your reservations, etc. And for the MFA veterans out there, what do YOU think of my pros and cons? Agree or disagree? Any to add? Get the discussion started in the comments.

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2 Comments on “MFA in Creative Writing – Pros & Cons, As I See It”

  1. Lauren B. Says:

    I graduated with a degree in English Lit./Writing in 2008 and have been floating around since, unsure of what to do next. A bachelor’s is the new high school diploma and it has been hard to find a job anywhere near related to what I want to do with no experience. (Write or teach or sit at a desk and do other people’s writing)

    Then I took a class at Grubstreet in Writing for a YA audience, which is what I want to pursue. It really inspired me and got me thinking about if I wanted to pursue an MFA. It would allow me to teach and give me many more resources that I don’t have now. My undergrad degree mostly focused on critical theory of classic literature (with writing classes tacked on at the end) and I want to be in a program specifically for writing, especially writing for children.

    The reasons I want to get into an MFA program are for support through a network of peers that have the same goals that I do, I want to meet more people in my prospective field, and I want more instruction or guidance in the craft. I feel like I am working well on my own, but that a program would propel me forward a little faster.

  2. Robyn Says:

    I think those are all good reasons, Lauren…and it sounds like you’ve thought it through. I’ve heard great things about Grub Street (I’m outside of Boston) and might try attending the Muse & the Marketplace this spring. Are you familiar with Erin Dionne? She’s a local writer and her third YA novel is coming out in the spring. Check her out here: http://www.erindionne.com I’ve read her first two books and they are hysterically good. Are you thinking of a full-time MFA program or low residency?