Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Word on the MaFiA

A few of you have asked me over the past few months whether I have an opinion on MFA (Master of Fine Arts) programs in creative writing, and (surprise!) I have several. It's really kind of a mixed bag and my theories/advice as to who should apply for admission to such programs and who shouldn't vary greatly based on individual circumstances, but hopefully I can dispel a few rumors and offer some very general guidelines.

For those not in the know, the MFA is a one- to three-year terminal art degree (the majority take two years to complete). By "terminal" I mean that you're qualified to teach college with said degree (until a few years ago it was also the highest degree in the field, but the growing popularity of the creative writing Ph.D. has muddied the waters somewhat). The degree can generally only be earned in fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction (memoir), playwriting, or screenwriting, with the former two being the most common disciplines. Many Very Fancy Writers™ these days do, in fact, hold MFAs from some very prestigious programs (the University of Iowa, the University of Michigan, Columbia, Cornell, Brown, the University of Texas, &c).

So the main question: do you need an MFA to be taken seriously as a writer?

The very short (and, I hope, obvious) answer: no. No one is handicapped in this industry by not having an MFA, and the actual degree itself will probably do very little in the way of securing representation or book deals for most writers. The long(er) answer is as follows, in patented Bullet-O-Vision™:

· While the physical degree may not be tremendously useful in terms of getting you an agent and a six-figure advance, your writing will likely improve tremendously as a result of taking two or so years to do nothing but read, write, and workshop fiction. If your prose is currently promising but purple, the kind of immersive study found in an MFA program could polish your writing to Very Fancy Writer-level lustre (complete with British spelling!).

· Additionally, the network of professors, mentors, visiting agents, and classmates you'd be likely to form in an MFA program can be of huge help down the line. Your professor or classmate might refer you to his or her agent; a visiting agent might take special interest in your novel-in-progress; you may end up making friends with several future agents and editors. You get the idea.

· And now, the caveats: active participation in an MFA program will almost certainly improve your writing, but most (if not all) programs are geared toward literary fiction. If you're writing young adult/children's fiction or genre fiction of any kind, the degree won't really give you the opportunity to do substantial work in those areas.

· Mentioning your MFA in a query letter to an agent probably won't impress them, unless it's from a top-tier program like Iowa or Columbia (and possibly not even then). There is simply more supply than demand when it comes to MFA graduates, and to be honest, agents are interested in your novels, not your alma maters.

· While not all graduates of MFA programs go on to teach, the degree often includes a teaching element and assumes, to some extent, an interest in academia or an academic career. If you have no such aspirations, you might want to think twice before applying.

· Finally, even though the economy seems to be recovering somewhat from the recession, it's still a very tough employment market out there. If you've currently got a good job, it might not be the best time to give it up to pursue graduate studies. True, there are several part-time and low-residency MFA options out there, but those are often unfunded, meaning you would be paying the school for your degree and not the other way around.

So, basically, my view is: if you're doing literary work, you think you might want to teach college, and you don't already have a decent job, go for the MFA. Otherwise, you might want to think twice. No one needs a license to be an author, and if you're considering pursuing the degree purely for some perceived recognition or sense of legitimacy as a writer, you might want to find a new line of work.


  1. Thanks for this post. Though I've been a journalist for years (and went to j-school, which has many of the same pros and cons you described above), I'd never heard much about the MFA until I began writing a book and communicating with aspiring authors in the blogosphere. Sounds like it would be fun to GET this degree. But I think you've made an excellent point here that regardless of one's connections and training, what's on the page is what counts.

  2. >>If you're writing young adult/children's fiction or genre fiction of any kind, the degree won't really give you the opportunity to do substantial work in those areas.

    Unless you go to the specialty programs at Vermont College for the Fine Arts or Hamline University or Spaulding University. There may be a couple others.

  3. Thanks for reaffirming that I'm not incompetent, I'm just less learned.

    I'd like to point out that many successful writers DO have a degree in SOMETHING. It's just not always an MFA. Many of my fellow sci-fi authors have degrees in (surprise!) science or medicine, including myself. And that's only one example.

  4. I'm an MFA droput (one very expensive semester) and I've done more writing out of the program than in it. I don't think it's something that's worth getting into debt over.

    I quit my job to go to grad school, but when I quit grad school, I didn't go back to work. Instead I've been taking classes at a local writing studio (so much cheaper and I find the students more dedicated), reading my butt off (I get all my books from the library) and learning about the publishing industry via great blogs like this. I started and finished a novel last year and had two short stories published.

    I thought an MFA program was the answer to becoming "a real writer", but for me, it wasn't. I see the value of taking time to study the craft of writing, but you don't need to spend $30K to do that. Read everything, write your little fingers off, find good critique partners, and you can learn a ton!

  5. I have degrees in both creative writing and playwriting and let me tell you, the classes required to earn those specialties were utter rubbish. Sure my time at university taught me a lot, but not about writing. Those were the classes professors taught so they could just relax and let students "teach" themselves. I still want to return and get my MFA in playwriting some day only because I said I would. But I don't feel compelled to continue my education in hopes of improving my writing. Such classes I've taken in the past have been a waste of money.

