My writing students know I have a master of fine arts degree. Often, when I’m chatting with a workshop student after class, he or she will say, oh-so-casually, “You know, I’ve been thinking of getting an MFA in writing.” “Hey, that’s great,” I’ll reply. “You’d get so much out of an MFA program.”
I’d never say this to anyone just for the hell of it. Fortunately, I don’t have to. The students who’ve expressed an interest in getting an MFA in writing would, in my opinion, benefit greatly from the experience. Most of them, however, never apply to programs. At least, they haven’t done so yet-and that’s as it should be. It’s their choice, not mine. I’m just happy to see that they’re taking the time to consider whether an MFA in writing is right for them.
Choosing to go for an MFA in writing is no easy decision. Here are the main questions you’ll need to ponder-well before you start filling out applications:
What do you want from an MFA in writing?
Some seek the MFA in writing solely to improve their skill. They want to immerse themselves in the heady experience of being around other writers and to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime chance to focus on writing. They may not even care much about acquiring the degree. This was my outlook, and one that many of my classmates shared.
Other people in MFA programs have practical goals in addition to artistic ones. They might want an MFA in writing because they want to teach at the college level or enhance their high school teaching credentials. They might view the MFA program as a way to build important contacts in the literary community, contacts which will help them land a job in publishing or find an agent.
Which camp do you fall into? Whatever your answer, don’t judge yourself for it. One approach to the MFA in writing isn’t better than the other. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that, considering all of the money you’ll be paying for tuition, you’d like some real career assistance from the administration, faculty, guest lecturers, and maybe your fellow students. There’s also nothing wrong with wanting to devote two or three years solely to learning your craft, or with not wanting to think about selling the book you haven’t even written yet.
Once you determine what you want to gain from an MFA in writing, you’ll be much more focused in your search for schools. Some MFA programs place a strong emphasis on writing as a profession: inviting agents and editors to campus, offering practical advice on job searching, etc. Other programs emphasize craft and provide very little information about the business or career aspects of writing.
Do you really need an MFA in writing to advance your career?
This relates to the previous question. In deciding what you want from an MFA in writing, you need to consider what you want from writing. An MFA is a definite asset to a publishing or teaching career. However, if your primary goal is to publish a book, the advantages of attending the program and of holding the degree are less clear. There are a number of alternatives to the MFA in writing which can serve you well at a fraction of the cost.
Online and onsite writing workshops; an experienced mentor who provides one-on-one instruction; conferences which offer the chance to meet agents, editors, and other writers-these are only some of the resources available to help you write and sell a book. The downside is that you can’t take out student loans to finance these options, and the costs can add up fast. Still, you’ll spend far less in the long run than you would on an MFA in writing. And if you get an MFA, you’ll probably end up paying for conferences, editorial services, and additional instruction anyway, long after you’ve tacked the diploma up on the wall.
An MFA in writing does demonstrate a certain level of discipline and seriousness, and that can help win over an agent or publisher, especially if the degree comes from a well-regarded program. Notice I said it “can” help. An MFA program is not a fast track to getting published. Many MFA graduates never publish a book, and obviously many writers get their books into print without the benefit of those three little letters. Ultimately, it’s the quality of the work that matters, and you can improve the quality of your writing through many avenues.
Of course, there are other writing-related careers in which an MFA can come in handy. When I began my MFA program, I was thinking “book,” not “job.” Two years later, I had my fancy degree and part of a book manuscript– certainly nothing that was ready to be shopped around. Mine is one of those MFA programs which is all about craft and very little about career. I had deliberately sought out this kind of program. I didn’t regret my choice then, and I don’t regret it now; I grew tremendously as a writer and met wonderful people along the way. However, there was the small matter of those pesky student loan payments coming due.
When I began offering editing services and writing workshops, I was proud to put “MFA in Writing and Literature” on my business cards and in my ads. I’ll never know for sure how much of a difference my degree makes to prospective clients and students. My sense is that some people probably don’t care that I have an MFA in writing, while others place more trust in my judgment because of it.
Is this the right time for you to pursue an MFA in writing?
I first learned that there was such a thing as an MFA in writing shortly after college. Five years passed before I was ready to apply to programs. Had I applied any sooner, I wouldn’t have been intellectually or emotionally prepared to attend an MFA program.
Graduate school in any discipline is tempting when you don’t know what else to do with your life. Whether you’re 20-something and feeling lost after college or 50-something and desperate for a dignified way to leave the job you’ve hated for years, grad school might seem like the perfect out. And if you’re also a writer struggling to find your voice, the MFA in writing may sound like the answer to your prayers.
You can be nervous about applying for MFA programs. You can (and will) doubt your abilities. That’s OK. But you need to be ready. Life as an MFA student is exhilarating-and exhausting. You’ll read and write more than you ever have before. You’ll find some of your instructors incredibly helpful and others incredibly frustrating. You’ll sit in workshops and listen while your work gets praised or picked apart. Consider whether you have the necessary self-discipline and the ability to receive criticism. If you have serious doubts, take a workshop or two from a local college or community arts center. This will be good training for an MFA program.
Of course, there are also the inevitable scheduling and financial considerations. Do you work full-time? Do you have young children? Are you willing and able to take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt? A low-residency MFA program can relieve some of these pressures. I worked full-time at a bookstore while attending my low-residency program, which cost less than half what a traditional MFA program of comparable quality would have charged. But my job wasn’t exactly demanding, and I didn’t have children. I know people who waited until their kids were a little older and who scaled back their work or business obligations before they entered MFA programs.
And even as I sit here, thinking about all of the work, time, and money that went into my own MFA years, a part of me wishes I had it to do all over again. If you decide that an MFA in writing is right for you, trust me: you’ll find a way to make it happen.