To MFA or not to MFA?

This post came about in response to Hugh Howey’s blog post, “So You Want to Be a Writer…”

I had a few issues with it. Okay, that’s an understatement. But one of the things that really got my goat was his view on MFA programs, which was presented without any real thought or discussion at all.

MFA“MFA programs churn out editors and waiters.” And teachers and professors and do you know, Mr. Howey, not a single one of my classmates is a waiter. They are all, however, very good writers, and several of them have book deals and more. (Matthew Quick, for instance, with The Silver Linings Playbook.) I know there are plenty of MFA programs that do horrible things like tell students they can’t write anything but literary fiction (you just tuck that science fiction story into a drawer for the next three years while we beat the desire to write one right out of you, honey), but not all of them do. The good ones aren’t about filling pages with flowery verbiage to the expense of all else. My MFA thesis was a YA fantasy novel, and other people in my program wrote middle grade, murder mysteries, gay urban fantasy, and literary—not all programs are so limited.

And if they’re worth the money at all, MFA programs teach you to write. You go in capable of writing the flowery crap and they make sure you end your love affair with adjectives and adverbs before they hand you a diploma. They take your skills—which have to be pretty good to begin with—and hone them to a skill level you didn’t know existed. (I was a very good writer/editor/teacher to begin with; the difference just in my first semester was incredible.) More specifically, they teach you how good writing, story, mythology, etc. works. “The thing you absolutely should not do if you want to make a living as a writer is go to school to learn how to write.” No, Mr. Howey, the thing you absolutely should not do is make assumptions about why people would go back to school and what they might learn there.

Is an MFA program for everyone? Of course not. I was teaching and wanted the credential as well as the educational experience, and I’m glad I did/have it. Not every program is right for everyone, either. If you have a good mentor or group of writers who are supportive and know their stuff, you may well have what you’d want in a program right there. You might do better with a writing coach or editor. You may want a combination of classes, coaching, and editing. The MFA is not the only way. It’s just one way, and it’s valid for some folks and not for others—with the very serious caveat that you do need to be sure, and to pick the program that’s the right fit for you.

I can’t stress this last point enough. MFAs are not one size fits all, and they’re a significant investment of time and money. It is not worth going into debt to make yourself miserable. I was lucky; my MFA program was thoroughly awesome. I was actually reluctant to apply because of everything I’d heard about how people in workshops would shred each other to prove that their writing was the best, which is just so destructive and unnecessary. I applied because I felt like I’d done everything I could do on my own and if I wanted to progress, I was going to need some sort of program to help me figure out where the gaps still were and how to fill them. I also was the advisor for a high school literary magazine and wanted to beef up my skills there—and hoped to convince the powers that be to let me offer a creative writing course, so the credential was important.

I applied to three programs and got into one, which I regard as some serious divine providence, because Goddard is amazingly non-competitive and supportive, and I freely admit that it has become my yardstick, for better or worse, for what a program should look like in terms of supporting writers and also doing a lot of really good teaching. But it’s undoubtedly not the right place for everyone any more than the Iowa Writers Workshop is (I am quite sure I would have been desperately unhappy there).

Another important caveat: if you’re getting your MFA so you can teach on the college level, be prepared for a lot of adjunct teaching. I can say from experience that adjuncting is slave labor; the number of courses you need to cobble together to stay afloat financially (and I don’t mean in style) plus the number of hours you spend teaching them means you really need to love being in the classroom more than almost anything else. If you want a tenure-track position, most schools are going to demand a PhD regardless of the fact that the MFA is considered a terminal degree. (The program I taught in wouldn’t even allow me to apply for a full-time gig without the PhD even though it was exactly the same work I’d already done for them.) If you really want to teach with some security and even basics like medical insurance, but you don’t want a PhD, you’re probably better off financially teaching on the secondary level.

By the way, I’m always happy to talk about my MFA experience with people who are trying to make this decision, so if that’s you, please let me know how I can help!

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