Should You Get an MFA?

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Will an MFA make you a better writer?In a word, “No.”

My secretary at the Great Desert University had an MFA from one of those low-residency programs at an elite private liberal-arts college. It looked great on her resumé.

But get real: do you really need an expensive degree in creative writing to get a job as a secretary? A job whose take-home pay, she once told me, was something under $300 per two-week pay period?

An MFA will not get you published. What gets you published is writing things and sending them to publishers. You do not need to sit in a classroom to do that.

Will an MFA make you a better writer?

No. What makes you a better writer is writing, then writing again, then  writing again. Writers learn to write by writing. They learn to write by reading other writers, thinking about what and how other writers write, and then writing. And writing. And writing. And writing.

The more you study the kind of writers you like and the more you sit down and do likewise, the better your writing gets. You don’t need to sit in a classroom to do that, either. Take a look at Joseph Trimmer and C. Wade Jennings’ vast collection, Fictions, an anthology of literary fiction designed for courses in writing programs, and Joyce Carol Oates’ Telling Stories, a superbly curated volume. In my next post, I’ll explain what to look for and think about in other writers’ works. You can do this in your living room and on your breaks from work: for no more than the cost of the books.

Will an MFA get you a job in a publishing house, on a magazine or newspaper, or on a college or university faculty?

Probably not, particularly if you have few or no publications. The sea is swarming with MFA-bearing fish. Every job opening for a creative writing instructor at a university or community college attracts hundreds of applicants. Make that hundreds of qualified applicants, after all the truck drivers and the nut cases are screened out. Competition for these openings is fierce. A residential degree is expected — low-residency programs are looked down upon. A residential degree will rack up serious debt, which you will have a difficult time paying on an assistant professor’s salary.

Your MFA might get you an adjunct position — but most likely you’ll be teaching freshman comp, not short-story writing. And pay, after course prep and grading are factored in, comes to something less than minimum wage.

Some publishers are impressed with the MFA, but no more so than by a degree in English or mechanical engineering. Most want to see real-life experience in real-life publishing, though. Many magazines and newspapers would prefer someone with a degree in journalism, communication, or English.

The main advantages of an MFA program are that you have a shot at meeting established writers on the faculty and, consequently, a (long!) shot at a referral to their agents or publishers; and that such programs teach writing through the workshop method, allowing you to run your drafts past the type of people who are likely to read the kind of thing you write, and to get feedback from them.

But you don’t need to spend $25,000 to $44,571 a year do that. For what an MFA in writing costs, you can go to a lot of top-flight writer’s conferences — and that includes travel and lodging. Good conferences will have nationally recognized authors leading seminars, giving you a chance to have a portion of your work read by someone who is experienced with writing and editing. Often literary agents attend these events, so you may have an opportunity to make a contact with someone who will agree to look at your work and consider helping you find a publisher.

A classic feature of MFA programs is the “workshop” approach, whereby students in a course submit passages from their work for review and critique by fellow class members. Often the professor barely reads your copy at all: feedback comes from students. One could say this amounts to the blind leading the blind; proponents argue that students gathered in, say, a short-story writing class are the kind of people who are most likely to read that kind of writing, and therefore their reaction to a given piece is the most accurate gauge of how the writing works.

Here, too: you don’t need to spend wads of money for that. Join a writer’s group — almost all of them have “workshops.” Search for writer’s groups in your area on Meetup.com.

Don’t quit your day job. Don’t waste your money on a graduate program that almost certainly won’t help you get a writing job and that may not even make you a better writer.

Only you can make you a better writer. Do that by reading everything you can get in the genre that interests you. And by writing.

You don’t learn to write by going to class. You learn to write by writing.

 

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