|To m'fay or not to m'fay, that is the question.|
Edit: Since it keeps coming up, let me explain that this article is blunt, but I am NOT anti-MFA. I'm anti-most-of-the-reasons-people-get-MFAs because they just end up fifty thousand in debt and doing whatever they were going to do after graduating anyway. Here is an article about some of the benefits of an MFA program.
If you start punching in "Reasons to get an MFA..." into Google, the first suggestion you'll see is "... in Creative Writing." This is probably because all the MFA's out there are writers and have blogs. In these blogs they write, apparently at great length, about why their degree was not a waste of time.
However, part of me secretly thinks Google is doing some on-the-sly philanthropy. Google suggests "in creative writing" first because that's the discipline that needs the most validation. These are the guys most likely to take their advanced degrees and go have a tude Weinerdude. My theory is that Google wants us all to feel validated. Google is sort of a nice guy with boundary issues. Haven't you noticed you can just prove ANYTHING by typing it into Google?
Creative Writing MFAs are sort of like when my step-dad looked at me and my mom after I had blown up the kitchen or set the garage on fire and said, "I got the package deal!" He would say it with a tiny quiver in his voice, his lip would tremble almost imperceptibly, and his fists would be clenched so tightly that blood rivulets ran down from where his nails bit into his palms. This is the same pose and tone of voice that MFAs strike when they are telling me their degree was really great and they really got a lot out of it. Though, to be fair, I usually don't see lip quiver until I mention how long it took, and the rivulets of blood don't show up until I ask if the debt was worth it.
If you Google "reasons to get an MFA in creative writing," or even "why get an MFA in creative writing?," most of what you end up (despite what you asked for) is reasons NOT to get one. Even most people who have MFAs seem to be screaming out "Learn from my mistakes, Grasshoppers of writing!" However, there are a few pages you can find that sing the praises, and fortunately I, Chris Brecheen, have done the grunt work to present you with a composite list, right here on Writing About Writing of about fifty or so of these articles from the first five or six pages of Google.
Here are the main reasons (in their own words) ordered from most to least by how often I found them listed) the fans mention for getting an MFA:
1-You want to teach Creative Writing at the college level (I made this biggest because is it the most oft cited reason, and it is usually given the primary emphasis in articles and lists like these.)
2-The deadlines your classes will impose upon you/discipline
3-The time to write/the opportunity to write
4-Develop your voice/Develop "who you are" as a writer
5-Join a community of writers
6-Get readers to help you critique your work/criticism
8-Get information on getting published
9-Make connections (possibly agents if your program is prestigious enough)
10-Find yourself (believe it or not, more than one lists this)
11-Get "permission" to write (I'm not making these up)
12-You aren't sure what to do next (Yeah, that's actually in print in multiple places)
13-Have an advanced degree (any advanced degree)
14- Improve your writing (Yeah, no shit. Improving your writing is listed the fewest amount of times*. In fact, many of them were strong with disclaimers that the sort of improvement would be "literary" improvement or "language" improvement, and not improvement in storytelling.)
(*Total honesty time. When someone listed "Improve your writing" along with a disclaimer about how you could just as easily improve it by just writing or with two years of equally intense focus, I didn't count it. That is basically the same as saying this ISN'T actually a benefit to an MFA, but it beats sitting around watching reruns of Ren and Stimpy.)
Now before we look at this list let's talk about the things that are conspicuously ABSENT from the usual list of reasons to shlep through two or three more years of college:
-1 Get a marketable skill (Nope.)
-2 Improve your job prospects (Not listed even once)
-3 Earn more money (This is actually debunked in several places)
-4 Internships or professional opportunities (Not even in lit mags or editor positions? Well, it isn't mentioned.)
-5 The sheer pleasure of the pursuit of knowledge (Who goes to school for this?)
No one mentions ANY of these things. Not even once.
And let us also consider the conspicuous absence of many of the reasons people say they want to get an MFA before they have actually been through the program.
