Your Turn: The Eternal MFA Question

At the post office, I take all the clothing catalogs directly from my box to the recycling bin, to avoid unnecessary temptation. I may need a new pair of boots, but I can’t afford them presently, thanks to some recession-era realities that have hit my home.

And yet, I certainly didn’t recycle this month’s tempting Poets & Writers magazine, with its comprehensive listings of the top 50 MFA programs. An MFA would set me back $25,000 or so, and it doesn’t fit my lifestyle in any way. I’m an autodidact by nature and I don’t need the discipline of academia to persuade myself to read or write; and I’m not convinced — given how many MFAs have flooded the market — that an advanced degree guarantees future teaching opportunities.

And yet — and yet — I’ve thought about getting an MFA for years. Twenty years ago, my reasoning was that it made more sense to study other subjects that I planned to write about (political science, economics, biology) than to study writing itself. Fifteen years ago, I reminded myself that most of my favorite writers didn’t have MFAs. But a different generation of writers has ascended, and many of them do have the pedigree now. (Today’s writers also have the option of many low-residency programs, including the one offered at our own University of Alaska Anchorage. But note one downside of low-res programs: less financial support.)

Ten years ago, I did the math and realized I could spend a fraction of what an MFA student spends on a non-degree model of my own devising, by attending out-of-state conferences, purchasing ‘writing time,’ and filling my bookshelf. (I did all that. And I published my first novel. But for some reason, those MFA ads still call me.)

I’ve been told by a local friend that I’d love the camaraderie and the stimulating craft conversations.

I’ve been told by a mentor who teaches in MFA programs that I should steer clear.

I raise the question here, more out of collegial mischief than angst: Anyone out there who pines for the classroom on occasion? Any recent graduate or current teacher willing to share some opinions (feel free to use the anonymous option when you post). Tell us the best about your program and the worst; how an MFA changed your life or didn’t; what every young OR middle-aged writer should consider before taking the plunge.

27 thoughts on “Your Turn: The Eternal MFA Question”

  1. I pine for a FLASH MFA program; they'd review my stories, novels, poetry and essays and assign credit equivalent to the output.

    When I think about the time factor in going back to school I feel like Edvard Much's Scream.

  2. I love this notion – the Flash MFA. Other graduate programs build credit around work accomplished in the world. Why not an MFA? It's the entrenchment inherent in academia that makes it hard to think about going back. That, plus the time and the money.

  3. When I got my BA after many years working nearly full-time and taking classes year round, I swore I'd never go back to school. Now the MFA is calling me, too. I need structure to keep me from looking at the airplanes and butterflies that have always challenged my concentration.

    Low-res sounds like a great option but still, where would I be when I'm done? Would it be worth the money & time? Sometimes I think I just need to sit down and talk with someone about the pros & cons. Sometimes I think I need a poster of my second grade teacher standing there with her arms folded in front of her, looking at me through her cat-eye glasses, telling me to get to work.

  4. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    DO you hear that, MFA grads? Bikegirl needs to hear the pros and cons. Please, unburden yourselves and help us out!

  5. Background: I got an MFA from UAA back before the low-res structure. I moved to Alaska for the program, and stayed here, although not in the city. I could not have attended without the full ride I received.

    PROS: Two to three years of undivided time to write (though I worked in the summers.); a community of others whose focus was writing; several deep friendships that have persisted years past grad school; a sense of process and craft that was more grounded than just intuitive; exposure to many more writers and books and fields of criticism than I could have come across on my own.

    CONS: felt insular and self-referential at times; some faculty were far better than others (or, more what I needed) so the usefulness of classes was variable (though none were a waste); level of maturity of writers in the program was pretty wide, at times I felt resentment at having to put a lot into work that wasn't ready; workshops got old for me pretty quickly (I preferred craft and theory classes and one-on-one with profs and other writers whose work I really admired.)

