To MFA, or Not

As someone who is wrapping up my MFA studies (January is coming fast!) I’ve had several discussions, recently, about the pros and cons of a formal study of creative writing.

First, let me say that I’ve been really happy with my decision to go after my Masters of Fine Arts via the low-residency program at Queens University of Charlotte. I’ve worked with some amazing writers (Jonathan Dee, Jenny Offill, Naeem Murr, Ann Cummins, Fred Leebron, and Ashley Warlick) and I’ve learned valuable things from each of them. I’ve also learned a lot from my fellow MFA candidates and I feel like my writing has really matured the last two years. It’s been a time of exponetial growth. I’m walking away with something like 160,000 words of fiction (split almost equally between a novel-in-progress and short stories) that have been workshopped, critiqued, knocked around, and come out better for it. I’m also walking away with the confidence to teach others many of the same things I’ve learned, and push forward into the next phase of my writing life.

But, it does seem to me that the question, “To MFA, or not?” is a valid one for many people. It is a big committment of time, resources, and energy. In order to get the most out of it, you have to be willing (and able) to put everything you have INTO the process.

So, when someone asks me, “Should I get an MFA in creative writing?” my first response is always, “What do you want to do with the degree?”
There are other ways to improve your writing, so I feel like the reasons to go the formal, MFA route have to be significant for the MFA to be the best option. Here’s the list I came up with:

  • You want to teach creative writing: This is probably the BEST reason to go after an MFA. In order to teach others, on the college level, you typically need a Master’s as your entry-level degree. Getting an MFA doesn’t guarantee you a job teaching, of course, but it is almost always a requirement of such a position.
  • Your current work field wants you to have an advanced degree: Some employers want their employees to have an advanced degree. They may pay for the classes (or part of them) or give work time for study. If someone else is paying for the degree, or otherwise making it easy for you to take classes, that’s great.
  • You are at a point in your life when the additional expense is not as important: Let’s face it, there are times in life when $30,000+ is more daunting than other times. Fresh out of college, $30,000 in additional schooling can seem much more scary than if you’ve worked for 20 years, pulling in six figures.

What it really comes down to is this: What do you get from an MFA program?

  • Time to work on your writing. (Motivation)
  • Focused learning. (Increased skill/Growth of your art)
  • Deadlines and expectations. (Motivation, Experience)
  • Work with other writers. (Community, Opportunity, Networking)
  • Experience taking and giving constructive, helpful criticism. (Feedback)
  • A degree. (Credentials, Opportunity)

There are other ways to achieve the first four (if you are dedicated and focused) but the fifth one is where an MFA program sets itself apart.

If anyone has questions about looking for an MFA program, finding the right program for you, or exploring other options, feel free to drop me a line in the comments section, below. I love chatting about the program at Queens, answering questions about the process, and generally chatting about writing.
Have a good week everyone!


P.S. For other MFA-related posts on my blog, you can check out the MFA Highlights Page.


80 thoughts on “To MFA, or Not

    • Thanks for the comment. Thankfully, education — either a formal, MFA program, or a systematic, self-study approach — isn’t a chance at some random benefit. Unlike the lottery, the more you put into the education, the more you get out. πŸ™‚

    • Eric, have you written any posts on how to achieve the first 4 via the systematic, self study approach? “First four” referring to:

      1. Time to work on your writing. (Motivation)
      2. Focused learning. (Increased skill/Growth of your art)
      3. Deadlines and expectations. (Motivation, Experience)
      4. Work with other writers. (Community, Opportunity, Networking)?

      Also, do you have any recommendations on how to get great feedback if you aren’t in an MFA program?

      Thanks for the advice and for your post.

      • Jared, That’s a great question. And the answer is, I have written a little about some of the topics, and will focus more on it in the coming year. (There are several posts about scheduling and time management for writers, if you look for them…look at some of the “craft” discussions at this link for a starter.) One of the directions I’m planning to take my blog next year is in how to address these various issues…getting great feedback is a matter of finding some folks (or, even one mentor/editor/teacher) who can offer you even-handed, knowledgable, and encouraging responses, based on a deeper knowledge of the craft. There’s some trial and error involved. There are plenty of people out there who will tear you down, without thought to how they might actually benefit you. There are good editors and editorial services out there. There are folks, like me, who would be willing to take you on as a client and offer what I consider a “mentoring writer” relationship…kind of a cross between an editor and a MFA instructor…offering not just responses to the work, but structuring some educational aspects into the dialogue, additional readings, the “hows and whys” of the craft, etc. You can buy a lot of one-on-one time for $30,000.

        Now, don’t get me wrong, one of the great things about most MFA programs is all this leg work is done for you. It’s part of why you pay a premium. But there ARE other options.

        Hope that helps, as a starter, anyway… πŸ™‚

  1. Eric:

    My number one reward was my new group of talented and unqiue peers and friends. Much needed at this stage in my life and career.

    Queens was the best random decision I’ve made in a very long time. Heh.


    • The community aspect of a quality program is PHENOMENAL, for sure. Queens was my first choice, and I’m very glad I “pulled the trigger”.

      Thanks for stopping by, David.

  2. You could not have written this article at a better time. I’m a recent college graduate who is now working in the professional work force and am seriously considering applying for an MFA program in creative writing. Your article points out some good reasons to get an MFA (or not if that’s the case). My main point of concern is that I don’t necessarily want to teach creative writing. Rather I want to work in the publishing/editing world (and write as well). I feel an MFA would allow me to focus on the craft of writing with a community of writers, give and receive constructive feedback, and gain credentials that could be helpful further into my career.

    What advice do you have for people like myself who want to pursue an MFA but don’t want to be pigeon-holed into teaching?

    • Sarah, always be leery of free advice. πŸ™‚

      If I were you, I would contact a handful of people who are doing what you want to do (working in publishing in various capacities) and find out: 1) Do those folks have a graduate level degree? 2) If they do, was it a requirement, or was it just a good “extra” to have on the resume? and, 3) If they DON’T have an advanced degree, do they think it would have helped them.

      Obviously, with your sentence above (“I feel an MFA would…”) you have a pretty good grasp of what an MFA can offer. My only real “thought point” is that most of those things can be purchased (for lack of a better word) in other ways. That doesn’t mean an MFA isn’t the right choice. I’m just advocating folks making a fully aware choice. πŸ™‚

      Hope that makes sense. Thanks for stopping by!

    • Hi Sarah,

      I work as an editor (albeit for a trade publication, which I’m guessing isn’t the exact area you’re interested in) and I have to say, quite honestly, that an MFA would have almost zero bearing on my job and/or ability to get another job. Well, maybe it would carry some weight to have an advanced degree in a writing-related field, but my sense overall is that in the professional world, an MFA in writing is not going to mean much of anything.

      I think the main reason to get an MFA (and keep in mind that this is coming from someone who does not have one!) is to really focus on your work and grow as a writer. Let’s face it, even if you *did* want to teach, the possibility of landing a solid teaching job in academia in this climate isn’t too encouraging.

      So I think for you, maybe you should pursue the MFA now, and once you’re done, focus on starting your professional career — but view the MFA as a separate journey not too closely related to your professional one. If that makes sense. If you get attend a fully funded program, you hopefully won’t have to bear much of a financial strain for this experience, either.