-6 Genuinely increase one's chances of publication
-7 Undoubtedly improve one's writing
Arguably, most any MFA would have the same deficiencies in the guarantee-department. And while technically no MA comes with a job offer stapled to the diploma, I shouldn't need to explain why "fine arts" and "marketable skills" don't usually wind up in the same sentence unless there's some kind of negation phrase between them. But there is one benefit to most MFA programs that is totally worth mentioning because it is the NUMBER ONE reason that most of our CW-MFA fans s suggest.
In most arts, an MFA is the terminal degree.
When you're done with your MFA, you are deemed capable of teaching at the college level.
Or at least...you are deemed capable of competing with the twenty or so graduates per program, per year for what amounts to perhaps one teaching spot that opens up in a department every half decade or so. You are put in an arena with all the other candidates and a cornucopia with weapons and shit is in the middle.... The last one standing gets a lecturer position, and then gets to go through the process again in the quest for tenure, but this time with caustic fog...
Or at least...that's how it used to be.
In Creative Writing, due largely to the massive numbers of MFA's flooding the streets and competing like horny male rams for the tiny number of jobs that require an MFA in Creative Writing (like CW professor) or the few that might privilege such a degree (like literary magazine editor), there has recently been an addition of a further tier of Creative Writing scholarship. The Creative Writing PhD's are now popping up all over the country, and THEY will be scattering like dandelion seeds to fill the openings for faculty positions everywhere almost as quickly as such positions open up. "Mere" MFA's can look forward to adjunct positions or none at all until/unless they are willing to schlep back to school for a few MORE years, as well as frustrating years of being edged out and hearing: "We decided to go with the candidate who had the PhD."
There goes the number one reason to get an MFA-not only the most cited, but the most consistently emphasized reason. Let's look at the others.
"Not being sure what to do next" or "finding yourself" are great reasons to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, join a monastery, help Nicaraguans for a year, or take mescaline and fall into bed with a partner that isn't the usual gender you go for. But dropping the cost of a decent car's worth of money and committing to years of something requires a focus and dedication that comes from drive and ambition...not the lack of anything good on Netflix.
"Get 'permission' to write" is the sort of mealy-mouthed, touchy-feely crap that pisses me off about all writing programs. No program is ever going to give you permission to write, and you will struggle with the idea that you don't have permission to write long after you've finished ten writing programs. You don't NEED permission to write. Just write. No one is going to grab a sword, touch you on the shoulders and declare you a writer, not even in an MFA. (And even if they did, you wouldn't believe them.) Unless you have some monstrous parental issues that years of therapy hasn't helped, that permission is only ever going to come from you.
Just fucking WRITE.
"The time/opportunity to write." Allow me to, with deepest respect, call bullshit. I understand that life is distracting, and people don't understand or respect your desire to write. I'm a househusband, and I've heard the "you just sit around all day" argument and all its variants as reasons I should do something with or for someone more times than I can remember. I get that the world doesn't respect writing as "real work." I do. But this is like the quote "people think when they buy books that they are buying the time to read them." Except in our example, instead of $9.99, you'll be paying tens of thousands of dollars.
If you want the time to write, block out the time to write. Get assertive about your boundaries! Quit your job or go down to part time (you would anyway to get your masters). Set aside time from the family (you would anyway to get your masters). And spend that time writing (you would anyway to get your masters). You don't need a program to give you time. This is just trying to use the program to validate the excuse for spending less time doing other stuff. If you want to write, write. Don't hide behind an obligation that you yourself chose to be fettered to. That's cowardice that a serious writer just can't afford to have. Look life, and all its distractions, in the eye and say "No, I'm going to write, kthxbai." You don't need the program to give you "the time to write" just like you don't need it to give you permission. If wanting to write burns fire in your blood, then prioritize your life in a way that gives you the time to do it.
Because here's the problem, and there's no getting around it: if it you don't learn to give YOURSELF that time and permission, you will ONLY EVER write until the moment you have that MFA in your hand....and then go right back to working as a manager at the local pizza place or being a housespouse. Then what have you gained? (Except for maybe "finding yourself"....at a pizza place or as a housespouse...and a really big bill.)
