|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 exactly the whatever they were going to do after graduating anyway. Here is an article about some of the benefits of an MFA program.
Before Google started tailoring its results to your own personal algorithm, you could pretty well count on a consistent experience with someone else. And back then one of the things I discovered as I was doing research about where to go to school is that if you punch in "Reasons to get an MFA in Creative Writing" a lot of what you sift through after a few gushing testimonials and maybe a page of some pro/con is a lot of reasons NOT to get a degree in creative writing. Even most people who have MFAs seem to be screaming out "Don't do it! Learn from my mistakes, Grasshoppers of writing!" However, there are a few pages you can find that sing its praises.
Well if anyone's going to go blog about their degree, it's probably someone who just got one in writing. But sometimes 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.
Like most things it has fans and detractors, and you can probably find just about as much as you want to confirm your bias. (Did you know there are three MILLION pages that assert that aliens wrote the Bible?) 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 twenty and change 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
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 (No I'm not kidding. Yes this is real. Improving your writing is listed the fewest number 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.)
Now before we look at this list, let's talk about the things that are conspicuously ABSENT from the usual list of reasons to schlep through two or three more years of college:
- Get a marketable skill (Nope.)
- Improve your job prospects (Not listed even once)
- Earn more money (This is actually debunked in several places. You read that right. DEBUNKED.)
- Internships or professional opportunities (Not even mentioned.)
- The sheer pleasure of the pursuit of knowledge (Pfffft. What kind of nerd goes to school for this?)
No one mentions ANY of these things. Not even once.
Actually, that's not 100% true. In most cases, you can find that with a terminal degree, you can teach, and so many of these programs do mention that you might become a college professor teaching creative writing. So that may be your job prospects, higher pay, and professional opportunity. But OTHER than teaching, these usual reasons to shlep BACK to college for two or three more years are conspicuously absent with MFAs in writing.
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.
- Genuinely increase one's chances of publication
- Undoubtedly improve one's writing
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 decade or so (maybe more if you're at a liberal arts school). 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 MFAs flooding the streets and competing 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. Creative Writing PhD's are now popping up all over the country, and those CW doctors will be scattering like dandelion seeds to fill the openings for faculty positions everywhere almost as quickly as such positions open up. "Mere" MFAs 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."
But what about those other reasons?
"Not being sure what to do next" or "finding yourself" are great reasons to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, join a monastery, help Nicaraguans build dams for a year (without once trying to convert them, I swear to fuck...), or fall into bed with a partner that isn't the usual gender you go for and then take mescaline after all the consent is enthusiastically secured. But dropping the cost of a pretty fucking decent car's worth of money (or a down payment if you're not coastal), and committing to years of something requires a focus and dedication––the 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. I'm not pissed at YOU for wanting permission. I'm pissed at a culture that hasn't done its level best to divest you of such notions. 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.
Just fucking WRITE.
"The time/opportunity to write." Allow me to, with deepest respect, call bullshit. Or at least "cowdung." I understand that life is distracting, and people don't understand or respect your desire to write. I work a fifty hour week at two jobs, 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! Now I'm not saying that everyone has the privilege to quit their job or cut down to part time, but how were you going to go get a masters degree in the first place without setting aside a whole shitload of time? 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 a luxury 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.
Okay take a breather. Maybe grab a snack.
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 $8,600 per year on just tuition; books and other costs are not included in that figure) as well as a minimum of two years, 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. The question isn't if it would help. The question is whether the reward is worth the cost. 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 program. You won't get anything that even remotely resembles a mainstream perspective. You will get feedback, criticism, and a community of members who all.....GEEEEEENERALLYYYY, 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 have read a lot of the same classics. They will also be heavily influenced by the school's pedagogy about what "counts" as real art--usually avant-garde, experimental, language-focused work that most readers would use only when Valium wasn't helping them get to sleep, and evokes a single tear from any agents who read 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 useless 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 couple 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 three-unit course 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 being responsible for the reading would require the 200 or so students taking the class to buy said faculty member's book. Nice little feedback loop.) 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 creative writing programs for writers except for maybe the Iowa Writers 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.
Listen..... If you want to spend twenty thousand dollars for bragging rights, I guess that is your business, but (almost literally) every 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 sometimes do with ANY BA degree. People will actually pay attention to what your degree is in. And Creative Writing isn't going to get you very much mileage in very many businesses.
Now you may be worried that what this means is that 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 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. (Or you get a free ride.)
I'm actually not kidding here.
If you get a full scholarship, you have a rich grandparent offering to send you on their dime, it's a condition of your trust fund, 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.....and though it is more abstract, tremendous effort), go for it. A small benefit is a lot more "worth it" if you're not going to spend the next 30 years paying off the loans.
It does seem that getting an MFA is probably actually more helpful than NOT getting an MFA. Somewhere between a third and a half of published writers have an MFA and that number goes up for more modern writers. An MFA will give you exposure to good writing, modern writers, and intense feedback. Your craft will improve.
The question isn't if it's useful. The question is if it's WORTH IT.
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 program tends to foster.
If you want to write "literary genre" based writing and 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 kind of love it myself, but I can also totally see why it doesn't sell.
And, though only one or two writers do this each year and they usually graduate from Iowa or Michigan, if you get pegged as the next big literary thing by publishing short stories in literary journals, the advance on your first novel could be in six figure range. Stick THAT in your pipe and smoke it.
Really, that's about it. So think that one through. An MFA is not the gateway to being the next Stephen King. It's not a guarantee of publication. It's not going to get you a better job. It might not even make your writing that much better than just some practice and discipline.
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.
Now that everyone just read the bullet points is pissed at me, it seems like a great time to point out that 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 really 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 and get some letters of recommendation from your undergrad profs.
It was those friends and colleagues 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 are 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. I'm sure as shit not doing this because the money's good and the groupies are totally real.
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. If we're looking for reasons––if our blood is burning––we're already in trouble.