    • Hi Sarah,

      I wouldn’t recommend an MFA for the publishing editing world. There are several MA in English programs with History of Textual Technologies, or specializations in Publishing and Editing for that. An MFA is about creative writing and taking literature classes, quite a bit different. Another MA that would be handy would be an MA in Rhetoric and Composition.
      That being said, I think any of these are just “icing” on the cake of your resume, they are certainly not needed and actual 1 year work experience is probably equal to 1 year of school experience. Most people doing the MA’s have an idea of feeling the grounds out about a possible PhD…and can either leave there, or stop.
      Another caveat, if you could get into a funded program like that and don’t have anything else going on, I say go for it. I don’t think I would spend money on it beyond the BA however (that is if you already have a BA in English)
      I am much like you and work in the publishing/editing/quasi tech world now that everything is online. I have absolutely *no* interest in teaching and could certainly have done an MFA or PhD but had to ask myself, was I just postponing the inevitable? The answer for me was yes, so I went into the workforce.

  3. Thank you so much for the clarity. I graduated with a BA in Writing, and my dream is to write anywhere and in anything where I can just share my ideas with the world. I am currently looking for schools and your article is just the thing I needed during this stressful time, I think I know that this is the path for me.
    Also, I wanted to ask you, since I am applying, is there any preference of writing they look for in the fiction applications. I mean, I focus on literary writing, but I am such a huge sci fi/comic/fantasy type fan, reader, and writer, I was wondering if a submission with those themes would be somewhat frowned upon and against my favor?

    I appreciate your time,

    – Stephen

    • Thanks for stopping by! This has been a very popular post, today. A lot of folks thinking about “next steps” and things.

      As with all comments that start with “generally speaking”, you can take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt.

      Generally speaking, most fiction programs are literary in nature, though there are programs that seek out the fiction genre (sic-fi, fantasy, etc) writer. I thought Queens had a prohibition against strictly genre writers, but I don’t see that any more. There are plenty of folks who bend the literary into other forms, but there aren’t classes at Queens like ROMANCE 101 or HOW TO PLOT A SCI-FI TRILOGY. Which, I think, brings me to my point: If you want to focus on a specific area, you’ll want faculty that can best assist you in that area. A more-literary faculty will help you with your writing of your space trilogy, but only so much, right? So, look at the faculty of any given program, and say, “Would I like to write the sort of things they write.” Not in a “You really need to copy them” sort of way, but in a “What will I gain from working with X?” As for your submission, I think it really depends on the program. If you write a space comedy and there aren’t any Douglas Adams types on faculty…well…where’s the fit? So, if you are a Sci-Fi writer who’s looking to improve their skills with characters, you might look at different programs than if you are a literary fiction writer who incorporates elements of the more “popular” genres.

      Does that make sense as an answer? Also, don’t hesitate to have a conversation with the program directors (or the support staff) and ask that sort of question. The programs you apply to should be receptive to your questions and responsive to your needs. That’s the sort of place you want to study.

      Finally, if you’re doing screen writing, I think you can bend the rules even more… πŸ™‚

  4. Thanks for this post. I’m a writer without an MFA who has managed to find a way on my own. I’m disciplined about writing on a schedule, even around a demanding day job as an editor; I’m involved in writing groups; I have some trusted writing buddies and first readers I meet with regularly; and I even have a book coming out soon from a small press. So I know I have it pretty good, but the MFA is still in the back of my mind. I think it would be a privilege — but also, in some ways in the “real world,” a sacrifice — to spend 2-3 years studying writing exclusively.

    I wrote a post about my own MFA thoughts here: Why the MFA Discussion Makes Me Vaguely Nervous

    • Finding your own way is certainly one way to do it. I think I’ll post some thoughts on that in a future blog post.

      Thanks, Laura, for the comment, and for weighing in on Sarah’s earlier question.

  5. Sarah,
    I concur with Laura. I’ve worked for several major NYC publishing houses for nearly 20 years. Based on my experience I think having an MFA or MA will provide little or no help in getting a job in the mainstream book publishing industry. Even an MA in book publishing programs won’t help much, unless as part of your study you get placed as an intern. We’ve hired several people in my department who began as interns. And I’ve never heard of anyone with an MA in publishing being hired for anything above an entry level job–the same level as someone with a BA starts at.

    If you go for an MFA do it because you want to improve your writing. And don’t go deep into debt for it.

    And don’t think I’m an MFA program basher. I’m enrolled in one now myself. And most of it will be paid for by my company’s tuition reimbursement program.Good luck.


  6. I am currently researching MFA programs and found this post. I’m approaching my quarter-life crisis, and know that I want to teach creative writing. I am a high school tutor during the day and just had a discussion about this with a sub in one of my classes. She thinks it’s the right path for me, thinks that I’m the type that belongs in a university, and I agree. Teaching has always been my goal, but recently I’ve been considering getting a credential. But feel that either way, the job market isn’t great, and at least with the MFA, I can work on my writing, and when I do finish, I can possibly land a job doing something I absolutely love, or at the least put out some awesome work. I don’t want to go into a whole lot more debt, but know that at this point, the money is going to have to come from somewhere. So I’m looking for programs that will help in the funding department. If you could give me any advice that you think would help someone like me, please…type away.

    • There are a couple of fully-funded programs. Michner program in Texas comes to mind. Seems like there are maybe two or three others. A lot of the full-residency programs have assistantship opportunities. There were maybe one or two low-res programs that offer some sort of internship-type assistance opportunity to offset some small amount of the cost, when I was looking. That was two (plus) years ago, though, so things have likely changed. I don’t know for the better, or for worse, honestly.

      Those programs are extremely competitive. I mean, a program like Queens (low-res, top-tier) gets several hundred applications every semester, lets in like 20 new students? I have to imagine the fully-funded programs are slammed at twice or three-times that rate. Not to discourage you, for sure. But, you should also go into the process with a realistic understanding. It is competitive to get in. Which is a good thing.

      I like that you are focused on doing something you love. That takes courage and determination to follow through, and support of lots of folks around you. Build a good team that will encourage and support you, and take on the world!


    • Sunnylocks,

      Currently, I am deeply engrossed in researching fully-funded MFA programs. My number one reason to obtain my MFA degree is to take the time I need to polish the novel I am working on and, in general, become a better writer. That being said, MFA is not like graduating from Pharmacy School–we are not guaranteed a high five-figure to six-figure income. So, like you, I refuse to bury myself in more debt to obtain this degree.

      Eric is absolutely right though–the programs are extremely competitive. The most important things, by far, is your writing sample. People do get in though (!).

      Check out Poets & Writers online. Every year, they publish a very comprehensive list of the top 50 full-residency MFA programs. A great majority of these programs provide full funding through a combination of fellowships, teaching assistantships or graduate research assistantships. (Michner in TX is definitely one of them). This list also provides other info like teaching course load, info about cost of living, whether the GRE is required to apply and the app fee. It is a great places to start.

      Here are some links:

      Top Fifty MFA Programs:

      25 Honorable Mentions (fewer are fully funded, most are partially or mostly funded):

      They also have a database where you can research programs by state:

      Allow this to be a start. I highly encourage researching each program in which you are interested and familiarizing yourself with the faculty. A good majority of the programs’ websites are very helpful and highly informative.

      Poets & Writers also puts out a list of the Top 10 Low-Residency MFA Programs:

      (Queens is #7, Eric!)

      And here is the article of how the rankings are determined:

      Great advice about surrounding yourself with good people–that’s probably the most important thing next to your own dedication.

      Hope this helps. Happy MFA Research-ing!

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  8. Thank you for this post, Eric. It helps to clarify some of my thoughts about pursuing an MFA. I’ve been researching programs, making lists of pros/cons of each one. I’ve narrowed it down to a half-dozen or so, with Queens near the top of the list. I like the program’s focus on craft and the small student workshops. I’d be interested to hear more details about the program’s requirements. Could you email me?

    Your list gives me pause, though. I have an MA and am not looking to teach anymore, and I can get community, feedback, and motivation in other ways — local writing groups, online courses, writing retreats. And I wonder if my interest in an MFA is solely based on the legitimacy it might lend to my daily writing life. The cost is not an issue, either. The biggest issue is time. I have a busy schedule and am not sure if I can dedicate 25 hours for school.

