What an MFA WON’T Get You

My initial post about the pros and cons of an MFA has continued to draw a lot of traffic to my blog, which tells me this is one of those topics that people are consistently interested in. (No, you don’t have to be a social media guru to figure that one out…)

I’ve received a number of comments on that post, and also, several potential MFA students have emailed me with questions and asked for some advice about pursuing the Creative Writing masters-level degree. Let me give you a quick over view of where I stand:

To MFA, or Not?

  1. Generally speaking, I’m a proponent of doing whatever you need to do to create a writing life for yourself, if writing is truly your passion.
  2. Entering (and, you know, actually completing) a Masters of Fine Arts program offers many benefits to help you create that “writing life” I talk about. Specifically, MFAers who apply themselves to the process get a community of support, focused and pertinent feedback, excellent mentors, motivation and “time” to work, and knowledge of craft. They also get a diploma.
  3. An MFA is not cheap (unless you get into one of the full-tuition schools, get an assistance-ship, etc.) and it is NOT the only way to accomplish all of the goals in #2 (except, of course, for the degree from an accredited university). There are other ways to get to the same writing life, if a diploma isn’t important to your long-term goals. (If you wish to teach, for example, the degree will likely be important.) Also, top-tier MFA programs are difficult to get in to, and there are no promises that once you leave, you’ll have a full-time writing life. (See the next section, below.)
  4. The other paths to a writing life are difficult, too. There are no short cuts. You have to know what you want, and make sure you are getting it. You have to guard against frustration, sabotage, and exasperation. And that’s just internally. You also have to be diligent in selecting people who genuinely want to help you, to help you.
  5. For most people, the instinct is to rush into an MFA because they feel that creative urge to do something about this longing they have to write, and an MFA will fill that longing. That is very true, on many levels, but it also isn’t necessary to be in such a big, freaking hurry. Cultivating a creative writing life is a long, slow process. Even after going through and MFA program (or, a creative writing-focused undergrad program) you will likely be still at the starting line. You will be more limber, better trained, highly conditioned, but you’ll still be waiting for that starter’s gun to go off. Prepared for the race? Yes. Maybe even a winner in a preliminary heat or two? You betcha. But the race is still to come, and that sucker is a MARATHON. Knowing this, I think it is important to take some time and think through all your options, and then move boldly in the direction that is right for you.
  6. Before you decide the MFA is for you, ask what you will DO once you’ve graduated. Will you go back to the life you were leading before the program? Will you alter your life in some big way? (New home, new job, new significant other, new town?) Could you make those alterations now? (For example, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to teach part-time and write full-time after my MFA, but to do that would require a major life change: downsizing. Big time. So, we went ahead and did it.) One of the things that really troubles me is that so many former MFAers get to the end of the program and they don’t maintain a writing life. (I don’t have concrete numbers, yet, but it is an area of research and pondering I’m working on for my graduating seminar…so stay tuned!)

The short version of all that? I’m pro-MFA, but I don’t think it should be the default reaction, and it isn’t necessarily the right thing for everyone. If, however, you’ve considered your options and solicited advice from someone who wants the best for you (not just some financially-stable, consumer-based illusion of “the best” for you) and you decide the MFA path is YOUR path, then I think you should tackle that with every ounce of energy you have. Make the most of the time, because it will pass quickly.

What an MFA Can’t Promise You

If you do go into an MFA program, you should do so with eyes wide open. As I said above, the MFA is really NOT a short cut to a productive, prolific writing life. It can be a great tool for you to build that sort of life, but it isn’t a natural by-product. In fact, based only on reading of other’s experiences and conversations with former MFAers, I would say that the MFA makes you no more, or less, likely to maintain a prolific writing life than if you didn’t enter the program. Hopefully I’m wrong about that, but that is my feeling.

As good as the Queens MFA program is, I know that it has taken a LOT of work, outside the boundaries of the creative writing program, for me to position myself so that I feel ready to take on the next phase of my development. The folks who continue to work their regular jobs and live their regular life and add in the MFA work to their schedules because “Well, I’m paying for this degree, I need to do the work for it” can so easily slip back into a “writing as a hobby” mindset after graduation. All the things they’ve “sacrificed” for the two years of study become, in reality, things they’ve “put off for a while” and *boom* suddenly those things need attention. The writing is put away. There will be time for it again, soon, I promise…

These folks may not have gone into the MFA with the conscious thought that the MFA would “fix” their writing life, but on some level, it seems that most of the people I’ve talked to about what prompted them to enter a formal program have said something along the lines of, “I felt like I was treading water with my writing, and I needed something to give me the motivation to move forward.” This is fine, really. It was one of my own reasons for going to Queens. But, I realized early on, I needed to grapple with the question: What will I do when that artificial motivation is no longer there? How will I prepare myself for the time when I no longer have that external motivation? Whether it is sub-conscious or not, many people don’t ever have that internal dialogue and wrestle with the reality of what an MFA WON’T do for you. Here’s a short list…

  1. An MFA won’t guarantee you’ll be published.
  2. An MFA won’t guarantee you’ll be offered a job teaching at the college level.
  3. An MFA won’t guarantee you’ll find an agent to champion your work.
  4. An MFA won’t guarantee your first book is even worthy of being published. (That’s harsh, I know, in this day and age of “every word I write can be published”. It is also true.)
  5. An MFA won’t guarantee you a post-degree writing life.

Please, don’t misunderstand: I do believe in the program model. But, at the same time, I think the people who will wrestle with the long-term questions and realities of their own writing life are the ones most likely to continue, day by day, year by year, (bird by bird?) to push toward a fulfilling, productive, and impacting life of words.

P.S. If you are interested in some of the other MFA-themed blog posts from this blog, you can find them here.

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9 thoughts on “What an MFA WON’T Get You

  1. It’s wonderful to read a realistic perspective of the MFA degree. I have mine, and I wouldn’t trade that time for anything (despite the debt). I learned a lot about myself and writing, but I don’t know that it prepared me fully for the writing life. I’m not sure anything can except living the writing life. Have you ever read Ted Solotaroff’s “Writing in the Cold”? I think you’d like it.

    • Hey Erin,
      No, I haven’t read “Writing in the Cold”. I’ll have to look it up! Thanks for the tip.
      I agree. I wouldn’t want to trade the MFA process either. I think it is right for some people, not for all. The more balanced information folks have before taking the leap, the better!
      Thanks for reading.
      -esw

  2. Thank you for this very frank and honest look at the MFA… I’m trying to decide if it’s right for me, and this has given me good questions to ask myself as I figure it out.

    • Emily,
      Glad you found the post, and hope it helps. Feel free to shoot me questions or whatever, anytime…I try hard to get back to folks as quickly as possible.
      Best wishes as you decide.
      -esw

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  5. Oh, wow. It looks like Queens will accept students who don’t have a Bachelors degree. I’m 2 semesters short of a B.S. (and 11 years out of school). I’ve been trying to figure out how to finish up, so I can then apply to MFA programs. My ultimate goal is to teach at the university level. Is this a common practice of MFA programs, or is Queens unique in this? I have just begun researching excellent MFA progs, and could really use some help. Thanks!

    • I don’t know how common it is, really, and I can’t SWEAR that they do it at all…that was the feeling I got, though, with one student in particular. The details of his acceptance could have been relayed incorrectly…I think the bigger issue, though, would be in applying to a faculty teaching position…as in, if you have an MFA and no BA, will that hinder your chances. Also, be sure to read my post on what the MFA DOESN’T guarantee you…as in, just having the degree does not guarantee you teaching at the University level, not by a long-shot…
      Thanks for reading, Heather.

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