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.