    My plan this year is to take a few online courses and join a local group. So far, I’m already finding it tricky to make time, so I might have just answered my own question!


    • Hey, Glenn. Thanks for the comment.

      I’ve blogged a few times about “finding time” and “making time”. Writing does require consistent dedication. It may only be a few hours a week, but then, especially then, those few hours can’t be neglected…I don’t know that an MFA will FORCE you to do the work. What will, possibly, happen is you’ll turn in lesser and lesser quality work as you find yourself not putting the hours in you need to. Sure, it happens to all of us from time to time, but I always wanted to get the most out of my program. I wanted to put out work to my small group that would be worth their time to read and critique. In a critique group or an MFA, sending out a story to be critiqued just because there’s a deadline and you haven’t put good work into the piece is really a slap in the face to readers, in addition to short-changing yourself.

      MFA is a great tool. It’s not a magic wand that suddenly makes the hurdles (either the self-imposed ones, or the legit ones) go away.

      If you have other questions, my email is listed in the “Contact Me” link at the top of every page on the blog.

  9. Hey, thanks for the post. There are a couple of things I wanted to know, I’d be .

    The MFA seems to be taking writers who are already very good, and making them better through their workshops. Does an MFA teach the fundamentals of great writing at all? I ask this because I am a guy with absolutely no experience of writing, but I am a voracious reader, and I am a thoughtful person in general. I would love to write, but I have never tried it before, and my education is in an unrelated field. Is MFA for me at all?

    • I know we’ve had some folks in the program who haven’t had MUCH formal training in the basic craft of writing prior to entering the program, but I do feel (personally) that the MFA works best if you have a baseline knowledge of key elements (plot, character, pacing, etc) and you’ve written quite a bit on your own.

      What does the research say? Something like: it takes one thousand hours of doing something before you become really good at it (guitar playing, hitting a baseball, etc). I think that’s true for writers. You have to actually DO the work. So, in my way of thinking, the closer you are to having “put your thousand hours in” when you start an MFA, the more you get out of it. For the cost, I’d want to get every last drop of knowledge and experience I can from a master’s program. I don’t mean you need a BA in writing. I did my undergraduate work in Education, but I took, basically, four fiction writing courses as electives, and I kept writing in the (many) years between undergrad and grad school. I would also look at it from the perspective of getting some experience in the area before committing 2.5 years and $30,000+ to a process.

      One option I think you have is to find some fiction writing classes at a local college or hookup with someone online who can teach you and work with you to get a baseline knowledge and then go from there. MFA might be a good idea for you, or you may find that other ways to accomplish your goals.

      Hope that helps!

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  11. Pingback: To MFA or not to MFA, that’s the question

  12. I’m working on my MFA in Creative Writing for Stage and Screen at Queens University in Charlotte.

    I decided to work on my MFA for numerous reasons:

    1. While I have always been able to be motivated and find time to write, I had just gone through a difficult personal time and thought this would be a great way to kick-start myself back into a good groove.

    2. I had never formally studied playwrighting – or theatre in general for that matter. I found myself surrounded by people who always seemed to know so much more about plays, writers, styles etc. than I did. And it seemed like a really daunting task to try to just sit down and read scripts. Which ones? How to muddle through scripts I don’t understand?

    3. I have been involved in writer’s groups which I basically outgrew. I wanted to work with people who were growing with me.

    4. My husband told me he’d never yet heard someone regret getting a masters.

    What I’m getting from my MFA:

    1. Huge, I mean HUGE, changes in my writing, in my writing process, in my approach to my writing, in my choice of subject matter.

    2. A new way to look at the technical aspects of theatre.

    3. Two solid scripts (and 3/4 of another) in 2 years.

    4. The ability to breakdown scripts. To comment intelligibly. To understand and appreciate scripts that were so complicated they were utterly incomprehensible to me before. (Anyone read The Skriker recently?)

    5. An understanding of screenwriting. Not something I was remotely interested in 2 years ago . . .

    6. A cadre of amazing, fun, smart people who challenge me and who will grow with me. And not just playwrights/screenwriters – poets, short story writers, writers of memoirs and more. People not in my genre, people with whom I shared lunch, a drink, or a seat on the shuttle bus. Writers who will read my work and give me intelligent, constructive comments. Writers who trust me with their work.

    7. Mentors.

    Do I need a MFA for my future plans? Not really. Doesn’t mean I won’t find a need for it later. But I can’t for the life of me figure out how else I could have learned so much about playwrighting/screenwriting (and three other genres to boot) without a program this structured.

    Turns out my husband was right – I haven’t yet met one person who regretted their decision. I have, however, heard many folks lament graduating and the loss of deadlines, creative stimuli and accountability.

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  14. Like many others here, I’m in the middle of my last year of undergrad, and I am currently trying to compile a list of graduate programs to apply to. I’m a writer of poetry, and enjoy it immensely. I have won various scholarships at my university for my poetry writing; and I participate in readings, workshops with visiting poets, campus literary magazines, and copy editing. I’ve taught poetry to middle school and high school kids and ultimately, I want to teach writing at the college level. I’m also an avid reader and would not be opposed to teaching literature courses at some point, but my first passion is poetry.

    I’m just most concerned with making the right decision: MA or MFA? I believe I would benefit from the exercise and work shopping of an MFA, but I have heard it is easier to find a job with an MA. To your knowledge, is this true? I’m 22 and like most, I am quite concerned with being employable at the completion of my graduate degree; I know MFA’s often equip graduates with the means for successful publication records…but I’m just hoping, first and foremost, (besides improving my craft, of course) for a job. Publication would certainly be a welcomed addition!

    Any advice would be very much appreciated. Thank you for the information you’ve given thus far. It’s helping ease the stress of the process.

    • I’m not sure what to tell you regarding MA vs MFA. When I decided to go back, I wanted the writing instruction, the writing community, the writing accountability. MFA was my only consideration, so I don’t have much to offer.

      In either case, no college degree guarantees employment. I went into the MFA process knowing that while an advanced degree is a requirement for teaching, it is certainly no guarantee. I’m actively making plans to use my degree outside the traditional “graduate and teach at a university” model, and, like most writers these days, I’m considering options outside the “graduate and publish a book with a traditional book publisher” model. Would I like to teach at the college level? Yes. Would I like a traditional publishing deal? Yes. But the reality of the world makes either of those things unlikely, so I’m preparing NOW to find my own way.

      Best of luck. Hopefully another reader will have some input for your MA vs MFA question.

  15. Thanks for your post. I’m trying to figure out whether I’m enough of a Writer to properly approach an MFA yet– how much had you written before getting started? At the moment I’m teaching high school full time through a Teach for America-style program, and have zero energy to write at the end of the day, and barely enough to fantasize about what I might do when I finish teaching. I haven’t written a lick since college, which was only really 6 months ago.

    Whether or not I want to make writing my Thing isn’t to tough a question, but whether I’ve written enough to get into it full time is. Any advice?

    • I wrote a bit in high school (on my own), then took two fiction writing workshops (semester-long) and a six-credit fiction writing independent study during my undergrad years. I wrote lots of non-fiction in the following years (say, ’96-’06), but the fiction was spotty. I had one novel that I kept playing with, but never could get to that “next level”. (I realize, now, that I was improving on my own, but without feedback, I was improving slowly.) I tried NaNoWritMo a couple times, to jump start my writing. (I got about 25,000 words into my Novel in a Month.) Only worked marginally. In those years, my production was very uneven.