  6. I will graduate with an MFA in the spring. I have another masters, already. Previously, I was known as a writer among my friends. I felt myself to be clever, creative, and at times a whiz with words but I didn't know how to place myself among writers. Because I was educated in another room, my ideas about the worlds of writers, publishing, and literature were misconstrued. I was full of opinions and prejudices and more than a little anger. I was intimidated and held back by my own projections. Not only that, I couldn't identify as the writer I wished to be and hold my own image without support. I'd worn out my friends. I needed another construct. I needed information to replace long held misconceptions. This psychological element was the greater part of it. I had to change. I had to build a new self-image. I had to take myself seriously. Where other than an MFA program could this happen with such perfect focus? Now, I am a tougher cookie. More ready to fight. I sketched this as a note the other day, "I have walked away from entirely too many arguments I might have won, had I stuck to my guns. Good sense is not dispensable." I am more ready to go to the wall. I believe in the work I do on the pages. My task is to do the work and to champion it. This is not taught in my MFA program but this is what I learn.

  7. Hot topic, indeed — of course a path appropriate for one writer might not suit the next (and, like so many things, MFA school turns out to be, in large part, what you make of it), but I found my MFA experience to be invaluable. I had high hopes for the program and they were exceeded, and much of what I personally took away from the MFA wouldn't have been available to me had I gone the low-res (and high-cost) route. One amazing thing about residential MFA programs is that, with a marketable application and writing sample in hand coupled with the ability to relocate for a couple years of school, you can reasonably expect to not just go to school for free, but to get paid to do so — in the form of a teaching assistantship. The pay isn't great, but the schooling and experience are free and definitely pay dividends in the end. In fact, I was able to work as an adjunct at the university after I completed my degree due to the two years of teaching experience I had under my belt, experience that was a prerequisite to even applying for a teaching job.

    I shared Anonymous's experience — one of the most lasting rewards (and part of my motivation for enrolling in the first place) was the establishment of writerly connections and friendships that will last a lifetime, as well as exposure to hordes of ideas, writers, books, etc that might not have turned up under stones I turned over myself without the (off-the-page) help of others. It was a magical, intense, productive and instructive time. It was a chance to contextualize each moment of my life within the decision to study and practice writing, as opposed to making/finding the time for that around a structure already in place. I would do it again in a snap.

    There are many good MFA programs out there… or maybe I should say there is a program out there for every serious or aspiring writer. And fortunately the good ones aren't factories — they aren't churning out "clones" of the professors. Many programs house radically opposing aesthetics and nurture informed and effective individualities. Though the MFA stereotypes persist, and despite the fact that many writers still manage to copy each other and themselves, I think the reality is that there is no longer any such thing as an "MFA poet" or "MFA writer".

    I wonder what the conversation regarding those relatively recent creative writing PhD program will sound like in twenty years?

  8. This was a great question–thanks Deb. And thanks to everyone who has shared their thoughts.

    I'm not going to say much because everyone else has pretty well covered it.

    I got my MFA from the University of Arizona in 1996 and it was absolutely the right decision for me. I agree with those who have championed the residential programs; the workshop is where the learning and growing really happens, and the relationships develop.
    I didn't get a teaching fellowship—there were only 2 given each year at UA. But being in the program opened the door for me to teach as an adjunct at a local community college in Tucson and that set me on my teaching path. My graduate loans were hefty and I've just now paid them off. For me, the money and time were worth it, but I needed the degree to teach—I wasn't there just to work on writing. I always knew I wanted to teach at the college level.
    If I had to do it again, I would. And I'd spend a LOT more time in my professor's offices. Connecting with some of the amazing writers in these programs, and finding a mentor in the writing field, is worth a lot to any writer.

    Thanks again for the dialogue everyone!

  9. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    I'm still enjoying all the responses — thanks to all of you! — so please keep them coming.
    P.S. We've heard many positives, especially for the residential programs. Any down sides?

  10. I'm considering getting an MFA–the low-residency kind where I can work with someone specifically on the genre I write in. My thinking is two-fold. One, it would be great to have a mentor-writer pushing me. I mean, I am going to be writing anyway. And two, if I ever want to teach at a higher than high school level, the MFA will come in handy. I'm just beginning to research progams.

  11. I just finished a low-res program (Rainier Writing Workshop out of Pacific Lutheran University). It was invaluable. I didn't undertake it so that I could be a professor; I wanted to learn to write better and on a more consistent basis, as well as developing a network of "writer friends." I got all of that and more. I read more widely than I ever thought possible, wrote more often and pushed more boundaries than I could have ever imagined, and ended up with a whole posse of amazing writer friends. Not to mention, I got to work one-on-one with some outstanding mentors.

    A low-res program is wonderful because all of the folks in the trenches with you have day jobs, most outside of academia. Not insular at all. In addition, because the faculty is pulled from all over the country, they are as varied in backgrounds as the students.

