• The Creative Writing MFA: Yes or No? Maybe.

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in Dos & Don'ts     Comments 19 comments
    Apr
    28

    The MFA in writing: Some of us have it. Some of us want it. Some of us wouldn’t touch it with a pole. And some of us might be considering it, especially here at the end of a school year, when we stop partying for a moment and start thinking about our futures. For a moment.

    I know some of you wonder if I did an MFA, and/or if I recommend doing it.

    If you want the fun answer, listen to me and my podcast pals discuss it in this week’s episode of Yak Babies, “Is a Creative Writing MFA Worth It?

    If you want the quick one, it’s yes, no, maybe, and more. Or, in the words of my co-host Aaron Block, “The question is unanswerable, because it’s all possible answers.”

     

    My Route

    In 2006 I enrolled in an MFA program. I signed up for a workshop and a lit class. I dropped the lit class.

    I went to the readings, I went to the department functions, and most importantly, I went to the campus bars. I met people and made friends.

    The next semester, I signed up for a workshop and a lit class. I dropped the lit class.

    I went to more readings, parties, bars. I met more people.

    Then I dropped out.

    Most of the time, I don’t regret a single one of these decisions. Here are three of the main reasons why:

     

    I Found My Tribe

    The people I met in the program have become many of the most important people in my life.

    You know one of them; her name’s Justine. If not for our MFA, we wouldn’t have met and befriended and bemarried, much less started this crazy writers’ service. (Or crazy-writers’ service?)

    Others include my Yak Babies co-hosts, Aaron, (the anonymous) Brick Road, and Nico, with whom I’ve not only podcasted but also worked and lived.

    And even outside of this core four, there are another half a dozen with whom I keep in regular(ish) contact. For having taken only two classes, that’s a great friend haul. I took four years of high school classes and about five and a half years of undergrad classes at two different schools, and the amount of friends I retain from the two of those combined is… three.

     

    I Gained Experience

    And it’s through these MFA people that I gained the professional experience that has led directly to what I’m doing today, through WBN and the Texas Observer and my own writing.

    For example: Nearly ten years ago, Brick, Nico, and a few others started a book reviewing website called ChamberFour. I wrote my first-ever reviews for that site. It allowed me room to learn and practice and experiment, and in a public way. And using that experience, and those reviews as clips, I started writing for heavier publications, until, a few years later, I was making something of a second (or, OK, maybe third or fourth) living as a freelance reviewer.

    Around the same time, another MFA friend asked if I would become her assistant fiction editor at Fringe, an online lit journal founded at our school. The work entailed reading manuscripts by the hundreds, helping to choose the ones we would publish, working with the writers on edits, and promoting each issue after publication. Eventually I became Fringe’s fiction editor, and then its managing editor. You can imagine how this experience and these skills have come in handy ever since.

    So it’s fair to say that if I hadn’t enrolled in that MFA program, the following things wouldn’t exist, at least not in their current form, which is a form I enjoy:

    My marriage

    My closest friendships

    My business

    My career

    And because I quit so early, here’s a thing that doesn’t exist: My student debt.

     

    $$$$$$$$$

    It’s hard, and for many, impossible, to talk about an MFA without talking about the finances of the thing. After all, the average MFA in writing costs upwards of $20,000, and many will be a hell of a lot more than that.

    During the podcast, Aaron and Brick Road, who both finished our program, discuss these implications:

     

    Brick: “Most of my adult friends are somehow related to [the MFA program], and it certainly influenced who I became. But the whatever thousands of dollars that I spent on it I feel was pissed away.”

    Aaron: “That’s the crux of it for me is that it’s a major financial hurdle, or a chain, in my life.”

    Brick: “It’s a chain hanging around my neck that I’m gonna be paying for a very long time.”

    Aaron: “Forever! I will die with that debt, I guarantee it.”

    Brick: “So will I.”

    Aaron: “And so that part makes it very hard to say it was worth it, because nothing is worth that.”

     

    By dropping some classes and then quitting, I avoided spending all that money. In fact, I could have taken only one workshop and likely gotten the same results.

    So it would be easy for me to say, “Take one MFA workshop and then quit!” Which is essentially what I do on the show. But how many of us can afford even one graduate-level class? I just checked out my school’s current rates—which have risen nearly 50 percent since my first tuition bill—and one workshop would cost nearly $4,000.

     

    Indies

    Toward the end of the show, Brick touches on the fact that we enrolled in this program nearly a dozen years ago, and so our experiences may be outdated.

    “The [writing] world is different enough now that you have access to those things without going to an MFA program,” he says. “There’s communities you can join that you don’t have to pay to be a member of. Or just go out and start a writer’s club.”

    He mentions Grub Street in Boston. Most cities have their own version or versions of Grub Street, which offers all sorts of workshops and events, and for much less money than an MFA.

    (To browse such resources in your state, scroll to the bottom of our Resources page.)

    There are also writing retreats, online writing-exchange communities, critique groups. There are many ways to get involved and mix with other writers, including going to readings and then hanging around afterwards to chat with people.