      About two years prior to applying to Queens (2007 or so?), I started a NEW novel (which drove my wife INSANE) and I was cranking out big chunks of that story…it was disorganized and rough, but there was a LOT of it and it had substance. I started writing short stories, again, around the time I decided to apply. (Actually, I started writing shot stories first…three of them, I realized, were centered on the same character, who became the center of my new novel.) So, my “catalog” of my writing when I applied? A half dozen high school-era stories, about 10 short stories from college, 1/2 of a completed novel, another novel outlined and started, a third novel in a hundred pieces that made up almost 2/3 of a future book, and five or six short stories.

      As for the question of if you’ve written enough…theoretically, how much you write doesn’t matter, though the more I learn, the more I think the 1,000 hour rule applies to artists the same way it does to others. (i.e., you have to practice something for 1,000 before you excel at it and can reach full potential.) But, if you’ve looked into an MFA at all, you know the programs are crazy competitive. What did the article I post this week say? 1,200 applicants for 25 spots in Iowa, or something? I think the ratio at Queens is something like 300 to 400 applicants for the 20 spots per semester. *shrug*

      If you have a reading group you trust to give you honest feedback, that can help you know if your work is up to snuff. If you had an undergrad fiction instructor you bonded with, perhaps he/she could help you figure out if you are on that pre-MFA level…or, some current MFA candidates or recent grads could probably say to you, “Here’s what I see. These areas are strengths, these are weaknesses. You’re about where most first-year MFAer’s are.” Or, not. There are writers who will work with you, for a fee, to get a few more basics under your belt, if you don’t have a friend/relative/former teacher you can ask to help for free. Obviously, you want someone who knows the craft and can offer you sound critique, without breaking your spirit, but without giving you undue praise, as well.

      That’s about the best advice I can offer, for now, not knowing the path you’ve taken regarding writing. Hope that helps!

      Feel free to post follow up questions or comments. Thanks for reading!

      • Nothing like replying to my own comment…but…the 1,000 hour rule should have read 10,000 hours…so, if you were writing full-time…about five years. Have I put in 10,000 hours of fiction writing/editing/learning…probably getting close…but I don’t know that you have to be to THAT point prior to going for an MFA (obviously, I wasn’t)…but you should be somewhere headed down that road to be competitive with the other applicants…

        Sorry for the typo, above. Hope that helps.

    • As far as I know, there are two options:

      Full Residency MFA – The traditional model, you live on or near the campus where you are studying, your classes meet weekly, you may have teaching assistanceships opportunities, you follow the University’s academic schedule, etc.

      Low-Residency MFA – The modified model, where you live where ever you live, you travel to the campus/program for 7-10 day “residency weeks” at the start of each semester (some programs, like Queens, actually have FIVE residencies, not just four). You do your semester readings prior to residency and have lecture discussions about them during the on-campus week. You do writing workshops both on campus, and then via distance learning.

      I don’t know if the Full Residency programs allow you to go “part time”. Every program is a little different, so the best thing to do is to talk to/email the program(s) you are considering.


  16. Eric,

    Thank you for your thoughtful and informative post. I’m currently a high school English teacher looking to move on to the post-secondary level and pursue publishing (scary!) via the MFA route. Any advice on what to submit for my application essays? I need to come up with a fiction sample as well as a critical writing sample. It’s been about 5 years since I graduated from college and while I’ve matured as a reader and writer I haven’t been doing a lot of non-academic writing, or reading much critical theory. Any ideas what schools look for in these samples? Or who I could ask for more info?

    Thanks for your help.


    • For the fiction sample, what Fred Leebron told me he was looking for was someone with a good sense of character, a solid (though not flawless, obviously) gasp of story telling and basic fiction concepts, and areas where working with the Queens faculty would improve and expand my writing.

      We didn’t have to have a critical essay in the application process, but an essay about our art and where we were, where we hope to be after the MFA.

      Everything I’ve read from directors seems to point to the fiction sample being the most important piece, and the supplemental essays being a sort of “let’s see if they can follow directions and give us the basic information we ask for.” I’m sure there are some exceptions to that rule, but the fiction sample is important. If you have someone you look to for fiction critique (not just, “I like it” or “I don’t like it” replies) you definitely want to work with that person to tighten up your fiction sample, make it smooth and free of obvious errors, maybe bump up the complexity a bit, etc.

      As for the critical theory essay…I’m not sure who to ask, other than the program staff where you are applying. Email and ask if they have a sample critical essay available, or if they have any more guidelines for it (if they haven’t published those for you already). Enter into a dialog with the program secretary (most have a person or two who handles day-to-day administrative duties) and hopefully you’ll get a feel for what criteria they are looking for.

      Hope that helps.

  17. Don’t do it unless (a) you’re rich; or (b) they pay you and you can afford to live on the $15K/yr or whatever.

    I’ve got an MFA from Iowa; they paid me to come. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise, and I had no idea how smart that was at the time. I see people with snowballing grad-school debt all over.

    Was it good for me? Yeah, in a manner of speaking. They treated me unusually well, and I learned a lot, largely because I’d never taken writing or workshop classes before. Hadn’t been an English major. It’s also been good for getting a few short-lived jobs, always for the wrong reasons. But unless you’re exceptionally talented — much more talented than the average Iowa Workshopper — and disciplined, this is not a ticket to professorland. It’s a ticket to whatever you were doing before.

    I make a living as a writer, but that’s because I get child support and studied biochemistry, not because I have an Iowa MFA. Do not go into this expecting money will come from the MFA. And whoever said that education always pays: Bullshit. It most certainly does not. Education plus timing plus friends plus the right sets of interests plus good manners: yes, that pays. Education goes whistling every day.

    Life in this country’s going to get harder, not easier. Your debt will not magically disappear; it’ll accrue, and it’ll be meaningful, particularly when you want to have children and treat them nicely, or when you notice, suddenly, in your 40s, that old age and death really do happen and that one day soon it’ll be your turn. And that Frost was right when he said boughten friendship at your side was a hell of a lot better than none. Do not spend money on an impractical degree. Support yourself, and write anyway, if you must.

  18. You’re welcome. I’ll also point out that the world of cw is a tiny, airless little place. I know who Fred is because he was my old Workshop boyfriend’s undergrad teacher back when he was here, eons ago. Otherwise? Never heard of him. Nobody’s ever heard of 99.997% of the cw people except other AWP-goers and grants board occupants. Even Frank Conroy — I had him mixed up with Pat Conroy, didn’t know the difference till I got here. Jim McPherson, the Disney people mixed him up with the more eminent Jim McPherson, the Civil War historian. Marilynne’s got some traction because of her God thing, but otherwise, no, I had to be told to go read her. (Well worth it, too, but her main Housekeeping readership seemed to me to be captive college-student readers.) And I’d spent years working in bookstores, grew up in libraries, ditched school to read novels.

    The reason nobody’s heard of most of these people is that they aren’t very good. Decades ago each of them had a hot, promising book, a prizewinner in the cw circles and maybe in the big reviews. Since then…well, it’s not exactly Malamud and Mailer territory. They’re polite. Nice, polite, lapidary writers, amenable to fashion. Lots of yearning white-boy stuff, tales of anorectic desperation & an intellectualized 19th century, etc. Lovely prose. They aren’t bad writers at all; in fact they’re rather good and capable of the powerful passage now and then. But they aren’t any hot shit, either.

    That doesn’t mean they’re bad teachers. You can be a fourth-rate literary novelist and a very good teacher. But if you’re going to be silly enough to spend money on this, I think it’s important to understand the world you’re walking into and to understand what’s not important. Much of what you’ll be asked to do in MFAland is not for your benefit, but to justify the continued existence of the writers’ salary lines to the scholars who own the depts and colleges in which the MFA programs are housed. As far as actual writing goes, I see no earthly reason why any kind of writer should waste time writing some earnest critical essay on his or her supposed future. But you can bet the chair knows why.

