Creative Writing MFA Programs

Should I get an MFA in writing for children? The age-old question! I have been meaning to tackle creative writing 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?

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Wondering if you should get a MFA in writing for children? Some thoughts from an MFA graduate…

My Experience in Creative Writing MFA Programs: A Caveat

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.) Obviously, mine was not an MFA in writing for children, so take this with a grain of salt.

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. (The battle of business vs. art rages on in creative writing MFA programs, as you can imagine.) 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.

Are Creative Writing MFA Programs Worth It? It Depends On What You Want Out of It

One of my issues with creative writing 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 creative writing 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.

Do You Want a Creative Focus or a Practical Focus?

Some creative writing MFA programs are great about informing their students of the ins and outs of the publishing process. Mine was not. 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 artisté cliche is alive and well. Lots of MFA alums, even in MFA in writing for children programs, have told me that the exact same vibe exists across the country. There are some more practical programs. If this is your mindset, you’ve been warned, and you’d do well to find one of those.

How Much Support to Expect From An MFA Program

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 (some advice on how to finish writing a novel here). 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 creative writing 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.

If Your Goal is Writing, Go For It. If Your Goal Is Publication, You May Want To Look Elsewhere…

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 in writing for children programs. Hamline (website), Simmons (website) and the New School (website) come to mind.

Decide What You Want, Then Decide If a Program Fits

Though, to be honest, I don’t know if I’d get a creative writing 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.

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.

As a freelance novel editor, I have actually been called a “one-woman MFA program.” Kim’s words, not mine. If you’re looking for that comprehensive novel focus without going back to school, hire me.

55 Replies to “Creative Writing MFA Programs”

  1. Great article. I’ve been investigating education in order to look into doing freelance editing. . . So I’ve come across the MFA a few times. Thank you for your article. Love your honesty!

  2. What a great article. I also love your honesty. I tweeted this, but I’ll also stick the link here. My favorite answer to the MFA question is always this amazing poem by Marge Piercy: http://bit.ly/5rmE9a

  3. Thanks for sharing. Ideally, I would love to have the opportunity to earn an MFA. The reality is, I come from the schools of OJT and Hard Knocks, and will probably never again have a chance to enroll in the program. But after 15 years in the military, an MA and an MS, I wouldn’t trade my life experiences for the opportunity. The generous online community of publishing professionals continue to add to my writer’s toolbox. Give me a couple of years to break through and I’ll let you know if all that works. I may find myself jumping in line for an MFA.

  4. I’ve been looking into some programs as well. I didn’t want to do a full MFA program, so I’ve been considering taking a course at the Institute for Childrens Lit.

    Have you heard about this program? Would it be worth it or should I just spend the time doing a full MFA?


  5. I liked this comment from the article you linked to: “Is there a sort of shame in Academia that goes along with getting paid to write? Is the act of writing less pure if you are rewarded with readers and money?”

    I can’t help but wonder if those in academia soon learned they had no audience, got bitter about the fact that no one cared about their Very Important Work, and so had to turn the idea of not getting published or paid into a cause in order to feel better about reality. Just a theory.

    Thanks for the honest evaluation, Mary! I can tell I would not enjoy being a part of that type of writer community. The kidlit world is so much more supportive that I’m not sure I could stomach the pretentiousness elsewhere.

    I like what I hear about Vermont and Hamline. Let me know if you ever hear anything about the University of British Columbia’s program. I’ve noticed they teach a children’s lit and an editing/publishing class from time to time. I agree I would probably fit in better in a program dedicated exclusively to children’s literature, but UBC has me curious because the residency is optional.

  6. Thanks for your thoughts, your trademark frankness, and for the links to the MFA programs. Your insider knowledge and perspective are priceless. I’m so glad you choose to share them.

  7. Thank you for answering a nagging question that’s be haunting me daily. As an aspiring author with no formal training, I couldn’t help but wonder should I head down the MFA road. Your insight certainly helps in determining what’s best for me. I had narrowed my considerations to programs that had a focus on kidlit, and specifically Vermont and UCLA’s extension program (which offers a certificate program and can be done online). Your insight is certainly more valuable than any brochure or information session wooing me with the promise of a literary utopia. On behalf of aspiring authors desperately seeking answers everywhere, THANKS!

  8. An MFA combined with an MBA sounds like a brilliant program! My university English department was bad enough as far as high-brow literary elitism. It was such a turn-off I switched to psychology. There’s a LOT more to being a writer than perfect prose. Thanks, as always, for pulling back the wool. Until there’s such a program, all we can do is self-educate!

  9. This is such a timely post for me. I was just talking yesterday to my boss about going back to school for an MFA. Very interesting perspective, thanks!