"Develop your voice/who you are as a writer" This happens by writing. It will happen when you write. Writing is what makes this happen. Your degree will not make this happen, but rather writing will. I guess the thesis I'm getting at is that this is going to happen when you write. Regardless of whether you are in a program or not, this will happen when you write is what I'm trying to say. However, I will say this as well....consider what kind of writing you want to develop INTO because the pedagogy of your department's faculty will be steering your development whether they are subtle as Machiavelli or hit you with a freight train of "real art" bullshit on day one. But even if that happens, your voice is still going to develop when you write. By writing...that's how that will happen.
Your voice develops by writing is...I guess...my take-home message.
Before I go further down the list, I want to stop and mention something that will become more and more relevant as we go on. An MFA will cost you at least $20,000 (SFSU--a state school--will cost you $3,800 per semester on just tuition; books and other costs are not included in that figure) as well as two years of lost productivity, and probably a lot more of both depending on the program you take and where and how quickly you can finish your coursework. This is time and money that a lot of people don't have sitting around. A lot of stuff on this list is stuff that could help any writer. Of COURSE a structured community of writers and a professor with a whip standing over you will help you. That would help anybody get better at anything. Just like having a personal trainer will help almost anyone get more out of their workouts or having a private tutor will help them do better at their studies. But is the reward worth the cost is the question. For a hundred bucks you can tell your roommate to get on your case if you don't show them a short story every month. Congratulations, you can now take the extra $19,900 dollars you saved and just....blow it all on hats.
"Join a community of writers" and "get feedback and criticism on your work" I've bundled these together because there's an important point to make about both. You will want to be aware of what kind of community and feedback you will get in an MFA. You won't get anything that even remotely resembles a mainstream perspective. You will get feedback, criticism, and a community who all have the same blinders as each other. They will be relatively smart, relatively educated, predominantly white, upper middle class; they will value academics, be driven in an institutional kind of way (and possibly will all be trying to find themselves and get "permission" to write). They will also be heavily influenced by the school's pedagogy about what "counts" as real art--usually avante guard, experimental, language-focused work that most readers would use only when Valium wasn't helping them get to sleep, and would evoke a single tear from any agent who reads it because, while often very good, it will never sell.
In other words, the very process that hazes out "good candidates for the creative writing program here at Soandso University" is exactly the same process that ensures you are getting a very narrow strip of extremely limited feedback that encourages you to write in the same way. They may know HOW to give feedback well, but they are almost literally the most homogeneous group you could get it from. The fact that you can do either of these things--join communities and get feedback--without an MFA may not only make the MFA for this reason, but may shift it more into the column of doing more harm than good to any hope of a writing career.
"Get informed about publishing." Yeah I took that class. The difference between the undergrad version and the grad version was that the grad students had to turn in more busy work at the end of the semester. We all got to meet the same guest panels and ask questions--the grad students didn't get "more serious" guests. It's a cool class. It's not $20,000 dollars worth of cool, though. And someone willing to spend maybe half a dozen afternoons on Google and practice a copule of query letters from a template is going to be able to get much of the same information. We met with people in the industry and got to ask them questions, but I'll tell you what....over half that class was just jazz hands and mindless work designed to hit the university's requirement for a three unit course. That's really wasting everyone's time, honestly, but we went through the motions anyway. You can get the same thing from a good, quality seminar, and not have to deal with a TA who says shit like "I bet if you pitched a book on Kickstarter, you could easily make 50k a year."
"Meet authors?" Yeah, I took that class too. Again, it's pretty cool, but again not worth twenty grand and filled with bullshit busy work designed to hit the state requirements for a 3 unit course's curriculum. The grad students got to read and give feedback on the undergrad's busy work. (And if that doesn't convince you to run screaming, nothing will.) Most of the authors you have probably never heard of and 2/3 of them are writing in a different genre than you (unless you write in multiple genres). Depending on the program, you might get to meet a few big names--that's "literary"big names not household names. My biggest name was Dan Handler who writes YA fiction as Lemony Snicket. But most of them were poets and playwrights I'd never heard of and a frustrating number of these authors who "visited" us were just other members of the faculty. (And a particularly cynical me couldn't help but notice that this required the 200 or so students taking the class to buy their books.) Again, a cool class, but not worth-half-a-down-payment-on-a-house cool. You can also meet authors by attending local readings, and hour-per-hour, it will actually cost you less.
