Why the MFA Discussion Makes Me Vaguely Nervous

Posted on 20 December 2010

About 4-5 years ago, I wanted an MFA very much. I thought it was my next step, both in life and as a writer. But it didn’t happen, and my life changed in various other ways instead. I started a new job. I moved in with my boyfriend (and, eventually, married him). I tried out new writing groups. I started meeting with my current writing buddies. Most importantly, I wrote. A lot. Then I revised and wrote some more and revised and wrote and wrote and revised. I started publishing stories. Then I won a contest and am now looking forward to my first published book.

Right now, I’m living the life I’d be living whether or not I ever got an MFA. That means: working full time, creating my own writing schedule, writing around career and personal obligations, meeting with like-minded writers in my city, reading, thinking, writing, etc.

I’ve been very fortunate and I know I have a good thing going on. I have some fabulous writing buddies; we write together and offer each other encouragement and consolation. I have trusted readers who will rip my manuscript to shreds if necessary (as nicely as possible, of course). I have a stable job, place to live, and relationship, all things that keep me happy and sane and able to work on my writing.

But then there’s the MFA. Which I don’t have. If you listen to some people, not having an MFA will negatively affect some of my chances. According to them, I won’t get accepted by certain lit mags or even have a shot at certain residencies. (Never mind that that one of the Residencies to End All Residencies put me on the waiting list this year. Do I believe I’d have gotten in outright if I had those three little letters? Nope.) If you listen to other people, MFAs are destroying the written word. They create writers who are nothing more than robots churning out “safe” stories approved by consensus. They’re cash cows, designed to trick gullible writers into a lifetime of debt.

I don’t buy the arguments at either end of the spectrum. I don’t think an MFA would work any magic for my career other than giving me a few years to write and read. At the end of the day, a writer with an MFA has to work just as hard as a writer without one. I also don’t buy into the knee-jerk argument that MFA programs produce “workshop stories” or ruin great writers. And since I’d only be interested in the many fully funded MFA programs, the financial argument doesn’t apply.

I would like an MFA because I’d love to spend an intense period of time working on my writing. I want to be funded to write. I want to learn from established writers. I want to meet other writers like me. Even more, I want to meet writers totally unlike me.

On the other hand, I kind of like being a writer without an MFA. Let’s face it, there are so many MFA programs out there, and by extension, so many MFA graduates, that sometimes it just seems like a lot of noise. Without an MFA, I’m out there doing this on my own.

I’m not saying an MFA is never in my future. It very well might happen one day. Sometimes, when I read about the prevalence of MFA programs and their impact on the literary world, I even feel a little worried. Am I missing out on a great experience? Would I be better off with an MFA? Would I have more opportunities? Would I become a different writer with one? A better writer?

Who knows. My only answer to those questions right now is to continue writing on my own, as I have been for years. And I have to tell you — I feel pretty grateful that I’ve been able to do just that.

10 responses to Why the MFA Discussion Makes Me Vaguely Nervous

  • margosita says:

    Perhaps because now that I’m done with the MFA I’ve grown sick of and uninterested in MFA discussions. I think a lot of the MFA anxiety comes from the intersection of writing and academics. Which is the MFA for? Teaching? Or writing? Is is like 50/50 or is it 60/40? Or even 70/30? Which way!?

    That on top of the fact that everyone wants to know but no one really does know how to become a writer means we all obsess about grad school instead. Because that’s something concrete, we can talk about how to apply and get in and who teaches where and we can check yes or no to who has one and who doesn’t. The rest of writing is a bit more messy and undefined. I mean, writers can have conversations for days on what it means to call yourself a writer!

    I think you have the right attitude. It’s something to be aware of and consider, but you don’t need it for success. Maybe another writer really does need it. We should all work on making the right choices for us and try not to assume that if it is different from someone else’s that it means one of us has failed.

