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MFA—Do you need one?

Someone applying to my MFA program asked me the other night whether I’m glad I went. “Yes,” I said, “but …” I do have a few complaints. Not many, but a few.

First of all, do you need an MFA? I was told by a workshop leader at the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference back in 2003 that I only needed an MFA if I planned to teach. Another workshop leader said, “Let’s get you into an MFA program”—I guess he saw potential in my writing, but knew that it needed work, and thought an MFA would help. I did plan to teach one day, and I wanted to learn to write better, but I didn’t want to move cross country, so I applied to Mills College in Oakland, a fifteen-minute drive from my house.

When I started Mills in the spring of 2004, I had never taken a creative writing class in my life. I had been working as a newspaper reporter for three years at small monthly and daily newspapers, and I had just joined my first critique group, but that was the extent of my writing experience. I had wanted to study creative writing at UCLA as an undergrad, but it was complicated since I had transferred there as a junior, and it would have delayed my graduation. I started Mills in the spring because, after being accepted there for the fall of 2003, I realized that I couldn’t afford the tuition ($36k). It was only after learning of all the financial aid available that I enrolled the following semester.

Mills requires 11 credits to graduate (each class=1 credit): 4 writing workshops, 4 literature classes, 1 thesis credit (which isn’t a class) and 2 electives. One of the literature classes has to be a craft class, and at least three of your writing workshops have to be in your genre (poetry or prose now, but back then I think prose was divided into fiction and creative nonfiction). I was working at the time and, although I was only taking two classes/semester, I found it difficult to keep up, so for my first writing workshop I submitted pieces that I’d already written and did almost no writing at all. They were excerpts from a memoir I had started, but in no order and with no connection to one another.

During my two and a half years at Mills, I learned a lot about dialogue, description, point of view, and characterization. But I didn’t have much time to write. The fiction classes and electives took up a lot of my time, and I just wanted to write. (For two of my electives, I took classes on how to teach writing—one for composition and the other creative writing. I took a third elective in book binding, which KICKED MY ASS. I pulled three all nighters to get my final project done.)

I learned better critiquing etiquette, although I admit that I rarely read people’s handwritten critiques. I listened in class and took notes (and had good intentions to read all those critiques one day), but revised more based on the comments that stuck in my mind than on specific edits. I wasn’t emotionally invested in my writing, which was very helpful because some people don’t have good critiquing etiquette and can be very harsh. I think all those years modeling in Europe gave me a thick skin when it came to writing.

I learned a lot about writing, but there were some really basic craft elements, like plot, that weren’t taught. When I asked the head of the department why they weren’t being taught, she said it was assumed that writers in an MFA program already knew that stuff and, if they didn’t, they would take the initiative to learn it on their own. That made sense to me. Why bore the people who studied creative writing in undergrad with the basics for the few of us who had never studied it before? So I bought some books and learned what I could on my own.

I loved Mills, and I had great professors, including Yiyun Li, Victor LaValle, and Daniel Alarcón, but I do have a few small complaints. We were only allowed to turn in 75-90 pages of our book for our thesis. I turned in 100, and they were okay with that, but after 2.5 years in an MFA program, I had hoped my book would be complete. Instead, I was too busy revising those first 100 pages to write any more. Another disappointment? My thesis reader and advisor didn’t give me any feedback on my thesis. They both pretty much signed off on it with a bunch of comments like, “Wow!” “Interesting” and “Great!” I was too tired and too anxious to graduate to protest. It was nice not to have to revise, but a year later when I was paying an editor to read it, I was thinking, “Wait. Didn’t I just pay $25,000 for this?” I was also disappointed to learn from that same editor that after all those workshops and lit classes, I still didn’t know the difference between scene and summary. For a $40 lesson, she explained it to me very succinctly. (She, too, was a professor at Mills, but one who taught undergrads, so she was used to explaining the basics.) I realized that for as much as I had learned, I could learn a lot more.

So I left Mills with 100 pages of the first draft of my book completed, a network of writing friends, and a degree that I can use to teach, when I’m ready to teach. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Do you NEED an MFA to write and publish books? Absolutely not. Can you teach without an MFA? If you’re well known enough, yes, but for most people, no, not at the college level. In fact, I know someone who has two novels published (or is it three?) and is earning her MFA in order to teach.

In the end, there is nothing more valuable than butt-in-the-chair experience. Although craft books, critique groups, and writing classes are extremely valuable, there is no substitute for writing as often as you can (every day if possible) and reading everything you can get your hands on.

What about you? Do you think writing can be taught? How did you “learn” to write?

20 comments to MFA—Do you need one?

  • LOL about book binding. I took that in undergrad and LOVED it. I still have my first project on my coffee table at home.

    Overall I agree with everything you've said, only I came to these conclusions BEFORE getting an MFA. Also, my undergrad writing program was basically run like a (less intense) MFA, so I feel like I've gotten a really solid foundation that is enough for now. So I'm out doing the butt-in-chair, Real World educational program first. I'll go back for an MFA if/when I decide I really do want to teach (and haven't gotten famous enough to do it without the MFA :P).

  • Great post Meghan. I don't have an MFA, but I do have an MS in English, technical writing. My MS taught me nothing about fiction but it did teach me about readability and fostered a deeper sense of research and concern in my work. I'm glad I have it but it means nothing to my fiction writing.

    I think it comes down to, as you say, butt-in-the-chair time.

