An MFA in Creative Writing is certainly worth your time if you go into it for the right reasons.
I talked earlier this week about the many reasons why an MFA in Creative can absolutely help you as a writer.
But is an MFA in Creative Writing a crucial pursuit if you want to be a successful fiction writer? Absolutely not.
So many people have built amazing careers and become huge successes in their writing lives without an MFA. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to, so now let’s take a look at the negative side.
Here are a few bad reasons to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing…
1. You think it guarantees you a tenure-track professor position at the college level.
One myth I firmly believed when I applied for and eventually pursued an MFA in Creative Writing was that the degree would give me a huge boost to obtaining a tenure-track teaching job at the college level. I didn’t necessarily think it guaranteed me anything, but I assumed having the MFA in Creative Writing on my CV would mean huge things in the coming years when I applied for teaching positions.
Well, two years since I received my MFA, I’ve applied for more than fifty teaching positions all around the country, and I’ve had exactly one interview. I’ve had help with my cover letter and CV from many writer friends and professors since 2018, and I at least thought I could be competitive at obtaining interviews, but the truth is the response has mostly been silence. And that response can be defeating when you work your ass off for three years to be met only with shrugs from the important decision makers you apply to.
Many people have told me that what I’m lacking is a traditionally published novel, and I think to a large part that’s true. I’ve certainly tried. I signed with a literary agent in 2017 and we tried to sell something for more than a year. I received second place in a novel competition that almost got one of my novels traditionally published. I’ve come close so often, but sadly in 2020 I’m still trying, and it’s going to be hard for me to find a tenure-track teaching job at this time.
Now, this has just been my experience, and it might well be different for you. A friend of mine from my MFA program did secure a tenure-track teaching job at a community college, without a published novel in the world, so that certainly gives me hope for the future. And if you want to get a full-time teaching position at the college level, you’ll need at least an MA degree, remember that. But I wouldn’t pursue an MFA in Creative Writing if an eventual teaching job was the sole reason for doing so.
2. You believe it guarantees your work will be accepted to more publications.
Like I discussed before, obtaining an MFA in Creative Writing degree helps your credibility to a certain extent. It shows people you’re applying to or submitting work to that you take writing seriously and that your work will likely outshine the work of many others. But does getting an MFA guarantee you’ll finally get your writing published? Unfortunately the answer is no. Not a single editor of a literary magazine will take on that story you submitted just because they see in your bio that you have an MFA. It’s all about the writing.
Now, what an MFA program can help with is improving your writing through the workshop process. When you’re in an MFA program you’ll take many workshops where you bring a draft of a short story and have the other students in the class, along with the professor, read your work and give you lots of feedback. Not all of that feedback will be helpful, but much of it will be, and you’ll be able to get valuable insight into the work that helps you shape it into something better.
That’s the side of an MFA program that might help you get more of your work published, but, again, there’s no guarantee of anything. An editor might pleasingly nod at the detail in your bio that you have an MFA, but then that person is going to read your writing and make the decision solely because of the quality or lack thereof. Don’t think you can slack in any way, whether or not you have an MFA.
3. You think it guarantees you’ll be able to sign with a literary agent.
Many aspiring writers pursue an MFA in Creative Writing because they have dreams of signing with a literary agent and getting their first novel published. Yes, this has certainly happened before in the long history of MFA in Creative Writing programs. Some have been lucky to get an agent by the time they graduate and then possibly get their novel published soon after. Literary agents are always looking for the next fresh voice, and many of those voices will come out of MFA programs.
But just like when it comes to editors of literary magazines, a literary agent won’t sign you if the writing isn’t stellar, if it doesn’t move them, if they don’t know how they can sell the work. You have to still write the novel, not just the first three chapters. The MFA degree will only get you so far with literary agents, and you must be willing to put in the time and hard work to get your writing to the best possible place it can be.
If what you really want as a writer is a novel writing career where you eventually sign with a literary agent and get your work published? You don’t necessarily need an MFA for that. Unless you take a publishing seminar that’s offered, most of the work you do in an MFA program is improving your writing, not to give you connections to the publishing industry or teach you how to query a novel well. You can read books for that, attend conferences for that. There are lots of ways into a successful writing career outside of an MFA program.
4. You believe the debt you’ll accumulate doesn’t matter.
I was lucky to join an MFA program that left me with no debt. Where all but one semester I had to pay about $500 in tuition, sometimes less. In fact, one year I won a writing prize that gave me money toward my tuition, and the following year of the program I owed nothing in tuition. I received teaching assistantships that paid me enough to survive and that gave me health insurance. And when I graduated in 2018, again, I left not owing any money to the university.
I would strongly advise against pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing in a program that offered no TA-ships or financial help. The one MFA program I was accepted to in 2012 was a three-year program at $20,000 a year, and in my second and final phone call with the head of the program I was informed it was possible to get a TA-ship the second and third years but that it was in no way certain.
That was too much of a gamble to take. $60,000 for an MFA in Creative Writing? I wasn’t about to spend that kind of money toward a degree that offered no guarantees. And as much as I loved the college and the program, I had to pass. Well, I’m glad I did because two years later I got into an awesome program that cost me almost nothing and gave me so much in return!
So unless you have the financial means to do whatever the hell you want, I would only pursue MFA programs that leave you with little or no debt. You want your writing to be the focus, after all, and you don’t want to have the stress of trying to pay for so much out of pocket semester after semester.
5. You think the community and connections you make will be forever.
One thing that’s both magical and heartbreaking about an MFA program is that eventually it has to end. And when it does, everything changes. Sure, you get to take with you what you got out of it, especially when it comes to the improvement of your own writing, but when it comes to the people you worked with and engaged with on a weekly basis, that community you helped build is unfortunately no more.
Yes, you will make life-long connections and friendships in an MFA program. I certainly made a few of them. But my best friends from the program all moved away after we graduated, and so there’s no longer that face-to-face connection that made every semester in the program such a pleasure.
The same goes with all the professors you work with. Sure, you’ll follow many of them on Facebook, you’ll write each other e-mails at times, but for the most part they’re busy with the new MFA students and you’re sort of on your own path now. They’ll always be there for you if you need them, but you’re no longer a priority.
So if you’re pursuing an MFA program strictly for the community and connections, keep in mind they don’t last forever. If you’re super lucky, maybe you’ll keep a smaller version of that community going long after you graduate, but for the most part, people go their separate ways.
So please — pursue an MFA in Creative Writing for the right reasons.
If this is something you want to do, then go for it, but don’t do it solely because you want a tenure-track teaching job, or because you want to get published more often, or because you want to sign with a literary agent. An MFA program is also not worth going into debt for, and keep in mind that the community and connections you make in the program aren’t necessarily forever.
Instead, do it for the right reasons. Do it for the time that allows you to be creative and find your writing voice. Do it for the community you’ll be a part of and the connections you’ll make during the program. Do it to give you some more credibility and to help improve in your craft.
And one last thing to keep in mind, too — there are so many MFA in Creative Writing programs out there. If it’s something you’re serious about, do your research and only pursue the ones that work well for you. And if you don’t want to pursue an MFA? That’s fine, too. You can still be a successful writer without an MFA, never forget that.
Whatever you end up doing, whether you pursue an MFA in Creative Writing or not, I wish you only the best. Keep writing, keep improving. And never ever give up!
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