    The nice thing about a good MFA program is that you might meet a few people whose talent and ear you respect, and you might get to be friends. And 20 years, 30 years later you might still be talking & reading each other. There’s also the time the program buys you, assuming they’re paying you. But you don’t have to pay money to make smart and talented friends.

    I hear a lot of people say they want to go to an MFA program so that someone else will make them write. This strikes me as the wrongest idea possible. If you have to pay someone to make you write, then what you have is a hobby you’re not really all that interested in; you just like the idea of it. Are you going to spend $30K on a two years of hobby someone has to make you carry on? Stop wasting your time: find the thing you actually want to do. And if there isn’t anything you actually want to do, then at least make some money, because it’s guaranteed you’ll want it later.

    I got a million of ’em. Bottom line: Do you want to write, or do you want to get an MFA? They’re two different things.

    • Again, thanks for your perspective.

      While I don’t think an MFA is right for everyone, I would say that I disagree with several of the points you bring up, but there’s nothing wrong with folks who are considering the degree hearing a (much) more pessimistic viewpoint.

  19. Pingback: What an MFA WON’T Get You « Stories I Read, Stories I Tell

  20. I am currently working on my material in preparation for an MFA, taking a few other classes so I can get recommendations and get into a fully funded or at least mostly funded program. I just turned 30 and still can not think of anything better to do with myself. I would also like to teach eventually as part of my income/health care etc. I am getting older and it is probably time to start thinking about these things. Now, I have already had a career in IT, but it isn’t satisfying whatsoever. Also, I am not interested in being a scholar per se, I am interested in English, Philosophy, History and Humanities in general but the thought of being a scholar just seems like another tedious job which is NOT good for me. So, I do have one. I also wanted the graduate degree to set me apart no matter what I did. Long term I probably can’t continue to freelance and support myself and a family.

  21. Hey Eric,

    Thanks for this post. I am currently fresh out of undergrad and was wondering whether a MFA was the right choice for me. I am completely unsure on what I want to do with my life, but i do enjoy writing. However, I know that it is a lot of money and I also know that it doesn’t gaurantee a job. I guess I am sort of looking to go back to school to escape being in the real world and working. Having said that, do you think it would be a healthy and wise decision for me to consider a MFA? I would really appreciate if you could shed some light on my situation and give me your opinion! Thank you!

    • Well, I’d have to say that I’m rarely in favor of any decision made to “escape being in the real world and working.” Writing is a lot of work. Maintaining a creative rhythm takes a lot of “real world” kinds of effort, in my experience. If you do go the MFA route (now, or somewhere down the line) you’ll want to get as much out of it as you can, and that requires a real work ethic. Granted, it’s an area that you “like”, but I don’t know how “healthy and wise” it is to just jump in because you aren’t sure what else to do.

      I had a fiction instructor in my undergrad years who said to me, “There is a time for writing, and a time for living, so you’ll have experiences to write from…your life and the lives of people you know or will meet.” I took 15 years of living in between my undergrad degree and entering the MFA…lived in four different states and had half a dozen jobs…etc.

      It is great that you “enjoy” writing. There are other ways to pursue a writing life, prior to (or instead of) going the MFA route. The true writer finds that she can’t NOT write…she works it into even the most difficult schedule, etc. The MFA is a great way to move your craft forward, but it isn’t the only way.

      Hope that helps. Feel free to drop me a line if you want to chat more about it.


  22. Pingback: My Year In Review « Stories I Read, Stories I Tell

  23. Eric,

    Thanks for this blog post. Would appreciate your advice as I find myself at a crossroads in life and am a bit torn on how best to proceed. The issue is that I started in the liberal arts world (BA Classics) but ended up in business (out of necessity). Strangely enough, I found the marketplace a lot of fun. Now, I want to write stories about business (both from a fiction and nonfiction perspective) but am not sure how to gain that level of expertise.

    One of the complications is that, in getting my MBA – again, out of necessity – my writing skills took a nose dive. So I have a lot of ground to make up. Also, I’m older (41), so I’m not sure how well I will be received in a pure writing program. I think, however, that there is a real need for clever and creative business writers and I would like to take a stab at it. So, in your opinion, Is the MFA a good route to go? Or is being a good business writer the ultimate fool’s pursuit?

    Mike H.

    • Sorry for the slow response…

      I don’t think age has any real bearing on the decision. One of the women graduating with me is 70-something. There have been plenty or 50 & 60 year old, second life folks in this program and I’m sure that’s true in others. It is more difficult, I think, to come straight into an MFA out of undergrad.

      To me, the bigger issue is what you want to actually do…when you are talking about business writing, I’m not fully sure of what you are referring to…within an organization, on behalf of an organization, or reporting/essays about business? Is there some who is writing something similar to what you envision yourself writing, so that I can have some context, in order to give the best response possible?

  24. Ten years ago, I decided I wanted to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing and a PhD in Literature. I was finishing up my BA, married, and had my first child. The career services guy was adamant that if you CAN write, write. If not, going to school for it won’t fix it.

    It had taken me a long time to finish my BA, so I listened to him & graduated right after 9/11. There were no jobs, & all of my experience was in education–tutoring, etc. I needed either an MA in English or a teaching cert. I was pregnant with my 2nd child, so I completed an MA in Education with teacher cert. At the time, that meant I’d never be unemployed again (ala Scarlett O’Hara).

    By the time I was 25, I’d finished both degrees, had 2 children, and had been teaching/tutoring high school/college for nearly ten years. I’d also finished my first book.

    It’s been almost ten more years, I have more kids, teaching has tanked with the economy, and I’ve written several more books along with magazine articles, poetry, etc. I got my first book contract last year.

    I want to go back for my MFA, but it seems silly. After all, I know how to write. I make time to write. I submit my writing to publishers and agents with enough positive feedback for forward movement. And I know better than to think there are a lot of teaching jobs waiting for MFA grads.

    So besides the fact that I live close enough to U of CO to attend without a major move/life upheaval, is there really any good reason to pursue the MFA? Was the career services guy really right, & I should skip the degree & just keep writing?

    The worst part? I’ve missed the admissions deadline for this year by 10 days.

    • Sorry for the slow response…

      When you say you “want” to go back for your MFA but it might be “silly”…can you explain to me a little bit about why you are feeling that “want?”

      • Partly…to be more “in” that world, meet other writers, profs, etc. All the other answers I can think of…more time to write, for ex, I realize…won’t change that much. But I guess it would put more of a…*consistent* priority on my writing. And help to focus it…right now my time is split between practical writing and the stuff I really want to do. The practical writing brings in some money (sometimes) & is starkly nonfiction. The fiction is often the last thing I have time to get to.

        I don’t know–I feel like I’m overanalyzing. The why behind the wanting seems obvious–I want to write. But then why the degree? Because it’s fun to write, it’s fun to write for an audience, it’s fun to write in a variety of styles (different assignments). Because it’s easier to network there. Because reading other aspiring writers’ work is humbling sometimes; encouraging other times.

      • Those are some good reasons, but as I said in my post, there are other alternatives, too. The only reason I’m pressing you on it is that you seem to be of “two minds”…you like the idea of a formal program but you also think it’s a little, in your own words, “silly.” When there’s so much push and pull within what you are saying, I don’t necessarily think you’ve “overanalyzed” anything.

      • Oh, when I say it’s silly–that’s just because life has happened since college, you know? I’ve got 5 kids. I’m homeschooling them. I guess I mean it would LOOK really silly & impractical. FOR ME. Not for everyone.