  • Another great post! Thanks, Meghan. In my long experience as a technical writer and my short experience a fiction writer, I have found that nothing is more educational than having an editor (or better yet, multiple editors) and revising repeatedly. I love getting a manuscript back and seeing marks all over it, knowing that someone actually cared enough to read and improve my writing. I love those "Aha! Of course!" moments as I read their insightful comments. I also love the moments of "Hmm, not sure I agree" when I make the decision as the author not to use their suggestion (this happens rarely). The entire process of going through edits is educational, reflective, and exciting for me. That being said, I think there is a strong case to be made for getting as much education as you can about the craft and the art of writing, and an MFA has undoubtedly helped you more than you probably even realize, since the things you learned are now just part of you as you write. I know I'd probably be a better writer if I'd gotten an MFA, so although it's not required, it can only help in the long run.

  • Kristan – I loved book binding, but our professor was really tough and I knew the only way I'd get an A in the class was to come up with some over-the-top spectacular final project. Sadly, I was too traumatized by the experience to ever bind a book again! (I hope that will change one day, though.)

    Sierra – I didn't know you had an MS in technical writing! (or that there was such a thing!)

    Jackie – speaking of getting a manuscript back, I get mine back on MONDAY from my editor in New York. I'm scared! I'm so sick of my book, and I can't believe I'm going to have to revise it again. And possibly again. Lord help me!

  • This comment is more specific to art and illustration – I m self taught in both those areas – I think going to school wd have helped with craft and technique, networking (HUGE!), exposure (not just to my work – but others), individual approach and processes, Feedback and DEADLINES – the pressure to produce wd be greater by several orders of magnitude – than when u r trying to do it on your own ( like me) -At the end of the degree, if not anything, yr – at least – my work habits wd improve –

    however, I already have two degrees in architecture, and have no desire or money to go back to school for a design or creative program.

    One may argue that I cd have had been a self taught architect – however, it is much harder to be a self taught architect than a self taught (other) creative profession – there is only ONE well known self taught architect in the entire pantheon of great architects (and I LOVE his work) – and many more self taught artists, writers and illustrators – I think its because architecture is extremely technical (like engineering) beyond the creative process and it is impossible to do without it – even "self-teaching" involves internships and apprenticeship – as opposed to other creative fields.

    So MFAs ( altho architecture is either MArch or MS) is good depending on what yr needs are and how quickly you want to acquire and practice the skills – if I wanted to be an illustrator for hire – I wd probably get a degree – but since I know that I want to make my living from a day job – completely unrelated to writing and illustrating children's book – I have decided not to get an MFA or even a BFA in art or illustration – the good thing about not dependingon making children's book for a living is I can really be "creative" with it, not be under pressure to publish or compromise.

    But if I wanted a job or teach in that field I wd definitely get a MFA .

  • Aditi – thanks for the detailed comment! You definitely don't need an MFA in illustration! (At least that's my opinion). I'm curious to know who the self-taught architect is!

  • Its Tadao Ando! – My Favorite top 5 architect(s)? –

  • […] Meghan asks if an MFA is really necessary over at Writerland […]

  • I'm certainly anxious to begin my MFA…when I find the right one. Taking a book-binding class…WOW. What an idea! That is something I would revel in, I think. (I actually looked into bookbinding as a career – thank you, Cornelia Funke.) I suppose I haven't really considered just how much disappointment there might be in the MFA experience, but the idea of honing my creative side with the best of the best is part of what inspires me.

    Thanks for outlining the experience for us, Meghan. Personal experience stories really help; I've really enjoyed reading similar articles in the Writer's Digest MFA column.

  • Veronika, I'm not familiar with the Writer's Digest MFA column. Thanks for mentioning it. I've been surprised lately to hear of more and more authors (with successful memoirs, novels, and short stories already published) who are getting MFAs in order to teach. Makes me glad I put my time in when I did.

  • Great post. I considered Mills for my MFA but ended up going to USF. I'm glad I did. My thesis turned out to be over 180 pages of short fiction. Rather than a maximum, USF has a minimum amount of pages for your thesis (I believe it's been increased to 150 pages). I don't think I could have learned so much about craft on my own, and in 2½ years, I ended up with a full length manuscript. While there were a few in USF's MFA program that intended to pursue teaching, I would have to say the majority my classmates were not there because they wanted to teach. Most really wanted to pursue MFAs because they wanted to bring their writing to the next level.

    • meghancward

      That's wonderful that you finished a full-length ms in 2.5 years, Lisa. Some people did at Mills, too, but because it wasn't required and because it wouldn't be ready by staff, you had to be extremely self-motivated to do so. And I definitely think an MFA will take your writing to the next level, but that there are other ways to achieve that, too, that are far less expensive.

  • peter

    Great post. That kind of scares me away from the MFA program, as I have no real desire to teach either… I already did my creative writing in undergrad, so I'm scared if that 30-40k would be worth it. Now, if I could get funded? That is another story… I just feel like I might be delaying the inevitable of "making a choice" by considering going back to school for another degree.

    • meghancward

      It really is an individual decision, Peter. There are some people whose books I read and think that they could really benefit from an MFA program – but if they're dedicated and persistent, they could get that same feedback and experience by being in a great writer's group and taking classes at a place like the San Francisco Writers' Grotto, which offers writing workshops structured very much like they are in an MFA program. I guess the advantage of an MFA is that your education is concentrated into two years, that you build a network of writing friends (I think I have 40+ Facebook Friends from my MFA program, and that you CAN teach if you ever decide to. Just don't expect to go in and come out with a finished manuscript. You may, but you may not, depending on the requirements of the program. I graduated in 2006 and am STILL revising the book I wrote in that program six years later.

  • Matt

    I am applying for MFA programs right now as I can't find many pure Creative Writing MA programs in the LA area. I'm not going to move due to my spouse's job and nice house. Also, I cannot afford to apply to any of the private schools in the area, so that leaves Cal State LA, Cal State Northridge and UCLA. Did I miss any? I want to do writing but am willing and also interested in other area thus making an MFA with a writing emphasis viable, too. Any ideas or thoughts?

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