  6. I would add that if you are lucky enough to get into a program that pays for you to attend - tuition waived and a stipend for any teaching you do - then, by all means, consider the opportunity to work within the context of this supportive environment that allows you two to three years to dedicate to artistic expression and honing your craft.

    If you have to pay for it ... think again. Do you really want to come out of a graduate degree saddled with debt that, in a field like writing, you may never recover from. That is, unless you are independently wealthy and, in that case, could you pay for mine, too? :)

  7. Great post, and thanks - I was wondering if in queries I should mention my BA in Creative Writing, but if even an MFA don't impress, well... I'll mention my time as a shepherd instead.

    Some words from Edward Abbey:

    I don’t think a college degree is necessary to become a good writer. I’m not even certain it’s an advantage. College probably won’t hurt you – if you don’t take it too seriously. But far more important, I believe, is broad general experience: living as active a life as possible, meeting all ranks of people, plenty of travel, trying your hand at various kinds of work, keeping your eyes, ears, and mind open, remembering what you observe, reading plenty of good books, and writing every day – simply writing.

  8. I already use British spelling, which colours my view somewhat.

  9. I considered an MFA in creative writing, then decided against it. Two years later, I've written and revised a novel, met with my critique group once or twice monthly, become active in the blogosphere, attended a few amazing conferences, and networked like crazy. It's my own personal MFA. When I get an agent, I'll consider it my diploma.

  10. Unless you plan a career teaching at the college level, the ONLY reason to do an MFA program is if you WANT to, and can afford to, immerse yourself in writing and craft for a few years.

    That's why low-residency programs are often the right route (and many of these do not have a teaching component at all), causing the least disruption in one's work and family life; that is, if you don't count sleep deprivation.

    A few low-res programs have tracks for YA fiction, popular fiction, and even - gasp - genre fiction. And don't forget nonfiction - there are a bunch of traditional and low-res programs for that too.

    I found that the low-res MFA I did in nonfiction was a great liteary/life experience, a way to dramatically reboot my writing efforts (at mid-life), over an intense 2-years, while also getting exposure to dedicated faculty mentors and other serious writers.

    That said, you do make many valid points.
    Ultimately, it should be a choice about craft over career.

  11. Good post. Thanks, not that I would even consider an MFA. But good to know I don't have to now.

  12. Some BA programs will let you take MFA classes if you've got high enough grades and enough credits. My alma mater allowed this so i took a few MFA classes with the MFA students and it was very helpful in my writing. Also for those classes, the teacher let us write whatever we wanted, so there were a few sci-fi novels in the bunch.

    The only reason i'd do an MFA is if i wanted to.

  13. Another thing that's worth bringing to the table is that you can take creative writing classes outside of an MFA program if you want some instruction.

    Jodi Piccoult had this to say about that:
    Do you have any advice for someone who wants to be a writer?

    DO IT. Many people have a novel inside them, but most don't bother to get it out. Writing is grunt work - you need to have self-motivation, perseverance, and faith… talent is the smallest part of it (one need only read some of the titles on the NYT Bestseller list to see that… :) If you don't believe in yourself, and you don't have the fortitude to make that dream happen, why should the hotshots in the publishing world take a chance on you? I don't believe that you need an MFA to be a writer, but I do think you need to take some good workshops. These are often offered through writer's groups or community colleges. You need to learn to write on demand, and to get critiqued without flinching. When someone can rip your work to shreds without it feeling as though your arm has been hacked off, you're ready to send your novel off to an agent.

  14. After graduating college and entering the working world, I became convinced that I needed to go for my MFA, and applied to a couple of the better programs, but I had two things working against me 1) I was more interested in genre fiction than literary fiction and 2) I was dirt poor. I ended up not getting into either of the programs, and years later I can say that I'm happy with the way things turned out. I'm not saying that going for my MFA would have been a mistake, but it would have led me down a different path, and I'm pretty happy with the path I'm on right now.

  15. Thank you very much for this information. I've been taking college classes off and on for several years. A class here and a class there. So, I'm reaching the point where I need to choose a discipline and wrap up my last few classes before I get my degree. I'm enrolled in a creative writing class at the moment and wondered what degrees in literary studies might be beneficial for the industry. This sheds light on one of those avenues. Thank you so much!

  16. Well said. My favorite school of writing is the Jack London school.

  17. Very nice post- helpful. I am into my third MFA class and agree with pretty much everything you have said. I just wish I could be done and already have my job as a college/university professor.

  18. Totally agree. I think an MFA program would have helped my writing take shape sooner, instead of figuring it all out on my own. But then, if I spent all that time in an MFA program, I might have not had the life experiences that got me to write the novel that I *did* sell.

  19. Great, great advice. I have an MFA in poetry from the University of Florida and would like to add something else about attending MFA programs: ONLY GO IF THEY'LL PAY FOR EVERYTHING. My attendance in the program cost me about $40,000 in lost income (over two years, and that's with the $15000 I was making during those years as a TA), but I was lucky that I exited with no more loan debt than I started with.

    It was a great experience for me, but in part because it helped me realize that I didn't want to write literary poetry but, instead, genre YA fiction. I made great writing relationships there (met all my current beta readers), but I had no idea the fighty relationship between the literary and the genre worlds, and it was sometimes a tough lesson to swallow.

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