My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Mailbox: Is an MFA Worth It?

Is there any reason TO get an MFA in creative writing? 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. It's okay to ask me about the other side of something I've said.]  

 Sharon asks: 

So I'm about to start an MFA program at SFSU, and about four people have forwarded me your reasons not to get an MFA article. (How does everyone know you?) Now I'm doubting my choice. Do you think there are any reasons to get an MFA in Creative Writing? 

My reply: [I added the link in the question above.]

Everybody tries to say they know me because I'm a big, big super famous star living the life of glamour that is the writer. Hang on, I have to wipe the glitz off the screen so I can keep writing.

There we go.

I live in Oakland and I got my Creative Writing degree from SFSU, so if you're in the area, I may actually know your four friends. I tended to gravitate towards the "serious" students at SFSU, so a number of us are still writing and keep in touch. On the other hand, I've personally witnessed (online) people who I've never actually physically met say to another person who shared one of my articles that they were "close personal friends with the author." So maybe I sort of know them.

Then again maybe they're just dropping names because did I mention the glitz and glamour? Cause that shit is just drizzled all over this job like icing on a coffee cake in a Houston diner.

Anyway, to your question.

It's no mystery that I think most people in MFA programs are wasting their time and money. However, I don't think everyone in an MFA program is wasting their time and money, and I don't think most of the people who are wasting their time and money really know that's what they are doing. Because I think most of them asked the wrong questions before they started their MFA.

I don't actually think MFAs are a bad move. I think they are extraordinarily expensive, time consuming, and counter productive as an, "I-don't-know-what-else-to-do-next" move.

It's important to ask the right question about an MFA. If you cornered me in an alley with a big rusty machete and said "Chris, if the next word out of your mouth isn't yes or no, I'm going to hack you to pieces with this machete. Do you think any good can come from getting an MFA?"

I would tell you yes. Then I would run away and never go to karaoke with you again. Machetes scare me.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I do not have an MFA. I have an undergraduate degree in Creative Writing. (Technically all the concentrations––linguistics, creative writing, literature, technical and professional writing––were B.A.s in English with emphasis.) I worked alongside MFA students during my program, sometimes in the exact same classes, who generally had to produce more work or were required to read and evaluate the work of us undergrads. Many of their classes were essentially the same syllabus and curriculum, simply with their workshops involving other MFA students. Before I went to college, at the time, and since I have talked with hundreds of MFA students and graduates.

There's no doubt that an MFA helps writers become better writers, connect with strong literature and learn more about both craft and how to contextualize modern artistic movements within the arc of literary history as well as a deep sense of the kinds of writing that are accepted within literary reviews today. There is no doubt that an MFA will push a writer to produce a wide body of high quality work--perhaps even publishable work if the writer is willing to continue the process of submission and polishing beyond the classroom. There is no doubt that holding an MFA will be more useful than not having one when attempting to get jobs at publishing houses or literary magazines. There is also no doubt that an MFA is the fastest way to get a bead on the best literary events in the area with free boxed wine.

A master of fine arts in creative writing is a good degree to pursue if a writer is deeply invested in writing with a "literary" tone or within the literary genre. While the MFA hasn't existed for more than 70 years or so (and so every single canon writer before the fifties muddled through just by reading a lot and writing a lot) the process of metacognition that happens in a writing program can help a writer avoid certain pitfalls faster than trial and error alone.

The MFA student will also make connections that may last beyond the frame of school. Many people's MFA cohorts become their peer review for decades. (I still exchange chapters from time to time with a couple of my fellow students.) Some of these people may even go on to be gatekeepers, and the nepotism might be useful. Nothing like reminding an editor of those pictures you didn't post to Facebook (of the night that started with a Hemingway drinking game and ended with a Chaucer-character themed orgy) when you're trying to get published.

These are all good things. They are all benefits. They are all reasons to get an MFA. You are going to have a wild, intellectually-stimulating, artistically mind-blowing couple of years. Enjoy!

And so if that's your whole question, then we're done here. Thank you and good night!  ~drops the microphone~




Unfortunately these straightforward, two-dimensional questions can be misleading. This would be like asking a nutritionist "Is there anything of any nutritional value in fast food?" Well, of course the answer is yes (there are calories! and I think the tomato might have a vitamin or two and the meat has protein). If you just get your answer and walk away, then you are probably going to miss out on the real answer because the way you asked the question has given you the impression that cheeseburgers and fries are health food.