  10. I totally got this post! I attended my first writer’s conference last winter. In the first read and critique session, the writer’s were asked to state their genre and education level. Most had MFA’s and wrote literary fiction and I found myself the only one who answered, “Young Adult. No MFA.” I caught the haughty looks and eye rolls.

    As we went around the room and read our first five pages, I was struck by how beautifully crafted the writing sounded but for the most part their stories lacked voice and soul, and how much alike they sounded in their quest to impress each other. My intimidation lessened after each read. I can truly say, I didn’t hear a single publish-worthy piece.

    I learned a valuable lesson in that session. Sometimes the disciplined novice who dives in and writes from the heart is better off staying away from these programs and learning the craft part on their own from the many resources available. The big question is, can you learn voice and soul in these programs?

  11. Brilliantly written! Hooray for your thoughtful honesty. That these programs don’t teach the business of writing is a tragedy. The goal of an education is to help further your career. These programs aren’t cheap and yet you are not taught how to recoup that investment. I’ve met with MFA grads who didn’t even know what a query letter was. I was floored (and sad for them).

    Thank you to AS for the tweet and the link. This was well worth the read! I’ll be passing it along.

  12. THANK YOU!
    This answered so many of my questions! I’ve been throwing the MFA idea back and forth and wondering if it’s worth it. This post was very helpful in telling me what actually is accomplished through an MFA. Thanks!

  13. I am not at all “literary.” My degree is in French and Spanish, and they made us study “Siglo de Oro” (Golden Age) literature in Spanish. My thought every class was, why on Earth would anyone want to write just to write beautifully, without any particular meaning. For me, writing’s about saying something. If I wanted pretty pictures, I’d go to an art gallery.

    Since I’ve started taking my writing seriously, I’ve worried I wouldn’t fit in at most MFA’s. Vermont is actually one of my favourite programs to daydream about. Children’s Writing AND translation. Le sigh!

  14. As a recent graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, I can assure you that there is a HUGE difference in programs that are tailored to teaching the craft of writing for children and young adults. There is no elitism there; there are as many people who are interested in learning how to craft a brilliant picture book as there are in writing young adult contemporary novels.

    Quite frankly, I have told many people that the decision to attend VCFA was the second-best decision I have ever made (the first one was marrying my husband). While an MFA from VCFA doesn’t assure publication, I honestly feel what I learned in my two years there would have taken me a dozen years to learn on my own. I was mentored by generous and talented women and men–all of whom have won or were nominated for prestigious awards including the Newbery, the National Book Award, and the Governors’ General Award. While that recognition gives validation to their writing, they were all talented teachers as well. I will be forever grateful to them for what they taught me, both directly on my manuscripts, and indirectly, through their own writings.

    And while there is the same emphasis on teaching craft at VCFA (rather than the business side of publishing), there is also a large network of well-published alumni, who are gracious about sharing their experiences and knowledge post-graduation.

    While entering an MFA program is not for everyone, I highly suggest looking into Vermont College if you are considering MFAs.

  15. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I’m sorry that your MFA experience was mixed. I agree that an MFA isn’t a prerequisite for publication. My educational background (and student debt) is in law and journalism, and both have been a blessing to me in writing fiction as well as navigating publishing.

    Thanks for mentioning the VCFA program! With the disclaimer that I’m no official spokesperson, I’d like to add that writing for young readers is our enthusiastic focus. Those of us who teach are actively and successfully publishing for young readers. We are bestsellers and award winners. We’re teaching because we love it and care about our students and their work.

    No degree program can guarantee success in a given field (and definitions of “success” vary wildly), but a remarkable number of our graduates go on to publish. Others are well published when they arrive and seek to take their craft to the next level or try a format new to them (such as picture book writers who want to dive into writing novels).

    The program is structured to each individual’s needs. For example, they all are expected to read broadly and in a way that informs their work, but every graduate’s final bibliography will be unique.

    Moreover, our graduates make up one of the most congenial and active networks in the youth publishing.

    All that said, I don’t consider it my principle task to babysit anyone through crafting a manuscript. As you say, they can do that on their own. Rather, I hope to contribute to their craft development, helping them build and further develop skills that will serve them over a writing lifetime.

  16. Mary,
    Thanks for the great post. I actually did the MFA at Vermont, and really did love it. I learned so much and I know it took my writing to a new level.It probably rank as two of my best years. I will always covet those years. However, I totally agree with you on your beef about what comes next. Other than a quick afternoon of what to do next, we were given a piece of paper, a pat on the back and told good luck out there in the big bad world. For some of us they were already for publishing, too many were quickly disheartened that two years of hard work didn’t net better result and for some of us we walked away with a profound feeling that there was a ton more to learn, and yes, I was in the last category. I think what everyone should remember when taking an MFA if you are open to the process it will take your level to the next level, but it is just a step on a journey and you got to keep working for that next step. There is always a ton more to learn.

