Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Raging Debate: MFA: Yes or No?

I posted before about my dilemma regarding the MFA. I’m going to revisit this debate today. As I said before, I was told once by someone who I had never met in person and who had only read a paragraph or two of my writing (Yes, I know agents read about the same amount before deciding.) that I needed to take classes on fiction writing. What I was showing that person was something that was not the finished product, that was an example of something I wanted to work on as part of my graduate school studies. Not something that would ever get published and see the light of day. Now, I know that there are perhaps some things that I could work on in my writing, but is it really fair to essentially imply to someone that the only way to ever be a really good writer worth their salt they have to dole out thousands of dollars to take officially sanctioned classes? Shouldn’t we be learning to write by example, by trial and error, by blood sweat, and tears? One of this year’s issues of Poets and Writers had a letter to the editor which said something along the lines of how nice it was to see an author getting recognition and publication who didn’t come from the “MFA machine.” That’s really stuck with me.

The recent issue of Writers’ Digest had an article about the debate between whether the MFA in creative writing or the PhD in creative writing is the terminal degree for poets and writers of any genre. That’s really prompting this post here. It’s always been something that’s bothered me. (By always, I mean in the last couple of years since I started actually thinking of myself as a writer and poet.)

So my dilemma has been and perhaps ever will be this: Do I try to get into an MFA program? Or do I simply work with the resources I have around me and work to improve my craft that way? I mean, I live in a totally non-artsy-fartsy region of the United States. It’s not really likely that there’s an MFA program here nearby. And it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to find other things that a writer would need, like writing conferences or critique groups, here in my area. But more on that next time.

I really want to prove this guy wrong so I can put a really snappy, biting dedication that only I’ll ever know who the target of it was. I’ve already got that dedication in mind and was planning on putting it on the project I was planning, but will likely never get off the ground, so I’ll put it on a different one. But is the MFA the better way to go?


  1. While I agree that schooling is always a great way to go. I don't think you have to do it to be a published writer. Not all of us can go back to school for a degree in writing, does that mean we can't be writers? No.

    Of course, you do still have to learn the craft. You can't just wing it and hope for success. There are many ways to do that, self teaching, pier help and critique, etc...

  2. Hello *looking around* like your colors here....great taste. It's the same format I chose. Very literary, I think :D

    Good question up for discussion today. I'm personally not of the mind that a MFA is required. It certainly can provide direction and instruction...it can help us hone our craft. But it is just one path out of many. As long as we keep writing, writing, writing and (heres the important part) allowing for review and critique, then we'll grow. You don't need to shell out the cash - unless you want to.

  3. My view is – the degree is not necessary. If someone works hard, practices, seeks advice and feedback on work in progress they will improve.

    Write to learn.
    Learn to write.


  4. This question was recently brought up to an agent panel at a writer's conference I attended. The agents basically said (without being insulting) that they are little wary of MFAs, that their writing is often overdone. You could see the faces of the MFA-carrying members of the audience pale.

    I don't have an MFA, but I have a Masters in Social Work. And I can tell you, education is great. However, the day I walked into my first job with my shiny degree, they presented me with a group of teens suffering with mental and/or behavior disorders and told me they were now my responsibility. Ha. I had no clue how to be a therapist yet.

    So, my guess is it would be the same with an MFA. You'll learn good info, but it doesn't make you a writer--writing does.

  5. You guys are all basically validating every thought I've had against an MFA. I so deeply appreciate the feedback and support I receive here. Thank you all!

    Groupie, that's so interesting to hear about the agent perspective on the MFA. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I'm coming in a little late on the subject, but I wouldn't trade my MFA for anything in the world. Not only is my writing much more polished, but the contacts I made at school are priceless, and they also teach you how to network and market. Spalding offers a wonderful brief residency program and financial aid. I would not do anything differently than I have. The MFA has opened doors to a career in teaching English at universities, and publishers are much more likely to accept my work. My first book will be out soon, and I don't think it would have happened minus the MFA.

    However, there are those writers who entered the MFA program when I did who were already published, and just wanted the initials after their names so that they could pursue teaching careers.

    You don't have to have an MFA to write and be published.

    But it helps.

    It helps a lot.

  7. Hi NWA,

    Just popped over as saw you at Janet's blog (loved your name) and wanted to point you in the direction of this http://community.livejournal.com/meta_writer/ which I run because I'm pretty much in the same situation you are, and was suffering the same sort of palpitations until I created a place to ask stupid questions.

    At the moment, we're doing a bunch of random posts on our own idea of the basics of writing (so far they are scheduled until the 31st of July but people keep asking every day to add something, and I'm sure as not complaining)- feel free to pop along and have a look.

    Hope that helps,



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