    • Suggestions about money…if money is an issue and you want the MFA because without it, there isn’t an avenue into teaching writing, then you really have to either find a full-tuition program or find a program where you can TA to offset costs. To my knowledge there aren’t any grants or awards that are readily available.

  25. Eric,
    Number one…thank you for this article. Gathering information from peers is much more beneficial than the automated secretaries at big Universities screening my calls. Here is my dilemma. I have a B.A. in English with a C.W. concentration. I’m 24 and lucky enough to have both a job with my dad’s trucking company, and a job writing sports articles for my local newspaper. Like most, I’ve had the MFA in the back of my mind. I am just very skeptical of bowing out of my current writing job to go back to school, so I’m trying to weigh school options that will allow me to stay on with the paper. Currently, those options are an MFA, or MA in English Lit at my state university, and a MA in Writing at another less prestigious University. Both of them are close enough to my home that I can keep my jobs.My main question for you is about the validity of a MA in writing vs. MFA’s or MA’s in English Lit. Would I be a lesser qualified candidate for an entry level teaching job with a Writing Masters compared to an English Lit MA? The way I see it, I can read the books. I’m more interested in learning “New” skills than a refining of the education I’ve already purchased once. I would like to teach, but that is not necessarily my number one ambition. I would also like to be knowledgeable about publishing and editing, and building upon the experience I am gaining with the newspaper. In my heart, I feel like a Masters in Writing is the next logical step for me, but I am concerned that it won’t get the same respect as a MA in Literature.I came across and article about the rise of Writing MA’s, and would love some general insight into the pro’s and con’s of going for the MA in writing instead of the MFA. Thank you so much!

    • If you have the MFA “in the back of your mind” is that because you want to do more literary sports writing, fiction writing, or what? (Just curious why the “thought” is there, at all…)

      The reason I START with trying to understand your motivations (or, helping you seek them out) is because I think that plays directly into the “validity” question you ask. For example, you say teaching isn’t your number one ambition, but the first question you ask is really about entry-level teaching jobs. You ask about respect, but respect of who, and respect for what purpose?

      I’m not asking these things to be a jerk. Honestly. πŸ™‚ But I feel like to give a good response, I need to know more of where you’re coming from. If you want to continue here in the comments section, that’s fine with me. (It’s the sort of discussion that helps others, I think) If you’d rather talk one-on-one about it, feel free to email.


  26. Hi! I’m thinking about applying for the MFA next year. I’m 25 and have around 2 years of editorial experience. No published work. Is it too early to think about an MFA? Or will schools consider only the writing samples that they receive?

    • We had people fresh from undergrad, and folks in their retirement years when I was at Queens. The writing sample will be much more important than what you have, or have not, yet accomplished. Best of luck!

  27. Eric, I have just been accepted into an MFA program, an online program at National University. Now that I have access to look around the site, I am not sure I like the program. It appears to be mostly academic writing, research papers, creating anthologies and explicating them. Looks like very little creative writing, although I know it’s there. I originally went back to school to get my BA in English to better my writing. I followed the CW track, and enjoyed it. I had no intention to teach, but knew I needed something to fall back on, so I figured I would go through credential program. During my undergraduate, I changed my mind. I wanted to teach college level. I am now questioning my reasons for earning an MFA. I have a finished novel, some editing is needed, and I originally believed having an MFA would better my chances of publication, that my manuscripts would be looked at closer. I now realize this may not be true. Self publishing is huge. Also, Many writers don’t even have an education in writing. I have two children, 12 and 14, and have already given up so much time with them. I am not sure I can do that again, and the thought of further debt is scary. I work as a substitute teacher, and am worried about time for all the research papers. I now know I probably do not need an MFA to be published, but do need it to teach. Teaching was never my original plan. So here I am, stuck in indecision. Subbing is actually great, giving me time with kids, and time to write and submit. I am so thankful for the post because like many, I would love to be in the editing field, and can see that an advanced degree is not necessarily required. I might look into tutoring to do along with subbing. Any thoughts? I am not asking for someone to say get the MFA or not, I know I have to decide, but thoughts are appreciated. Thanks again for your time on this post.

    • Well, first, if the program you are accepted to has that much of a focus on “academic” writing, it doesn’t sound like what you are most interested in. It may not be the right fit, and given all the other concerns you voice, then, you would only want to make the investment of time, money, energy in something that will really address your wants as a writer.
      Second, you are right when you say that you don’t need an MFA for publication (some agents, I hear, are even wary of the MFA grad because they get as many MFA thesis submissions that aren’t ready yet as they do the non-MFA ones) or for editing. As I’ve stated in several places, too, the MFA in NO WAY guarantees you a teaching job. It is the base-line requirement. The “first hoop” to jump through.
      If you are happy subbing and tutoring (hey, that’s where I am, now, so I’m with ya!) then you might consider other ways to push your fiction to another level. Work one-on-one with a writer you like. If they are willing, it will cost a lot less than college credit hours, and that writer will make more, too. Find a writing group or workshop. Etc. There are also companies and independent writing instructors that will help you edit and learn more about craft. You have to shop around a bit, find a good fit, and so forth, but it is very much an option.
      I hope that gives you some insight into what went through my mind as I read your comment. Feel free to keep the conversation alive, either here in comments, or via email. (There’s a contact info tab up top.)

      • Thanks for your fast reply. It is important to me to discuss my concerns with you or others that are either in an MFA program or considering it. Your comments and advice have helped greatly, thank you.

  28. Oh the life of an introverted writer. There are a few things that steered me away from the MFA…

    A) Have no interest in teaching…

    B) I generally don’t like working with other people on things, their criticism in effect makes the work not *mine* any more. However, I would take the advice of a professor (still with a grain of salt)…I had taken a few writing seminars as an undergraduate and didn’t get much value out of the peer comments. And this was at a so called “elite” university where the students were supposedly of high caliber.

    I did a program in editing/publishing instead so I can work by myself and freelance, and have a base level credential to show potential clients.

    Now, I don’t think this makes me a bad person, per se…Just wanted to contribute another angle to the equation. Writing to me is very much a solitary process. I know others who feel the same way, so while I can’t speak on behalf of them, I do feel I am expressing their thoughts.

    Now, back to point A. The creative writing MFA is a GREAT option if you want to teach as a career, and if you didn’t already cover similar material in undergrad, I’m just highly doubtful of how much of a better writer it would make you. I would only go into one to improve writing if I had exhausted all my other options.

    I would give similar advice to somebody who already did their BA in Journalism…doing a Masters in Journalism isn’t going to make you a better journalist, you just need to go do it. I feel the same way about English majors who possibly took a few writing courses.

    • Hello there, Trenter. Thanks for weighing in.
      You bring an interesting viewpoint, though I’d have to disagree with several of the things you say in your comment.
      First, I don’t really understand the idea that critique from others somehow makes the work “not mine anymore.” All critique input is to make the work better, in the sense that it makes the work more readable, more artistic, more true to the writer’s intention.
      Second, while I’ve always received the best advice and input from professors, I’ve found a great treasure trove of input from my peers, as well. Now, perhaps you are a much better writer than I am, but there was something to be learned from every one of the other MFA writers I encountered at Queens. However, if you have a broad list of published works and a large readership, then maybe you are on a level of proficiency most of us have not yet achieved.
      Third, (this listing of points of contention may seem more aggressive than I mean it to be, but I’m not quite sure how to bullet point this list in my reply box, here…) you say you are “just highly doubtful of how much of a better writer it [an MFA] would make you.” Well, I could give you a copy of a story I wrote prior to the MFA and one I’ve written since, and I think you’d agree the writing has matured. In fact, for all of the other drawbacks of the MFA programs, in general, I don’t think “My writing didn’t improve” is one of them. I didn’t hear from anyone in my graduating class that they felt the time spent hadn’t been worth it, from the artistic standpoint.
      Finally, you say writing is a “solitary process” and, the act of writing is. But you won’t convince me, ever, that there isn’t value in community. It’s an essential part of our creative lives. Unless you plan to write volumes and volumes that you will promptly bury or burn so that no one else ever sees it. Then, yeah. Maybe.