    But! Those things, for the most part, lack the intensity, or at least the sustained drive, of an MFA program, in which you share a common goal with a group of people who you have class with again and again and again over the course of two or three years.

    And your career goals may necessitate an MFA. Despite what Aaron says above about the financial burden, he also discusses how without the MFA he wouldn’t be teaching writing at the college level.

     

    Timeout

    In a lot of ways, grad school served as a timeout, a chance for me to catch my breath and reassess. Like I say on the show, “It gave me a reason to go do something else.” It gave me an excuse to leave behind everything and everybody I knew and move halfway across the country to a city I’d been fascinated with since childhood and meet new people. I needed that.

    But then, like Aaron says, there are less expensive ways to escape your life than to go deep into student debt.

    My thoughts on all of this are colored by hindsight and sentimentality. I probably romanticize that period of my life, as most of us do with days gone by.

    I’ll close this with something else Aaron says on the show, which captures my feelings:

    “The real answer to me is that I value those days and miss them in a lot of ways. I miss that time period … Nothing will be like that ever again. Good and bad, annoying and not, I miss those people and I miss those places and it’s all changed now.”

     

    Should You Do It?

    For so many reasons, I would never say either “Yes, you should get an MFA” or “No, you shouldn’t get an MFA.” It’s ridiculous to believe there is one answer that applies to everybody at once. Or that the answer for you can ever be so simple as a yes or a no.

    I did not get one, and I’m glad I didn’t. But I did enroll in one and take some of its classes, and I’m glad I did.

    That doesn’t mean your experience will match mine.

     

    Your Turn

    If you have an MFA, are you glad you did it, or do you regret it, or is your answer “all possible answers?” Please explain!

    If you’re considering an MFA, what are you looking for and/or hoping for from the experience? And what is giving you pause?

    Let us know below. You can use a pseudonym if you’re shy! But if you’d still rather talk about it in a private forum, you can email me at david[at]writebynight.net

     

    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is copy editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and has written for books for the Dallas Morning News, the Iowa ReviewElectric Literature, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a writing project you’d like help with or an idea to get off the ground, check out our coaching, editing, and publication services.

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    Barbara A Mealer

    I considered a master’s degree, but no in fine arts. Even did most of the classes and spent $10K before I discovered it wasn’t what I was going to do. IF you are going to teach, then that masters is a good thing. IF you are in a profession where your masters gets you better pay and position, go for it. You need to look at what this degree will do for you and your proposed career. Do you really need it? Will it be cost effective? (ie get what you paid for it back in higher pay over the… Read more »

    david lemke

    Not qualified to comment on MFA. I had to look it up because I didn’t remember even what those letters meant. In high school. I took every possible art class and took a creative writing class from which I got published and also my first rejection. I joined the navy for the GI bill and passed the entrance exam for UWM Madison. Thought my life was lined up. But me and the navy had some disagreements. Didn’t get to use my GI bill. Back home, got a job, met a girl, had kids but still wanted to paint and write… Read more »

    Barb W.

    I did one. I finished in 2003 and haven’t used that piece of paper since. But I agree, David, with a lot of what you said and your friends said about those years being formative, and me missing them. The stuff I learned in class is gone. The stuff I learned about friendships, and the friendships themselves, are some of the most important things in my life.

    Deborah L. Staunton

    I took 3 MFA classes and dropped out. I’m glad I took them and I’m glad I didn’t finish the MFA. I have found my writing tribe and it is much much better than anything I could have hoped for but I enjoyed those three classes and that experience. So my answer is yes, no, maybe.

    Elizabeth Westra

    I took a masters degree for teachers, but it hasn’t helped me that much with writing. However, I do know my grammar and that helps a lot. My daughter took one in writing for children and young adults, and I can see it has helped her immensely. She has sold three PB already and has a terrific blog. I’m not into blogging online and probably won’t do it. I would just like to kick my writing career in the butt and get it rolling again. I enjoyed all the classes I took in the MA, but the creative writing class… Read more »

    Sheila Jallow

    The MFA program is only exciting or appealing to someone who is enchanted with the “Arts”. To that person every aspect of the arts is worthwhile, although they already know their gift they still admire other areas of that field. I studied all courses of literature and English and I enjoyed it all.

    Teresa

    Thanks for this blog and all the comments. Very interesting to read this.

    Elizabeth Westra

    I did take action. Along with two other ladies I started a critique group which is still going today. This was years ago. I’ve taken a lot of online classes and a few local seminars. All that helped more than the MA in education/English, although that’s where I got bit by the writing bug.

    Elzabeth Westra

    I was publishing quite regularly in the children’s magazine market, but then I stopped writing for a while. When I was able to return to writing I wanted to try something different like PB writing. Now you might say I’m starting over with a totally new genre.

    Dillon

    Hi David, I really want to thank you for this post. I’m so glad I found it. I enrolled in an MFA program this fall after thinking about it for a few years and feeling like I really needed to try, because of some thoughts like “This will make me a true artist and I will always regret it if I don’t try.” I thought not doing an MFA meant “giving up on my dreams to write a book.” Now I’m not even sure if that’s my dream or if it’s just something my ego fixated on to make me… Read more »




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