Should You Get an MFA in Creative Writing? That Depends On What You Want To Do With It

March 31, 2015 at 11:05 pm (Uncategorized) (, , )



After I received my MA in Philosophy, I returned to my love of creative writing. In that time I wrote one manuscript, then another and another. The next step was to enroll in a Creative Writing MFA program, right?  So, I found my best writing samples, procured a few LoRs and applied to nine programs.  I got into seven programs: five low residency programs and two full residency programs. After taking financials into account, I enrolled in Roosevelt University’s MFA program.

That was a mistake.

I’ll spare the details. I reference it in some of the workshop experiences mentioned in this blog and I’d say my experience paralleled what a lot of the MFA detractors have described. Suffice to say, I went out in a fiery blaze after a month. Out of roughly 14 incoming students, I was the third one to withdraw from the program, although to be fair I don’t know their reasons for leaving and I know that at least part of my problem was culture shock from my many years studying philosophy.

Still, I didn’t want to give up on the MFA idea entirely. I regretted not doing the low-residency thing. After all, less time in workshops, more autonomy, a greater orientation towards the novel and students my own age would make it better, right? So, I called one of the programs that accepted me and they agreed to let me enroll for Summer 2015. Meanwhile, I kept writing, kept editing, and started sending out queries for my one polished manuscript.

Now that summer is approaching, with the first payment for said program due in just a couple of months, I find myself revisiting this issue. Should I go through with it? Will it be better? Will it be worth it? Couldn’t all that cash be put to better use by traveling overseas to research my novel? Doing a google search really just results in a frustrating amount of contradictory information and a lot of fluffy talk about being “in a community of writers” and “having space to write.” (I already have plenty of space to write, my own study in fact, and as far as community, well, let’s just say, I’m grateful that I escaped my prior MFA experience without some sort of Jim Jones scenario.) Seeking more reliable information, I decided to look at the New York Times Bestsellers List and research the authors who might, by the standard metrics, be considered “successful.”

I looked at the authors’ webpages as well as Wikipedia and any other available information. If no MFA was either listed or implied, I wrote down “none.” If an advanced degree was mentioned, I listed that. I also made a note of who had an MFA. Of the 16 bestsellers and the four that fell under the “also selling” category, I could only find evidence of an MFA for 25% of the authors. Of the remaining 75%, 15% had a degree in Literature (English or Comparative) and another 15% had an advanced degree in another discipline, such as Law or Anthropology.

The reason why MFA-holders may make up such a small percentage of the authors on the bestsellers list is probably due to a few factors. One is that the aesthetic (and there is a very recognizable “MFA style”) may simply not appeal to a large enough cross-section of people to be widely read. Also, the intensity of criticism received, as well as the manner in which it is delivered, may create the kind of perfectionism that, rather than pushing one to do his or her best, actually results in increased procrastination. In the workshops I participated in, I noticed that many of my classmates (and in one case, one of the professors) had a flair for the dramatic but in a way that wasn’t particularly actionable or useful to the writer. (Here, I’m not just speaking of when my own work was critiqued, but in general.) After I left, I bought a bunch of books on craft to figure out just what people were talking about. Only then did it become useful. For a lot of students, though, I think it results in a sort of operant conditioning, a tendency to do more of what gets praised and less of what gets criticized in a way that results in decreased risk-taking and increased dependence on feedback from others. This is why you hear about people that, after their MFA, fine tune a book for a decade before even attempting to get it published.

Another reason for the low representation among MFA-holders is that, quite simply, the content encouraged in MFA programs is not what’s selling. Calculating genre, more than half of the books on the bestsellers list are some sort of mystery/crime fiction/political thriller. Historical fiction was also heavily represented as well as, to a slightly lesser extent, family issues. (Also, Historical Fiction occasionally overlapped with either mystery/political fiction or family issues.) A lot of what gets encouraged in MFA programs doesn’t fall into this category. Coming of age stories are big, along with “two people coming to terms with stuff while riding a train” sort of stories. Depending on where you go, you might get a bit of focus on “deconstructing plot” as well. Mystery or historical fiction hold an odd place in MFA programs with some hiring faculty who write in that genre and other programs discouraging it. (The latter I encountered in a fiction class I took as an undergrad.)

I think the problem is that MFA programs and major publishers are working at cross-purposes. Major publishers want stuff that will sell and, if you ever want to stop working as a barista (or a lawyer, for that matter) and write full time, you need your stuff to sell. MFA programs, though, are breeding you for academia. And creative writing in academia is all about writing literary fiction, not mystery or speculative fiction or fantasy or any other genre. The idea is that you’re going to make your living as a professor of writing, so if you only ever publish a few books through a small press, it’s not the end of the world. (My fiction professor at RU wrote one book several years before and was planning on taking sabbatical the next semester so he could get the second book written.) In short, MFA programs groom you to be a professor, not an author.

Where it gets muddied, I think, is that a lot of students entering an MFA program don’t realize this. There are very, very few tenure track creative writing positions and, as most graduates won’t land these jobs, the degree is hyped as a place to “find your voice” “be in a community of writers” even (yes) “give yourself permission to write.” But really, unless you have serious academic aspirations and/or it’s your life dream to have your short stories published in the New Yorker, you can probably save your money. Go to graduate school for Philosophy or History or English Lit, travel overseas, or just read a lot and hang out in coffeehouses. Otherwise, an MFA may take you further away from your goals, not closer to them.