Do You Need an MFA? The Absolutely, Positively Definitive Answer
May 10, 2022 § 16 Comments
I’m in a wonderful writing group, tailored to our exact needs: 20 pages, once a month, no written feedback. We are three people with writing or writing-adjacent jobs and one aerospace systems analyst. Between us are a PhD, a couple of MFAs, some BAs and Associates degrees. If you listened to our last discussion, ranging from The Yellow Wallpaper to Mr. & Mrs. Smith, you’d be hard-pressed to define anyone’s credentials from their writing or their critique. We’re all working on projects that stretch our abilities. We’re all great at some craft elements and struggling with others.
I’m one of the MFA holders. Has it forwarded my writing career? Yes. And No. (You knew that was coming.)
My MFA is in Playwriting. With all due respect to my teachers, a Playwriting degree from an English department is ridiculous. Writing for actors and directors to interpret, creating setting from a few stage directions while maintaining awareness of the budget needed to stage your play, is its own process. More importantly, your Theatre department peers will go on to form small theatre companies that produce new plays. Long-term, an English department has nothing to offer playwrights.
Fortunately, I’d already published plays and had scripts produced. Many of them. I was also teaching in the Theatre department, where I could stage my thesis script. My MFA did two things for me: my assistantship was as a journal editor, and I discovered I liked writing nonfiction. Editing under the eagle eyes of a brilliant (Theatre department) mentor was a valuable step towards my now-career as an editor and teacher. Writing nonfiction led me to the Kenyon Writers Workshop, Dinty W. Moore and Brevity.
What’s made me a better writer is critique. My first sustained critique experience, giving and receiving, was a 10-month online contest with weekly prompts. Responding to others’ work with genuinely helpful feedback, while still being likeable enough to get votes for my work, was powerful. Receiving critique taught me to recognize the Damn, I thought I could get away with that feeling that means that criticism is correct; using it will make my work better. Recognizing when critique was wrong or unsupportive thickened my skin and gave me confidence. Writing weekly (and sometimes more often) on a strict deadline for 10 months gave me 50+ chances to try out craft techniques, and a folder full of work ready to revise and submit. And I got all that for free.
A good MFA program also gives critique, deadlines, and sustained commitment. Ideally, writers graduate with a significant project ready for publication, a host of smaller pieces, the ability to give and receive critique, and the ability to write to deadline, plus colleagues and mentors who will blurb, publish and support our future work. Many of us also incur tens of thousands of dollars in debt, discover the program doesn’t support our genre, and/or that our thesis is not actually publishable without substantially more work.
Is it worth it?
Yes—if you are writing literary fiction, literary memoir, or can find a program dedicated to your genre that also focuses on publication.
No—if you write genre fiction or commercial memoir and want to make money.
Yes—if you are fully funded by the department. That’s a vote of confidence in your work; your whole experience will be better.
No—if you want to become university faculty. That career boat has sailed. Publish books instead, and the English department will come to you.
Yes—if you’re a returning student in a low-residency or nontraditional program who needs time, support and focus for a specific project you are burning to write.
No—if your feeling is “maybe I’ll write a book someday.”
Yes—if you have substantial personal funds to pay for your experience.
No—if you’re putting it on a credit card.
If you have a burning passion for your book, and the ability to pay for the program or get funding, go for it. But an MFA is not a “figure things out” place—it’s a “use this time as fully as you can for your plan” place.
Fortunately, there are plenty of less-expensive and lower-commitment places to learn to write and finish a book. Several writing centers offer year-long programs oriented to finishing a book, complete with deadlines, colleagues and critique. And of course, you can cobble together your own program from webinars, craft books and short-term workshops, ideally enlisting a couple of writer friends you’re sure you’ll still be speaking to in 3 years.
No matter what your best path is, what matters most is putting the lessons into action. Revising and resubmitting a piece that doesn’t work yet. Actively analyzing fellow students’ writing to see what’s working, what’s not, and why—and then applying those discoveries to your own work. Hiring a teacher for yourself/your group to improve your craft. An MFA won’t do you any good without doing the homework, and neither will self-study. But if you’re focused, dedicated and committed to your own work, it doesn’t matter who you pay—or if your writing credentials cost nothing at all.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!