      • Well,

        Just because we disagree doesn’t make either of our cases false.

        To clarify a bit on what I mean, it’s that I already went through the workshopmethod in undergrad at an ‘elite’
        university. Not that I am trying to boost my reasoning/credentials, it’s just to counter the possible argument that the MFA program would necessarily bring a different caliber. The professors teaching the courses are the same in many cases.
        While I found value in studying under specific professors and authors, I found the value of the writing feedback among my “community” not that great. Yes, I am pretty much a loner by nature, that is besides the fact.
        Just think of it this way, if there was one great writer you could feedback with, and they gave you a perfect analysis the first time, what would be the use of other writers giving you additional feedback… and often just making things more hazy, and sometimes erroneous as well. If you could take that first feedback on your writing and go with that, I think it might actually be better, at least it is in my case. I have had the privilege of studying under some great profs/writers and they definitely helped my writing.
        There are other things to assume, that the caliber of writers is somewhat similar in the same program, so if you get into the program with them, you should all more or less be on a similar level, while the prof should have a bit more experience and be able to guide you in the right direction. I think this is true, and just the guidance of peers, or adding in more feedback just to be an annoyance, and meaning it’s just one more writing sample I have to read over myself. I think this is exactly the reason why having smaller and smaller classes is better. The best class I ever took in this regard was only 4 people, which meant more feedback from that individual professor.
        Another reason people often tout for going into an MFA program is by using the example that famous writers had instruction, then say that current instruction is hard to find, therefore go into an MFA program. While that is true, the examples they use such as Emerson/Thoreau or Pound/Eliot is…those were more of mentorships, not group sessions. Now if you could get direct mentorship from a great writer, that is one thing, MFA programs are quite different though. So when they try to weigh this value like this, it doesn’t seem to match up exactly.
        Regardless, I just wanted to get my thoughts out, just two ways of looking at things… One is the best direction would be a private mentorship one on one relationship… I think this is the best case for improving ones writing, vs. the more eyes on it the better and the “community” … some people think this is better, I personally don’t and benefit more from the former.
        So instead of the normal tiers of applying to MFA programs based on location, funding, quality of school… I would look to study under a specific writer you appreciate, first and foremost.
        Anyway, just two ways of looking at things. There is definitely value in both, but different types of students learn differently.

        Posting unedited and possibly rambled. I definitely appreciate your blog, just offering a different view point, which I think is also valid. MFA programs just aren’t going to be the best options for everybody, especially those who might have already done their undergrad in CW unless certain variables are in place.

      • My experience at Queens was this: The published authors/professors were the most helpful with their critiques, yes, but I found the input from other students very helpful, as well, especially in the areas of “Are the readers picking up what I’m laying down” and in identifying possibilities for deepening a specific piece as far as theme and/or layered meaning. What I observed was that with one or two exceptions, the responses I received from MFA students were much more helpful to me compared to the student responses I received in undergraduate writing courses. That may not be true everywhere, but in the MFA the students weren’t just “trying out a fiction course to see if I’m any good.” They were dedicated writers, of various ages and experience levels. They had been writing for a long time and were focused in on the writing, not on whatever their “real major” was.
        Now, that being said, I AM an advocate of seeking out published authors for one on one work, if they are willing to work with you. I think that is a viable option for those who don’t want to go the MFA route. I just don’t think that dismissing the idea that peer writers can be helpful is the reason to go the other way. They aren’t mutually exclusive sides to the argument. And, frankly, there are plenty of MFA programs where the peer response is minimal. I’m glad, though, that wasn’t the case at Queens. I learned a lot from my peers, and I developed a core group of people with whom I can continue to share stories and get responses, without paying a professional editor or published writer for his or her time.
        The “famous writers had instruction” bit seems to be a sort of strawman argument, and not one that I’ve advocated or, for that matter, even seen referenced on this blog. If you read what I’ve written, I very clearly state that the MFA is right for some people, and for others, there are alternative ways to get the same experience/education.
        I totally agree with your idea of looking at MFA programs based on the possibility of working with a writer you admire. Location is only important if you are in a full-residency program, which is why the low-residency programs are so popular. And, as I’ve said many times before, if you don’t want the MFA diploma for teaching credentials, and you can find a writer who you can pay to work with you one-on-one, that is a wonderful way to get the most bang for your educational dollar.

  29. I stumbled across this article today by mere chance and feel lucky to have done so; it has brought into focus some questions that have been half-formed inside my head.

    I am a year out of my undergraduate program in Computer Animation. A 5 year detour based, primarily, on a mixture of pride and fear. Pride because my parents and teachers told me I was awful at visual art and should give up it, and fear because they all said that I was an amazing writer and would extremely well if I went out to pursue a career in fiction at some of the top schools.

    I never applied to those top schools and spent the last few years figuring out that I really did not enjoy Animation all that much, and most of my talent lies in writing and telling stories.

    I happily have no debt, but I also have no real way to make money, either. I was never good enough at Animation to build a portfolio that could land me a job, and all I want to do is be able to work as a writer. I’ve started to consider strongly getting an MFA, but I am beginning to wonder if my motives would make a good candidate and if my skills are there to actually succeed at it.

    I question my motives because I feel like, deep down, I have something to prove; an interesting motivation for a fictional character, but probably not the most healthy for a real person. I want to get into a good school and write some really great fiction so I can live up to the expectations placed on me both outwardly and inwardly. Will this drive help me, or hinder me in my pursuit?

    My hope is that a degree, and the networking and connections that come with it, would help me eventually land a job that pays a bit more than the McDonald’s I just applied to. This is certainly a reasonable desire, but is a fear of poverty going to get in the way of my writing? Again, I am unsure if it will help or not.

    The final question is that of preparation and skill. While my Undergrad Education had much to do with telling stories, it contained very little in the way of English classes. My GPA is mediocre at a 3.5, with most of my major courses in Animation being very low (B- and C- and a few Ds) while acing all my other classes. I attribute this to a fear of failure and a lack of interest keeping me from doing the work. I worry that I have little to prove myself capable of succeeding in an MFA program and thus won’t be accepted anywhere with the funding I need to actually afford to attend. Is my fear unfounded, or is there anything I can do to mitigate the damage this has caused me?

    I am not sure if you can answer any of these questions, but it feels good to write them out all the same. I will keep checking this blog regardless, hopefully gaining some more insight along the way.

    • Thanks for this comment. I’d love to take some time and form an adequate response, but I am currently in a remote location, and the internet service has been spotty the last 24 hours or so, so it could be a while before I get to it. I will do my best, though. Thanks.