Most people should be asking more complex questions. Questions about cost/benefit, about chances of favorable outcomes, and about maximum yield for a two or three year block of effort. Either/or questions about the best way to become A Writer™(with capital letters and maybe even a paycheck). Because once you ask these questions, a different picture emerges.

A lot of things can make you a better writer. It doesn't mean that they're not a total waste of your fracken time given what kind of writer you want to be.

When most people who want to be writers are struggling with the decision of whether or not to get an MFA, it is usually because they don't know what else to do. They're sitting around in their mid twenties, maybe with a manuscript or two they wrote during NaNo, and fuck it if they aren't big famous writers yet--or even published. The promise of a formula for success lies in the institutionalized teaching of how to write creatively. Most people head towards an MFA with a kind of "I guess that might help" shrug.  But the question they should be asking themselves isn't "is there any possible benefit to this?"

Because that answer is a no brainer–it will always be yes.

Read my lips. I'm only going to say this fifty gillion more times. "YES THERE IS BENEFIT TO GETTING AN MFA!"

The questions that I believe are more important are questions like, "Will the kind of writing I am being trained to do ever pay for this degree?" When the average Master's degree runs $25k-$75k, the chances that a writer will make back the cost of their degree through a skill that the degree teaches is quite small. (And you may think you will be the exception to that statistic, Sharon, but so does everyone else.) If a writer makes back even 10% of their MFA through creative writing, they are doing (statistically) quite well as a writer.

Extremely well. Unusually well.

From a strictly pragmatic point of view, you would be better to be trained in some kind of professional writing so that your degree might matter to an employer (instead of making them have a good laugh before they fire up the paper shredder), and then take those skills into your creative writing instead of trying vice versa.

The other question beyond the cost of tens of thousands is "is this worth two to three years of my time?" Is an MFA going to be better for you as a writer than simply getting started with the process of writing like woah and submitting the shit out of things (or writing online and trying to build an audience). Because at the end of your MFA, that's what you will have to do anyway.

And the last question is, "Do I want to be shaped and molded by this institution's artistic vision?" Fine arts promote a high-art literary aesthetic--which is largely shaped by other voices who can afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars and a few years on fine arts degree. It TENDS to be very bourgeois, whitewashed, upper middle class, "high art" aesthetic. Whether you like that or think it's kind of pretentious bullshit should be very important to your choice. (I kind of like it in small doses myself, but I'm also a white, upper middle class writer, so...think about it.) A lot of people leave MFA programs wanting never to write again because they have been trained to find their own preferences, style, and subject matter "unworthy" by their professors and fellow students.

And don't even talk to me about most MFA's stance on genre; most haven't unpacked how ironic their position is when the speculative nature of the canon is considered.

So when people just hop into an MFA because they want to be A Writer™and they don't know what else to do, I think that's a very bad decision. If someone really believes in high art aesthetic and literary genre style and really wants to get a masters of FINE ARTS and pursue literature as a fine art (or fine arts through the literary medium, if you prefer) I think it's a SUPERB decision. But I feel like a lot of the writing community hasn't figured out how to weigh those values against the costs.

However, if, in the final analysis, they really, actually want to be in an MFA program, then that can be the single best decision they ever make as a writer.

I know a couple of writers, both of whom I met during my undergrad program, who wanted to be in the MFA program and liked that kind of writing and wrote in that style and haven't regretted their MFA for a second. (I've even told one of them basically "Nothing I ever write on my blog applies to you because I can really tell this is absolutely the right choice for you as a writer.") Both of them are still working in bohemian obscurity, but they love every artistic-integrity second of it.

So Sharon, I know I answered your question like ten paragraphs ago, but I hope I've also given you more to chew on about whether or not that question is the right question.  Because getting that MFA is analogous to going into arts at all. We don't do it for all the pragmatic reasons out there. We do it because we want to. We burn to. It's in our souls. And if getting an MFA is in your soul, and you yearn for it, you're going to make it worth it in ways that don't matter on paper.

And don't let anything convince you otherwise. Even me.

1 comment:

  1. I'm in an MFA program now and writing is in my soul. I'm so all about it! Great answer!