In 2011, I was accepted into a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program for Creative Writing. I remember thinking: this is it.
This would be the ticket to a solid career as a fiction writer, I told myself. This degree would give me clout. I would get to the end of the 2-year program with an entire book written and ready to sell. I would rub elbows with real writers and find my community and establish the discipline and routine of writing that would carry me through life. I would be able to find a job teaching creative writing at any college in the country.
(Cue: the unending laughter of every MFA-holder in the world)
I’ve had my MFA now for 5 years. In that time, I’ve thought a lot about whether or not this degree was “worth it.” Here’s what I’ve come up with.
Structure. Writing is damn hard—not the actual stringing-together of sentences, but the mining of every deep, dark emotional cave inside of you. Knowing you’ll have to face all of that when you sit down at your desk makes you want to do literally anything else: clean your house, go for a walk, finally let your computer install every update you’ve been ignoring for weeks. When it comes to getting words on the page, nothing motivates me like a deadline. I had to crank out 50-100 pages per semester, with a faculty member/real writer waiting to read it. And I did it. Since graduating, I have been extremely less prolific, since there has been “no reason” to rush. If you need a clock breathing down your neck in order to make progress, an MFA program might be for you.
Community. No one outside of writers really understands the writing life. It’s weird and solitary and you spend a lot of time talking to yourself about people who don’t exist. There’s also the constant insecurity and anxiety about your work not being The Next Big Thing, about the world misunderstanding you, about being unable to put into words the brilliance that lives in your mind. It’s not a lucrative life, and when you’re surrounded by non-writers all day, you feel like your passion is pointless. Because this is a solitary lifestyle, it’s essential to find fellow writers who understand and can reinforce your choice to pursue this path. An MFA program gives you a ready-made community of people who will nod and say, “I get it.” That alone is priceless.
Connections. Even if you don’t end up at one of the more prestigious MFA programs in the country, you’re bound to connect with folks who can help you on your journey as a writer. In most programs, you work closely with several authors/faculty members over the course of your time, in addition to your fellow writing students. As a result, you’re likely to find opportunities for growth beyond graduation from this network. For instance, one professor/author has paid me to help her step into the world of social media and revamp her website, and I send her my work to read for advice even now. Another has sent a constant stream of proofreading/editing gigs my way.
Book lists! This is the big “pro” for me. I came into my MFA program desperately under-read. I had coasted through high school and college, skimming the classics. Lucky for me, reading was a huge part of my specific program. In addition to the writing we had to do each semester, we had to read 5-10 books and write craft essays on them. Most of the time, these books were chosen for us by our faculty mentors who searched their well-stocked memory banks for the right texts, based on where weaknesses lay in our writing. This curated reading list was so instructive and personal and impossible to get by just Googling “books that do character well.” One professor even gave me three bags of old books that she was ready to offload from her personal collection.
Money & time. MFA programs aren’t cheap. Even the middle-of-the-road options carry a hefty price tag. And most of us can’t afford to stop working in order to get a master’s degree. Even if you find a low-residency program whose schedule allows you to work and pursue the degree, there are only so many hours in the day. The money and time commitments are mostly non-negotiable, so you have to decide for yourself if the sacrifice is worth the benefits.
Ego. While it’s important to find your community and lean on them when you’re feeling uninspired and ready to give up, full immersion for long periods of time might make you feel worse, depending on your own sensibilities. There’s competition inherent in any program; you tend to measure your skill and success against your cohorts, as everyone shoots for the same prize. Envy abounds, and even a friend’s success can send you spiraling. The ego is bound to get you, and it’s important to stay in touch with the world beyond your program in order to stay human.
Misplaced focus. A lot of programs really hammer money over quality writing. You see this in the admissions process—younger programs might let just about anyone in, in order to stay afloat—and throughout your tenure, as seminars and panels focus more on agents and publishing and less on the craft of writing. It makes sense for the university; if you get published, they look good. But this obsessive emphasis on the financial side of writing tends to ratchet up the feeling of competition and ego (see above). And when you’re more focused on publications than quality, the writing suffers. Be wary of this as you investigate programs.
The cliff. After 2 years of structure and deadlines and community and support, you graduate, and all of that goodness goes away. You’re out on your own with nothing to propel you forward. Over the last 5 years, I have watched nearly every single writer in my MFA program go over this “cliff.” Some stopped writing for a while and then found their groove again; others have stopped completely. Expect the cliff, and build yourself a bridge while in the program. Find your community, make writing groups. Create accountability so you don’t get this degree in vain.
Unreasonable expectations. Don’t expect to finish the book. Don’t even expect what you write over 2 years to be “the book.” Don’t expect to get a full-time creative writing teaching gig; they basically don’t exist, and even part-time college-level creative writing professorships require a published book in most cases. Don’t expect to leave with an agent or have your work in the New Yorker by graduation. Be grateful for the book lists, the community, the connections you’ll gain. Avoid the ego and be happy for your friends’ successes. And cast a wide net when looking for jobs - marketing is a great option that pays writers well!
All in all, an MFA program is what you make of it. You’ll get out what you put in. If you need help developing your writing and finding your community, it might be the right choice for you. Just be sure to do your homework—during your search, and during the program.
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