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To MFA or Not To MFA, That Is NOT The Question

Tanya Paperny / Friday, December 18, 2009 Comments Off

36mfaI’m re-hashing an old debate here, but I only want to rehash it for the sake of silencing it once and for all:

Is writing creatively something that can be taught?  Is getting an MFA (Masters of Fine Arts degree) in Creative Writing a waste of time and money?  [Read the instances of these arguments: Should Creative Writing Be Taught? and here Why Always Write in a Room Of One's Own?]

Okay, let me say right off the bat that I’m not a fair candidate to debate this issue since I’m currently enrolled in an MFA Program.  But I think I can still fairly go on a mini-rant.

The MFA isn’t right for everyone.  A lot of people are doing it.  Many people consciously are not.

I am one of the former.

Sometimes I wish I hadn’t gone to grad school because I’m going to be in debt from student loans for decades, but I know myself.  I’m not self-motivated enough to start my writing career without the luxury of two years time dedicated to my writing.  Sometimes I think I could have just started a writing group and blogged more and gone to workshops about the publishing industry instead of doing this MFA, but then I know that the realities of my full-time activist job meant that I couldn’t really focus on writing or have time to do all those things.  But that’s just me.  Some people are go-getters, well-connected.  My graduate program is helping me tap into my ambitious writerly self that others can create for themselves.  My full-time job sucked up all my brain power and creativity (for a cause I care about), and left little to no energy for writing.  I am paying (a ton of money) for this luxury, and I certainly know that’s not doable or preferable for many people.

Also, I just love school.  I’m a nerd like that.

Long story short, I won’t try to talk anyone into or out of getting an MFA, and I don’t think people on the internet should waste their time doing so, either.  It’s an institution that’s not going anywhere for a long time.  Universities are making money off their MFA programs.  Many well-known contemporary writers got their starts in graduate school.  Many others never studied writing formally.  Neither path is better or more likely to lead to success.  It’s about the individual and their needs. Admit that to yourself.  Get used to it.  Live with it.  Now, internetz, start talking about something else.

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More: Rants / Writing
  • http://wisb.blogspot.com/ SMD

    The answer is both yes and no. Yes, you can teach some aspects of creative writing. You can teach people basic plot, basic writing skills (grammar, spelling, sentence structure), and basic storytelling. Kids, after all, learn most of this in regular school, and all MFA programs are supposed to be doing is take that to the logical extreme, with heavy crit workshops and a lot of studying of “good writing” (I think that last part is flawed, though, since “good writing” is inherently arbitrary and subject to the biases of the professor, rather than a collective understanding of the wide range of “good writing” out there).

    On the other hand, however, you can’t teach people to be “good” writers. By that I mean that you can’t teach someone how to write good stories, good characters, or fiction that is “publishable.” You can facilitate the learning of those things, but most of what makes writers good has to do with a natural skill. Most people cannot be good writers. A lot of people can be adequate writers, and some are simple terrible at it and are better suited to other things. All we can teach in MFA programs are basic skills; the role of the MFA program is more to provide an avenue to fine-tune implied talent.

    At least, that’s how I see it. My problem with MFA programs is that they are essentially useless in the real world. Once you graduate, all you can do is teach, and often not at a high paying rate or with a lot of protection. Your degree is also mostly useless to most industries, with exception to the book industry. And having an MFA is not at all an automatic “get published” free card. Most people don’t get published, so the MFA itself is really only useful if you want to teach creative writing, not if you want to be a published writer. The MFA also rarely offers anything you can’t get elsewhere for free (some programs are exceptional, though, and offer things that you can’t buy elsewhere).

    This is why I chose not to go into creative writing for my degree. I want to be able to get a job when I graduate (I’ll have a PhD. hopefully). Creative writing couldn’t make me a strong enough guarantee. That said, I still write frequently and submit. I never gave up on my writing, just put some of my time aside to do career things.

    And that’s all I have to say on that.

  • http://libraryalchemy.wordpress.com Leigh Anne

    Excellent post – from my personal pov, as somebody who loves to write and wants to improve, but already has an M.A. and an MLLS, well…I need an MFA like a hole in the head. Also, those loans! Gah!

    I’ve been working through the exercises in The Portable MFA in Creative Writing (New York Writers Workshop) and enjoying it greatly; the introduction also discusses some reasons why you might or might not want an MFA.

  • Alex

    There are more uses than you think for an English major on the whole- especially creative writing. When I originally changed my major from Education, I was looking for a something I loved doing and learned far more about the field then I probably intended. With an MFA you can do any form of editing for publishing companies, magazines, etc. but almost all require a masters degree. It is also possible to do speech writing or advertising. It was actually quite amazing the length of things I discovered an English major with a concentration in Creative Writing can do; it is no longer all about teaching.
    I consider teaching my EXTREME fallback; if I can not do whatever it is I want to when I am done with my MFA, then maybe, just maybe I will teach.

  • http://www.annborger.com AnnB2

    “if I can not do whatever it is I want to when I am done with my MFA, then maybe, just maybe I will teach.” Do yourself and prospective students a favor and DON’T TEACH. Wait tables with enthusiasm, design gardens or move furniture. Then you will have something to write about that others may find interesting. The world does not need more teachers who would rather be doing something else.

  • http://www.litdrift.com Tanya Paperny

    Ditto. Sigh.

  • Charlene

    I agree with ANNB2, please don’t teach as a last resort. It’s a disservice to the kids. I actually love teaching and am pursuing my MFA not only to improve my writing, but so I can teach students who actually want to learn.

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