    • Sarah says:

      That is a great response, Margosita, and a great post, Laura. I have just come to the end of this little section on my road to self-discovery and – after much internal debate – have decided I want to be a writer. For some reason, it has been a struggle for me to come to terms with something I have known all along (I kept thinking “I’ll be a lawyer first… or get my master’s in organizational behavior…” until I realized that I could go on indecisively in that way my entire life if I didn’t woman up and face my true passions). My next decision is one that will be made for me – whether or not to get an MFA. I have applied and will not go without funding. Henceforth, it is no longer up to me.

      My point in posting is to thank you both for pointing out that the necessity of the MFA is a cloudy subject, and probably always will be because writing is an art, not a science, and success as a writer is a mixture of luck and hard work. However, no one really knows which kind of hard work or how much to do. Knowing that it is up in the air has actually grounded it for me somehow, and I appreciate your ways of expressing that.

      Best of luck and hard work to the both of you.

  • lisahgolden says:

    I would like an MFA because I’d love to spend an intense period of time working on my writing. I want to be funded to write. I want to learn from established writers. I want to meet other writers like me. Even more, I want to meet writers totally unlike me.

    That paragraph explains why I’d consider pursuing an MFA. You’ve hit all the point. I likely never will, but if I were to get serious about it, those are the reasons why.

    • glasseye says:

      I agree with Lisa. Your motives are pure and you have a clear idea of what you want and why. I can think of no downside to pursuing your MFA, but as a writer you will continue to evolve, with or without the additional education.

  • Lee R says:

    Interesting post.

    I don’t think an MFA is “necessary.” If you can do it, fine. But as you wrote, the most important thing is to just write. My first sprawling and really bad first novel taught me so much about writing.

    Having said that, though, I’m glad I studied Literature because it exposed me to so many different books I might otherwise have never discovered.

  • Thanks for chiming in, everyone. I still think an MFA might be in my future…just not at this point in my life!

  • Lyn Hawks says:

    Hi, Laura,

    I wanted to respond to this earlier but the holidays took over. I am big on my current program of “the personal MFA,” not because I couldn’t learn a ton from a university with fellow writers and professors, but due to circumstances, I must wait. So I’m committed to reading works on craft as well as great writers, and a huge range. Right now I have Munro and JK Rowling on my nightstand. I also have a book by Madison Smartt Bell on craft that dissects short stories with excellent footnotes. That and Baxter’s Burning Down the House work like phenomenal lectures for me. I continue to build a network of critique partners, both live and virtual. Next step is a conference or residency.

    When I was on the fence about applying I was struck by the words of a friend who just graduated from a prestigious program; she said the MFA wasn’t enough for employment at a university if you didn’t already have a book published. She and other colleagues without books were struggling to find a place in the academic world post graduation. She also said that if I wasn’t able to get funding, did I really want to invest $30K in an artistic degree–pursuing my art for art’s sake? Of course, this is one opinion and one snapshot/anecdote of the economy for those with MFAs who also wish to teach. Since both the MFA and the book are lofty but essential goals for me right now, and the book is something I can work on while juggling a full-time job, I’m going to start there. To obtain both would be ideal.

  • jdizz says:

    I definitely don’t think it is a requirement, and as somebody who is not published, but also did their undergrad in writing, I have considered. I could never pull the trigger though, mostly because of money and the time constraints, and also I’m not sure how much I would really get out of it. Do I even want to be labeled a quasi-academic? What about my other interests?I have a keen interest in making short films as well and have done so. Would going to an MFA mess up my current career track I worked very hard for? Extremely possible. Do I want to be a broke college student again? Yeah not so much…

    I think if I had to do it all over again, I would go do it right after undergrad at 22, but it seems like an unrealistic option to me after I just hit 30, and I know it isn’t a guarantee of being published. I’d take a published book over an MFA any day.

    • Thanks for the comment and for making me appreciate what I do have. I agree with you; an MFA, in the right circumstances, might be nice, but it’s certainly not necessary. I say this while still toying with the thought of one day getting one, however.

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