    • Alright, I have a few minutes as the second week of my residency begins to think through your comment, here, so let me see what I can come up with. πŸ™‚
      “Having something to prove” as a motive: I guess, I don’t know you well enough to know if you are wired that way, or not. Some people I know can use that sort of “I’ll show you!!” vibe as a strong foundation and really go to town with it (even knowing they could fail spectacularly), and others find the stress and pressure of that to be too much, and they self-sabotage and never quite put themselves in a position to fail or succeed so that they never really KNOW if they were good enough or not. Only you and the people closest to you can help you figure this out. Yes, that’s a bit of a cop-out answer. πŸ™‚
      “Networking and Connections and a paying job”: I don’t know if you read my post, What an MFA Won’t Get You, or not, (You can read it here.) but I do talk about this a bit. The hard reality is that creative writing teaching jobs are hard to find, and an MFA in fiction may help your writing a ton, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee employment. If you want to teach writing, it’s sort of one of the hoops you have to jump through, but it is no guarantee. Not even close. Connections are great. Community is great. Don’t get me wrong. But it isn’t a clear-cut entry point into a realm where you are paid to teach a little and write a lot. Not by a long shot. (Yes, I did a bit of shameless self-promotion there…)
      Preparation and skill: Based on the start of this paragraph, let me say two things. I don’t think a 3.5 is a mediocre GPA, unless you’re talking about a 10 point scale. And really, as I’ve said in several other places, your undergrad performance isn’t all that important to the MFA programs. It’s the writing sample and their perception of your dedication to doing the work, being a productive member of the community, and your potential for growth. But after you talk about the grade point average, you say something interesting: you had lower grades in your major area because of “a fear of failure and a lack of interest”. The “fear of failure” bit is where I think we circle back to question one, about motives. Do you run the risk of having the same reaction when you go to study something everyone says you’ll be great at? Will there be pressure on you to the extent that it either stunts your growth OR causes you to hold back out of fear that it will turn out you aren’t any good? It’s a real risk. You may go through an MFA and write every day for the rest of your life and never have a successful piece. It happens. It’s a risk all artists take. It won’t be read, it won’t be understood, it won’t be appreciated. Art is risky. Art can drive you insane because of those things.
      Here is what I would prescribe if I were your fiction doctor. πŸ™‚
      1. Write some fiction. Take a class. Audit an undergrad class or look for a fiction class at the local adult-ed or find someone who’s willing to teach an online course or whatever…I’m teaching both of those–adult ed and online–and while the quality you find in your location may not be superior, it could be a great starting point.
      2. Start to learn the basics: character, plot, dialogue, setting, theme, etc. Get a book or two that helps break down the elements and spend some time identifying those elements in your favorite books or stories and start thinking about how they work together in the books that speak most to you. Find someone who you can talk to about it, read with, whatever.
      3. Read and actually do the exercises in the Julia Cameron book, The Artist’s Way. See if you have the drive and interest to do a twelve-week self-study. Find someone who will do it with you. Pay someone to do a “guided study” with you. Whatever. After you complete that, go on to Pressfield’s The War of Art. See if the things he writes about resonates with you. If you get through those two books and don’t feel a burning passion for the writing, maybe it’s just a hobby for you. Maybe you dabble in it for a while until it either takes control of you, or you decide it’s not for you.
      The writing life isn’t for everyone. I don’t say that to discourage you, or anyone else, but just stating a fact. I think unless/until you know that writing is a core, intrinsic part of WHO you are, the MFA could be a place you go spend a lot of money and then never write again. I don’t think that’s good for you, or for the MFA program you might attend.
      That’s my quick, Tuesday morning answer. I hope it helps a little. Feel free to ask follow up questions, or whatever. Also, if you search my blog for those two books (The Artist’s Way and The War of Art) you can read what I’ve said about them and find links to them, in case you can’t find them locally.

      • I think I am going to get those books and read your blog for now. Honestly, I haven’t written anything in a long while and I doubt I could get in anywhere fully-funded for 2013 with samples I could write between now and December. At least I think it is impossible. What would you say is the timeline one must plan for when apply for an MFA?

        I may have more questions. Is there another way to contact you or other MFA vets? Reason being I’d like to hear more and to discuss writing with people that inspire me. Unfortunately, I’ve tried several writing groups in my area and the work is predominantly poorly-written Twilight rips. It would mean the world if I could just find a group of people who would help encourage my passion for writing.

      • As for the timeline: I’ve known people who apply to a dozen programs and then wait to see a) who says “come on down” and b) select their favorite from the “yes” replies. That takes some planning. Checking on due dates and individual requirements (do you need an artist’s statement? 1,2, or 3 letters of reference? 10 pages, 20 pages of a writing sample? etc…). Or, some folks only had one program they want to be in (because of location or a certain published writer who teaches there) so they applied to that program, sometimes several times over the course of several years. I researched a lot of programs (looked at faculty, program structure, reputation, etc) and decided on about three or four that were most interesting to me, as a writer. I applied to Queens only, thinking that if I didn’t get into Queens that year, I would broaden my application process and apply to several the next year. Thankfully, I was one-and-done.
        Fully-funded programs are much more rare, and the competition is even more fierce, as far as I can tell. I think the ratio at Queens was something like 20 accepted per semester with 300-400 applications. (Those aren’t hard numbers, and I believe they may have even gone up in the last couple years.) For the fully-funded programs, I would imagine the ratio is even more lopsided. (I don’t tell you that to discourage you. Just so you understand the process a bit more.)
        Local writing groups producing Twilight ripoffs…it can be difficult to find a local writing group, no doubt. But, often, if you poke around enough and are willing to walk away from a group that just isn’t for you (which, it sounds like you are) it can be possible. There are also online writing groups (where you can have chats and discuss works in progress, via the email/bulletin board method, or via Skype or Blackboard or something) that can sort of fill that hole. An independent writing instructor or writing coach (typically, a post-MFA working writer who isn’t in the Tenured Track food chain, like me) is another option. It is not a free option, and while rates and fees vary, there are opportunities out there. Working one-on-one with a instructor/coach can be more cost effective than going to a writing conference, but, many people get good feedback and help with direction in there work from the conferences, as well, and there are a TON of those.
        I read Poets and Writers magazine, and the magazine of the AWP, The Writer’s Chronicle, on a regular basis, both for the articles and to keep up with the opportunities for conferences, publications, and retreats. It wouldn’t hurt to get a subscription to those two publications.
        Contacting me: You can always email, if you have questions or want some input. I have a “contact” page up top, on the menu bar, and that has my email, Facebook, Twitter, web-site, etc. There are a couple of blogs out there with MFA information. I don’t have a list in front of me right now, but a good Google search will likely bring up some info.
        If you do the Artist’s Way, Cameron suggests writing “morning pages”. I think for someone who hasn’t written much or who feels they need to be more consistent and “deeper” in their work, this is a great discipline to take on.

  30. Pingback: ReBlog Day #8: To MFA, or Not « Stories I Read, Stories I Tell

  31. Here are reasons I chose to not to do an MFA program, and much of it is just due to my personality.

    I found most programs too focused, and wasn’t so interested in the form of the novel. Contrast this to an undergrad education which can certainly be broad if you make it that way. I took classes in theater, playwriting, screenwriting, flash fiction, the novel, article and essay, remediation, writing for advertising, online writing, travel writing as well as worked on publishing the literary magazine. Not to mention my philosophy or history classes which I thoroughly enjoyed. This is what I love about writing, the ability to use the craft of writing in so many avenues, it is by nature what attracted me to improve my writing. I enjoy freelancing for diverse projects, even if they are boring public relations or guide writing, it breaks up the monotony.

    I admit it to myself! The time commitment and focus of an MFA or PhD program in general, just not for me! I honestly feel limited just looking at the class choices and knowing I’ll be two-three years in a place.

    Now, I know of no MFA programs, or just graduate schools in general that offer this broadness I speak of which is geared like the broadness of a liberal undergraduate education, it is all about a focus, a concentration, or if you are lucky, just two concentrations.

    That time commitment covering the same focus was just too daunting. One of the things I like about writing is the diversity itself, whether it be journalism, essays, travel pieces, flash fiction, or short stories.

    That being said, I’d love to have an MFA by my name… and I am just posting this in case other people feel a bit cornered, whether that be in their head or not about the limitations of a graduate degree program. I am just not wired that way. If I were to do an MFA, I’d just have it in the back of my head I should have gone to J-School, or maybe I should have been a dramatist, or done a PhD in English.

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