    I can't say enough good things about my experience. It was worth every penny.

  12. Debby Dahl Edwardson

    I entered the Vermont College of Fine Arts low residency MFA program in 2003, just as my fist book came out. I got off the plane in Vermont still tingling from good reviews. I returned home, after a two-week residency to a rewrite request from an editor for a novel I had submitted to the Delecorte competition. That letter was eight pages long and scared the whatever out of me because I didn't have a clue about how to tackle it. I wrote back and said I was taking two years off to earn my MFA and hone my craft. It was the best decision I ever made.

    I didn't go after an MFA because I needed a degree or wanted to teach (although in fact I love teaching;) I went after it because of the caliber of the people working in the program I picked–people I was more than willing to pay to work with. That was all I considered.

    The unexpected bonus was the critical writing required, which forced me to dig really deeply into craft issues; and the caliber of the students, who became my colleagues. Working with so many talented writers forced me to sharpen my critical abilities which, in turn, helped me look at my own work more critically . . . and face rewrite letters without flinching.

    The way I look at is this–people spend way more than what I spent on this degree buying a new truck–and this degree will take me a lot farther than a truck will. Of course you can always resell the truck and making money off of writing isn't a given, no matter how good you are but once in a while you get to be selfish and say, I'm doing this for me.

    Writing is still hard work.

  13. Kay Boyle, a great writer and teacher of writing at San Francisco State College in the fifties and sixties, famously said: Creative writing programs ruin a lot of good young writers; it's too bad they don't ruin more of them.

  14. Debby Dahl Edwardson

    I'm guessing Kay was doing a riff off of Flannery O'Connor's famous quote: "Everywhere I go, I'm asked if the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them."

    Writing is an apprenticeship. You can serve it by reading a lot of good books and writing a lot just for the sake of it. A good writing program will help you along the road, but where you go and what you choose to drive is your choice.

  15. I am in my second year of the low residency MFA at UAA and love it. I have been asked why I chose an MFA at this point in my "career" if you can call it that, a lot. I did it to be part of an Alaskan writerly community, it can be pretty lonely out here in the bushes, and because although I know how (sort of) to write, I want to learn why some things work and some things don't. I write non-fiction, but my degree is in fiction, and that has been very freeing. I can't say enough about how valuable being enrolled in a degree program is when you are pressed for writing time. ( And we all are, right?) Now, all I have to do is announce I'm doing my master's degree homework and I am free to type away all evening. Everyone thinks I'm working, and really, I'm having a great time with imaginary friends making up crazy stuff. Today my to-do list read 1. kill Bobby 2. have the affair 3. go moose hunting drunk 4.what do Bishops wear? One other reason to pursue an MFA, is that I want a certificate that says I'm a writer. I know it's silly, but that's the scare crow in me. So far the classes have also given me the kind of courage the cowardly lion was seeking as well, and because I can do most of the work at home, there's no need to melt any witches to get back to where I ought to be.

  16. Prior to getting my MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato, I had an MA in British Lit (after 1700) and Writing. I had been published, and had been carving out an identity as a writer, but felt there was more I needed to learn, so I away I went. MFA programs can be challenging for those with a bit more maturity than their classmates, and sometimes being in a workshop with students who "can't see" the worlds you create can be maddening, but when a prof explains your "genius" to everyone else, it is a great feeling. I took advantage of being away from home, from my old responsibilites and personality to see what I could come up with in terms of story, and I was pleased. I learned in two years what might have taken me a decade on my own. I too, bought books, read, wrote, but there was something about the idea of only studying creative writing that appealed to me greatly. MFA's are best for those who already know themselves.

  17. My MFA experience at UAA played a pivotal role in my development as a writer. I had some great professors (Spatz, Simpson, Mapson) and the opportunity to become friends with some of the biggest writers in the country.
    I was already a serious writer and produced screenwriter when I entered the program, but what I lacked was the ability to write about my experience growing up on the tundra. I either didn't have the guts or the heart to attempt to capture what life was like in southwestern Alaska. My time in the program changed that. I just don't think a low-res program would have had the same impact on my writing and my psyche.
    I also attribute my time in the program to my current teaching position at UAA, not to mention some classmates turned good friends.
    While I'm excited about the new low-res program here in Anchorage, I think our community (and campus) is really missing out by not having a resident MFA program.
    I hope to someday help get that program rolling again.

