Why the MFA?

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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?