  17. I’m shocked MFA programs (or at least the one you attended) don’t focus more on the business side of things. People who get degrees in other artistic fields – like interior design, for instance – spend close to half their time in business-related classes, because when all is said and done, that’s what they’ll be doing: running a business.

    Same with writing. I suppose if all you’re interested in doing is living in a dingy apartment with nothing but a desk and a typewriter and living off second-rate booze, you won’t need the business sense. But I have yet to meet a writer who had no goal to publish.

  18. Heh, I’m not cool enough to hang with the MFA crowd, but I have friends with MBAs who will point-blank say, don’t waste your time getting one if you want to start your own business. Same sort of thing. Real-world applications, what?

    I love college, but, with a lot of (if not most) degrees, I think it’s something you do to enrich yourself as a person, not necessarily a means to an ends. (Especially at the price of tuition these days. Starting your life 100,000k in the hole is a pretty big impediment.)

  19. Wow! What a post. Glad to hear from an insider. After careful consideration, I’ve chosen to pursue a masters in CW simply because I love to write. However, I must admit that in recent weeks I’ve explored other options. Public Admin. because I’m in that industry. I looked into masters for being a reading specialist in ed. I was really torn over the decision. A masters in any of those will help me move up and on, maybe. The CW masters will allow me to pursue teaching in college, I think. Not too concerned with it at the moment. I found a small school that seems to really fit me right now. And I’m really looking forward to it.
    Not for putting it on a query letter or anything like that. I just want to keep learning and pursuing this stuff/writing with quality feedback.
    I believe each of us has to run our own race. Find your own path in life. What works for one may not work for another and vice versa! Follow your heart and trust your instincts and keep moving forward.
    Thanks for your thoughts on MFA. I remember discussing this with you in June at the NJ conference. I haven’t forgotten that what I right is not your thing. I just check in to your blog ’cause I enjoy the info. and your thoughts on the topics.

  20. A great post, and so honest. I just finished my MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University (UK). Like some of the Vermonters, I have to say the program was one of the best things I ever did with my life. But I hear some of your comments, especially about people using the course’s structure to force them to complete a novel. As someone more dedicated to writing, that was frustrating at times. Also, the people in my program used to laugh at our adult creative writing counterparts–they seemed so literary and so unhappy! However, my program was truly focused on good writing, literary or not. Publication was also emphasized quite a bit. We had a semester long class taught by an industry professional (a children’s lit book scout). And even though the program has only been running for just over five years, Bath Spa very much brags about their publishing track record.

    I’m sorry you had such a bad experience. I can easily imagine it. But there are amazing programs out there.

  21. Ugh! I know. I just took my first pre-req class for the MFA ( I graduated with an accounting degree ) and the professor asked me what book I was reading. I told her I was reading Nicholas Sparks. I thought she was going to spit on me, kick me out, or slap me across the face. She replied she would never read the garbage on the top sellers list.
    I stifled a laugh. Some people just don’t get it. Who cares if you right a hundred stories you find great. Who are you reaching with your writing? No one.
    I have only taken one class and I dread showing up every week. It is awful, but I promised my dad I’d get my masters. I pray this will be worth all the frustration.

    Thanks for sharing. I needed to know I’m not the only one screaming inside at professors that walk around with their nose in the air.

  22. THANK YOU for this. i applied to a handful of MFA programs last year, and was only accepted to one. that one did not offer funding, so i didn’t accept. a year after applying, i have adapted a novel from an 8-page story i submitted with my applications and can’t imagine not working on this project, which i absolutely adore, even through these mind-numbing revisions. 🙂

    i struggled for a while over whether or not to reapply this year, but i’m glad i didn’t. while i still love the idea of an MFA with all that time to read and write and gain built-in critique partners, i don’t think it’s for me. i also had concerns about children’s lit not being taken seriously. like you, i’m pretty self-driven and have learned SO much simply through reading and writing. and friends who have been through MFA programs haven’t exactly given them a glowing recommendation, which was another thing to think about. but that is not to say i think the MFA is a bad idea, because i don’t think that at all. i think it can be really great – i just don’t think it’s for everyone.

  23. Thank you! You just saved me $25,000! I actually applied and was accepted for an MA in Creative Writing four years ago (I couldn’t afford an MFA program at the time) but when I got pregnant with baby #5, I declined admission. I’ve been pining after that coveted higher degree ever since. I really, really wanted the MFA! But the money! Argh!

