Should You Get an MFA?

I have been meaning to tackle MFA programs for longer than I’ve had the blog. Tons of writers have asked me: is it worth it to get an MFA? Does that catch your eye in a query? Is the actual curriculum going to take my writing to the next level?

As many of you know, I recently completed my MFA. Before I can speak about the MFA experience in general, I have to speak about my MFA experience, which was not altogether positive. I mean no disrespect to the hard-working directors, professors, advisers, and students at the University of San Francisco. However, I want to be truthful. And the truth is, I often felt like a pariah in my program on two counts: as a children’s writer and as a publishing industry insider.

First, there were a lot of people there (all writing serious adult fiction) who didn’t get children’s books. My first workshop started with someone saying: “Well, I never expected profundity from a children’s manuscript.” (There were a few genre writers in the program who, I think, got a bit of the same snobby treatment because they weren’t writing literary fiction.) That’s fine, though. There’s a well-known bias against kidlit in adult literary circles and I don’t waste my time defending my profession to people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

Second, though, and more problematic, is that I worked in publishing and concerned myself with ideas of market and audience and sales hooks and all that unsavory business. I can’t help it. As an agent, saleability and hook is just how I think. People were very quick to brand me a corporate sellout. More on that later.

While I did have trouble fitting in, for the above reasons, I can say that I found workshop useful and that I met one of my dear mentors through the program. I also either started or finished several manuscripts over the course of the two-year MFA, and improved with each one. How much of this was the program and how much was it my growing experience in agenting and publishing? Hard to say. How much of it was the MFA and how much of it was my own writing habits? Also hard to say.

One of my issues with MFA programs is that it seems like a lot of students go there and buy the scaffolding to allow themselves to finish a manuscript. I’m the opposite, and ridiculously self-driven. I’d written something like four manuscripts and gotten an agent before entering the program, so I couldn’t relate to the majority of students who seemed to be there to finish a book for the first time in their lives. A lot of people work well under pressure or deadline, and most of my peers seemed to be paying for the experience of a structured, two-year plan to finish. If you’re having problems executing a book, this might actually be the perfect fit for you: a completed manuscript is the “thesis” of most MFA programs, it’s a graduation requirement.

Another issue is that the professors and directors treat the MFA as an artistic cocoon. Writers are there to write and think about art and craft (which is great, don’t get me wrong), but the program doesn’t teach the industry or the business…you know, all the stuff that, ideally, happens after you finish your magnum opus. I think it’s perfectly fair to focus on the gestation of the manuscript during the MFA, but the truth is, the publishing industry exists, and it’s a business. And no matter how much (the majority of) the students rant and rave against traditional publication, I know most of them are interested in actually getting their work published, paid for, and read widely.

Not only is industry talk relegated to one dreary afternoon — the “Life After the MFA” workshop — but it’s actually frowned upon in the classroom and socially. I asked one of my advisers, point blank: “How many of our alums actually get their books published?” She frowned and said: “Not many.” Nobody is going to pay back their student loans with their contributor’s copies from the Small Time Literary Review (the only payment you get from most journals and magazines), but a lot of MFA students act as if this is the right and noble thing to do. The tortured/starving/pissed-off artistĂ© cliche is alive and well. Lots of MFA alums have told me that the exact same vibe exists across the country.

My beef with MFA programs isn’t really what happens during them — all that focus on craft and writing is a beautiful thing — but what happens after. There’s precious little information about publishing to guide your next steps, and not a lot of empathy for those dreaming of publication with a big house. A lot of students in my program actually come back and audit classes after graduation to feel the community of the MFA again, since it’s the first time they’ve had a critique group or felt like a real writer. The same students who need a MFA program to finish a book are also relying on their MFA program to be their only workshop opportunity, their legitimacy. And that’s an expensive way to learn how to write a manuscript. Last I checked, anyone can form a critique group, it’s just a matter of initiative and a little elbow grease to find the right people. I was in a critique group before and after my MFA, so the idea of workshop wasn’t totally revolutionary to me, either.

But if MFA programs had to start tallying up their publication stats — much like undergraduate universities advertise their job placement percentages for recent grads — a lot of them would be in trouble. Because for most programs, the stats aren’t good. The truth is, an MFA does not guarantee publication, because nobody and nothing in life (except worldwide celebrity) can guarantee a book deal. So MFA faculty and directors have taken the focus entirely off publication and put it on the writing journey. That way, the MFA process itself is fulfilling because there’s not quantifiable end goal. There’s no pressure. I totally get where the MFA programs are coming from with this. But I still think it’s detrimental to the writers, who now have two years of fuzzy writerly feelings and no idea what to do next.

To tell you the whole, honest truth: seeing that you have an MFA in a query letter doesn’t really impress me, unless you went to a really high-profile school. I’ve read the writing coming out of my MFA program and some of the work from second year students wasn’t much better than what I see from rank beginners in my slush. I’m not trying to be mean, at all. But I judge writing professionally, every day, and most of the work I saw wouldn’t pass muster.

I do wonder if I would’ve had the same experience if I’d gone to a program specifically targeted to children’s writers. If I could go back in time, I’d probably apply to Vermont (website). There are other programs that have MFA programs for children’s writers. Hamline (website), Simmons (website) and the New School (website) come to mind. Though, to be honest, I don’t know if I’d get an MFA if I had it to do all over. I’m not sure the whole experience — the nitty gritty writing mixed with the high-brow attitude — is a fit for me, as a person.

At the end of the day, I think I’ve learned so much more about writing by simply working in the industry than I ever did in the classroom. I also learned a whole lot by reading, and not just the same old short stories that seem to be part of every writing curriculum. I mean reading in my chosen genre, thousands and thousands of books above and beyond what I was assigned, because that’s just what I do. I know my approach (work in publishing, become an agent, read thousands of books) isn’t realistic for everyone, but since I started in publishing at the same time that I started my MFA, I can’t tell which influence is really responsible for what I know now. I am a better writer than I was two years ago (in all my spare time — ha!), but I think that came from a wide mix of experiences, not the least of which is putting my butt in the seat and actually, you know, writing.

If I was running my own program — and several agents and I have discussed this fantasy because we get frustrated with the output from today’s MFA programs — I’d run a mix of MFA and MBA, much like suggested in this cheeky little article that I found this morning.

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  1. Erin Brady Pike’s avatar

    Thank you so much for posting this! I’ve been trying to figure out whether an MFA program would be a good avenue for me (like you, I’m self motivated and don’t have a problem getting my butt in a chair and finishing a novel). I write YA and am looking into Vermont but I shudder at the thought of racking up more student loans. It’s good to hear an insider’s perspective on how much clout an MFA carries in the publishing world –which, apparently, isn’t much. I guess the hardest part is deciding whether I can improve as much as I’d like to just from reading fiction and reading craft books.

    Either way –you’ve given me a lot to think about. Thankees!

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