"Make connections--possibly with agents" Maybe. Agents don't really troll programs for writers except for maybe the Iowa Writer's Workshop and a couple other top programs. Pretty much you're going to have to dazzle them with your writing, just like you would if you didn't have your fancy MFA. You can do the exact same thing by going to readings and talking to people and meeting other writers. (Writers become editors and agents, you know.)
So what does that leave us with?
Getting any degree.
Seriously? If you want to spend twenty thousand dollars for bragging rights, I guess that is your business, but (almost literally) ever single possible masters degree you could get would be more marketable and be worth greater bragging rights. Most people hide an MFA in shame, and if you try to brag about one you'll probably understand that proclivity by about hour four. Masters aren't like Bachelors either. You don't get opportunities just for having an advanced degree in anything, even if it's underwater basket weaving, the way you do with BA's. People will actually pay attention to what your degree is in. And Creative Writing isn't going to get you very much milage in very many businesses.
Basically the best damned thing anyone can say about an MFA in Creative Writing is that it's better than sitting with one's thumb positioned deep within their own ass, and perhaps that it ends up being incrementally better than NOT taking a degree for those who who like farming out their motivation, itinerary, and structure to others.
So here is my REAL list of reasons to get an MFA in creative writing. All snark aside:
1- $20,000-$50,000+ bucks is seriously no big deal and you have two to three years to kill.
I'm actually not kidding here.
If you get a full scholarship, you have a rich grandparent offering to send you on their dime, you fall into a big chunk of money that you don't want to invest in mutual funds, or you are independently wealthy or something, and you can afford the cost (that's a cost in money and time), go for it.
It does seem that getting an MFA is probably actually more helpful than NOT doing it. You'll get more exposure to good writing, modern writers, and intense feedback.
Just remember to stay grounded if you want to do mainstream writing when you're done.
2- You really want to develop the kind of writing that an MFA will foster.
If you want to write "literary genre" based writing that focuses on form much more than content (the language and themes over character and character over the story or the plot).... If you like the kind of writing that shows up in literary journals.... you should get an MFA. It's not the most popular, but it does have an aesthetic about it that some consider to be "high art."
I myself kind of love it, but I can also totally see why it doesn't sell.
Really, that's about it. So think that one through. An MFA is not the gateway to being the next Stephen King.
Don't forget....most "great" writers since the dawn of time have never even heard of an MFA (these programs didn't show up until about sixty years ago). There were no creative writing programs back then. You read a lot and then you wrote some yourself if you wanted to be a writer. So don't hang too much credit on this.
I actually do know a lot of people who speak highly of their MFA program, but most of them weren't ever "looking" for reasons to go. They didn't Google it and think about it. They weren't weighing the pros and cons. It wasn't their "don't-know-what-else-to-do" step.
They wanted to be there. They wanted to be there so badly that a list of reasons not to do it like the one you just read wouldn't even faze them.
And that's really the only reason that ought to matter. If not doing it would kill you, that's when you know it's time to brush up your portfolio.
It was the people who just thought it was maybe the next step and did it because they didn't know what else to do that truly ended up miserable. It turns out the reasons to get an MFA is very similar to the reasons to pursue anything in higher academia--because that's really, really what you want to be doing.
Because here's the punchline, and there's no getting around it: someone could come up with a very similar list about the reasons not to ever be a writer. They could come out with an identical list--arm length, snarky, sobering, and spot-on. The kind of list that I would laugh at while blood rivulets ran down my clenched fist.
It's accepting all that reality, understanding it, and then STILL not caring that is exactly the reason to pursue arts in the first place. And lest we forget, an MFA is a pursuit of fine arts. If we're looking for reasons, we're already in trouble.