If you’ve been writing long enough, you’ve probably considered getting a Masters in Fine Arts degree. Perhaps you checked the tuition costs, choked, and wondered: Is it really worth it?
That’s a tough call. Plenty of successful writers do not have advanced degrees. And plenty of MFA grads never publish a book. If you’re on the fence, here are a few pros and cons to consider.
Column by Carla Norton, novelist and true crime writer. In 2009, she
earned her MFA degree from Goddard College, and her debut fiction,
THE EDGE OF NORMAL, was published in 2013. Books by other recent
Goddard grads include: The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick,
The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann, and So Much Pretty by
Cara Hoffman. Connect with Carla on Twitter.
1) Community: Writing is a solitary pursuit, and after spending hours alone with your thoughts, you might crave a tribe of writers. MFA programs offer exactly that: total immersion in a culture of books and writing to the exclusion of all else. (Call us fanatics. Call us bores. Guilty.)
2) Criticism: You might scoff, thinking you don’t need this, because you’ve lucked into a supportive, insightful writing group. Terrific! But friends, seeing how much work you’ve put into that manuscript, often hesitate to be critical. They want to be encouraging, so they’ll suggest changing scarcely a sentence. Not so in an MFA program. Red ink will cover your pages. You’ll gape in despair as you realize that, yes, your writing is crap. The advisors will encourage you, but they’ll be brutally honest about how to improve your work. This is why MFA programs are so expensive. The faculty isn’t comprised of amateurs who dabble at writing and coddle your ego, but of professionals who bring a cool eye and a scholarly approach to teaching. You’ll be exposed to smart and sometimes stinging criticism, which can be hard to take, yet is crucial to any serious writer.
3) Reading: That’s right, you need to read. A lot. I was surprised to learn, during my first residency, that I was a sloppy reader. I read for pleasure, with only a thin grasp of technique, and had never heard the term “close reading.” You must read to develop a deeper understanding of literary elements, such as character arc, subtext, voice, and narrative distance.
4) Deadlines & Structure: If you have a hard time getting motivated, believe me, the fear of wasting thousands of dollars out of sheer laziness will force you to sit down and write.
Which brings us to the CONS:
1) Cost: Some programs are staggeringly expensive. Many offer scholarships, but you’ll probably need a student loan. Figure that it’s going to cost about 10-20% more than you expect —in time as well as money— given travel and random expenses.
2) No guarantees: No program of study guarantees a future, whatever your field. You must be disciplined, but no amount of practice guarantees an audience. The arts are risky, period. And any writer will advise you not to quit your day job.
3) The Crap Shoot: You might get a great advisor. You might not. Do your homework, research the faculty, and make a beeline for individuals who seem most simpatico with your writing goals.
4) The snob factor: Literary fiction is the gold standard and commercial (read “genre”) fiction is considered dross. Academia grants only grudging acknowledgment of the publishing world that awaits the serious writer.
You might be wondering if there is some middle ground, if you can get some of the benefits of a MFA program without suffering the costs. It takes passion and discipline, but you can certainly educate yourself and improve your writing.
- The most important advice is to read, read, read. Study fiction and nonfiction by authors you admire. And don’t be too proud to study how-to books, starting with Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose.
- Join a writers group. Meet regularly to share your work. Be serious, be open to criticism, but be careful about taking others’ comments as gospel. Share your work outside of your regular group as well.
- When your manuscript is finished, find a professional editor, and if you can’t get an agent, consider self-publishing.
- Go to as many writers' conferences as you can. There are hundreds across the country. No matter what your genre—mystery, sci-fi, Y/A, and so on—you’ll find a sense of community and great resources. Don’t be shy!
No one can tell you what to do, but getting an MFA was the right decision for me. I’d written two books of nonfiction—even a New York Times bestseller—but had a hard time with fiction. After three unpublished novels, I knew I needed help. For me, the low-residency program was a godsend.
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