  18. May I go just a little tangential here and say I wish the (well, any) MFA program contained a "business of writing" component? It doesn't help to know how to write if you don't know how to find an agent or read a contract.

  19. Debby Dahl Edwardson

    I agree with Dana–and part of the business training should be marketing. And networking. Yikes. That's all I have to say.

    But I think this should be the next step to an MFA. Maybe an MFABA 🙂

    I think it can be dangerous for people to focus too hard on these issues when they are still in the early stages of learning the craft and serving their apprenticeship.

  20. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Echoing Dana and Debby, I think business smarts matter, too — but I also like the idea of other components, like social justice/how to serve writers and readers in the community. One low-res program that interests me seems to be training writers not only to write, but to serve (i.e. teach in jails? open writing centers for kids/public?) and network with others doing the same. I really like that.

    Overall, I'm still amazed by how many positive comments I'm reading here from all over, including Alaska names I recognize, like Don and Jeremy, Sandy and Heather. Thank you all so much for commenting!

  21. I have an MA in Writing that I got because I needed the degree to teach, and thus, pay the bills. While the friendships and connection to the writing community I got out of it have enriched my life immeasurably, I wouldn't counsel anyone to undertake it lightly. If you have an already established writing career and connections to the literary community, you have already accomplished most of what the MFA program sets out to help you do. If you want a better understanding of craft, while grad school helped some, doing the writing helps a lot more. 🙂 My two cents…

  22. Michael Armstrong

    Years ago Mac Miller, my main writing professor at New College of Florida, advised getting an MFA to "get your ticket punched." He said a writer with an MFA could teach at the college level and thus support his or her writing. On that logic, I got an MFA. Several things happened:
    a) I met some other cool writers.
    b) I met my wife (no, not in the MFA program; in another class).
    c) I wrote my first novel and sold it two weeks after graduating. (The advance paid off a major chunk of my student loan.)
    The UAA MFA program has matured, but like Dana said, in the 1980s it didn't emphasize the business end of writing. I learned that from other writers. UAA also had a strong bias against genre writers, but as they say, living well is the best revenge.
    Alas, Mac was wrong about an MFA allowing one to teach as a side career. I did a lot of adjunct teaching, but jobs for MFA grads in Alaska are few and far between. Mac now advises writers and poets to get a trade, like plumbing.

  23. An MFA is a terminal degree (i.e., you can't go on to a Ph.D. from there) and most universities including UA hire only Ph.D.'s for full professorships. With your MFA you can be an adjunct professor for $2000 a class every semester for the rest of your natural life, of course. No tenure or benefits. Can't think why I didn't jump at that.

    I agree that first you have to learn to write, but if you're a writer you're going to write whether you get an MFA or not. There is an inherent contradiction in a universal academic community that lives by publish or perish and then gives its graduates no help with how to publish, thereby guaranteeing the perish.

  24. Debby Dahl Edwardson

    "There is an inherent contradiction in a universal academic community that lives by publish or perish and then gives its graduates no help with how to publish, thereby guaranteeing the perish."

    Ha! Can't argue with that. So let universities do what they do best–give people that break from the real world that allows them to dig deep and make worthwhile connections; and then fill the gap on the other end with the kinds of organizations, seminars and training that gives those who are ready for it the help they need to actually make a business of it.

    Or develop trade schools of compatible and lucrative side careers for writers.

  25. Dana is absolutely dead-on pointing out the failure of MFA programs to teach about the business of writing. Too many of us had to learn the game by trial and error.

    I suppose I would also point out that MFA's don't really teach people how to teach, either…

    And Debby is right, the university does provide a welcome break from the real world — I guess that's why I haven't left yet.

  26. I’d love to see a Midget of Fine Arts contest/circus wherein we would have a grammar Olympics, a query writing contest, a synopsis toss, a contract deciphering, and a justify-your-genre cross examination (e.g., why is this literary fiction instead of YA coming of age?). It’s all vital marketing stuff.

    Ideally this would be adjudicated by roughneck, published authors who have been in the trenches up to the tops of their XtraTuffs.

  27. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Admittedly, one of several reasons I'd consider an MFA is to teach at UA. But as Michael said, the degree is no guarantee, and it seems we have such a flood of current students/recent graduates that the chances grow slimmer by the day. Hmmmm.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top