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Why the MFA?

Categories: MFA Confidential Blog.

This morning I woke up early, knocked out two more steps of my steeplechase (only two more to go, and this story keeps getting weirder), then drove through the pouring rain to Columbia and worked an open house for prospective grad students. It was a really cool experience, getting to speak one on one with people who are thinking about applying to our program. It felt like I was doing an in-person version of this blog (which, of course, I shamelessly plugged). They had great questions, genuine curiosity, and were so open to learning about what made our program unique.

It brought me back to my own application process three years ago, which was not only totally unresearched but also completely fatalistic. I applied to one—and only one—school, with the self-pitying notion that if I didn’t get in, then I just wasn’t meant to be a writer (as if the only thing that can make a person a writer is an MFA degree!!). I never attended any of the open houses or information sessions; and it was only by total blind luck that the one school I applied to uses an approach that is deeply connected to what I needed. It was just by coincidence that I fell ass-backwards into a place with unbelievably dedicated professors and an awesome group of classmates, where I—and my writing—was going to thrive. It worked out for me—but if you’re thinking about applying to a program, I wouldn’t suggest going to same route. As a teacher, I should know the value of doing your homework!

Anyway, one of the most interesting questions of the day came from someone in the audience who wanted to know: Why join an MFA? Why not just buy a computer, write at home, and save yourself several thousands of dollars?

It was a fair question, although I have (and gave) many reasons I why the MFA has been invaluable to me as a writer. But I’m more interested in hearing from you guys—those who have gone through or are currently enrolled in a writing program, or even those who think writing programs are a waste of money. If it were you sitting on that panel, how would you have answered that question?

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  3. I’ve been writing for ten years, attending writing conferences and taking short (weekend and online) writing courses during that time. I’m now taking a BFA in creative writing and LOVING it. It has made a HUGE difference in my life. I already had a BA in English and I wish that I had done a bit more research before starting my first BA, because I would have just come here and done creative writing.

    One of my fellow writing students compared a writing degree to the participation trophies that kids get for doing sports. The degree just shows that you participated. What do you do while you particpate – the places you get published, the awards the you win – are what will really matter. So that all writers are still judged by the same criteria, whether or not they have degrees.

    At the same time, the chance to read, to discuss with other students and writers, to get feedback on my writing, has been valuable.

    Some programs also offer more funding than others. The MA program at the University of Guelph in Toronto sounded like they would do everything they could to get full funding for students. At the same time, it’s currently a small program (6-10 students, I think) so there is likely more funding available. There are also distance programs (UBC in Vancouver offers one) that could be done part-time, while working and without relocating to go to school.

  4. Kristan says:

    From what I understand, there are way too many factors to give a satisfactory answer on a panel. I would probably say something cop-out, like, "The decision to pursue an MFA in writing is incredibly personal — what do you need to improve your writing? what do you want to accomplish with your writing? etc." and then invite people to talk with me or email me later to discuss in-depth.

    Factors that I think impact the decision:
    - How much time do you have to write, right now?
    - How much do you actually write, right now?
    - Literary vs. commercial (and within commercial, what genre/s)
    - What is your financial situation? Your family situation?
    - Full-time, low-residency, etc.
    - Do you want to teach writing someday?
    - and more

    I think each person has to parse those things out and then decide, first, whether or not an MFA then makes sense, and if so, then what kind and where to apply. I completely agree that it would be smarter to apply to a few than just one (although congrats to you, haha).

    Personally I always thought I would go straight into an MFA program after my ungrad career, but as a senior I realized I needed a break from school. Now, 3 years later, I doubt I will ever go back unless I want to teach, because I have put in the time and made connections with other writers/mentors to help me develop on my own. This way is not for everyone, but it’s working (so far) for me.

    That said, I DID take my GMATs back before I graduated, and my scores will remain valid for another couple years. So, never say never. ;)

  5. Doubtful says:

    I would consider an MFA program if I could attend one fully funded. Currently, having no debt means I can work fewer hours and devote the extra time to writing. If I entered an MFA program, I’d have to pay back those loans eventually, which would most likely mean full-time job that would cut into my writing time.

    Being able to solely focus on writing for a few years would be fantastic, as would the feedback, camaraderie . . . and deadlines. I’d also love to take the classes to earn an MFA. But finding a good critique group, reading novels on craft, attending lectures, etc, has definitely moved my writing career along without a formal graduate degree.

  6. Katie says:

    I’m entertaining the idea of an MFA but thus far my process has kind of been like yours… When I told me advisor was I considering, he said, "Getting a masters in creative writing is like getting a masters in violin. You’re probably never going to use it. But if you love it and you want to get better, then go ahead and do it."

    Katie

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