    I already have my first book deal. I have nine other completed manuscripts (I know! I know! How do I find the time to write with 5 kids???) I don’t have an agent yet, but I haven’t really looked very hard.

    What I basically got from your blog is that I’d be wasting a lot of time and money on an MFA. I am not into artsy fartsy “literary” writing (or in other words writing for sake of writing.) I want to be published! And someday down the road I’d actually like to make a profit doing it.

    So I thank you from the bottom of my wallet. And I’m sure my husband, who would have had to pay for my education, will thank you, too! Love your blog! BTW – Hope you don’t mind, I put a link to your blog on my new site. You’re one of my favs. (Can 40+ year old mothers of 5 say that?)

  24. Oh my goodness it’s like you have been eavesdropping on my conversations throughout and after my undergrad – about why I hated creative writing majors (I was one) and why I did not want to get my MFA. By the way, I’m fairly new, but I absolutely love this blog.

  25. I had been considering an MFA not because I need the structure to finish a manuscript, but because I want to become a better writer. But when I visited MFA program websites I kind of got the same vibe you discussed here. I’ll guess I’ll just keep reading and writing and the improvement will come in time.

  26. Liz Hollar says:

    I have wondered whether the MFA is a necessity to get published. It’s nice to hear that it doesn’t have to be. I spent 6 years in college (completely different fields) and while I did learn a lot, I definitely did notT learn how to really judge my own work or to promote it — you have to have skin in the game to do that! I hear that Mountain Dew ad in my head now, too. Thanks for the post.

  27. Celebrity status is a sure-fire way to get published?! And it’s taken you this long to mention this? All I need is some J-cup fun bags and to sleep with a famous golfer/footballer…

    Seriously, though, this was a REALLY interesting article. I’d wondered myself about MFAs and this echoes what I’ve heard other people say. I love that you’re willing to say things that might p*ss people off.

  28. Uhh…the MFA/MBA combo is actually a fabulous idea. I can actually see the value in that. I think what MFA programs need to realize is that they need to offer writers something they can’t get anywhere else. I attended a workshop for Hamline University, and while I was impressed with their staff and the workshop was enjoyable, they did not convince me that it would be worth 30k. I asked one of the faculty “What can I get from this program that I can’t get in any other way?” She tripped over her words a little, “It really jump starts you…There are so many things you can learn much quicker that might take you years of making mistakes.” Well maybe, maybe not, but either way, a “jump start” is not worth that much cash.

    My husband has an MBA from a top five school. Whoop-dee-doo, even he admits that he didn’t learn much that anyone can’t learn in the real world. What you pay for in B-school is networking, access to jobs and companies and recruiters who only search for employees at these business school. More than half of his time in B-school was spent networking because everyone knows that in business it’s not so much about what you know, but who you know. MFA programs could take a lesson from this. The programs should have, not just one or two, but dozens of networking events with industry professionals, critique sessions with agents and editors, real valuable time that other writers would kill for. If publishing is a business like any other, then after you’ve become a great writer, it’s helpful to have a few connections. I know in the end it’s all about the writing, but what does it matter if you can’t get anyone in the industry to read it?

    Thank you for being so honest about your experience. I have considered an MFA from time to time and ultimately have decided against it. I think it is like you said, an opportunity to finish a book and be in workshop. I’ve done those things for much less moolah.

  29. You have certainly answered my questions. My writing has improved greatly just by continuing to write and attending writer conferences and workshops (your Learning Annex class being one of them!). Thanks so much for a much needed and well parsed post.

  30. I did the same course as Anne above – the MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa. It sounds as though it is the course the person in your link is looking for! 50/50 craft and business. We did practice query letters, we discussed what different imprints specialise in, we met visiting agents/editors/authors who were all expected to sit in the pub with us after the lecture and give us further insights. Would I have been published without the course? Maybe, but I do think it gave me a fast-track.

  31. I think that whether or not we go the MFA route, the most important thing is still read a lot, write a lot.

    Thanks for this interesting post. 🙂

  32. PS… and learn about the publishing industry! I can’t imagine being on this journey sans equipping myself with knowledge about how the industry works.

  33. Love your honesty and really appreciate this post. I have been wondering for a while if that kind of an education would really be worth while, considering the cost. But after reading your post I know I couldn’t deal with the snobbery of it all anyway.

  34. I appreciate your honest view.

    I was told by a MFA mature student ‘friend’, that I cannot call myself a writer because I am not qualified. She has yet to complete a novel. I have finished one adult, one children’s and am in the middle of two others that compliment them. Agreed, I am not published, but I have written them.

    Both of us would have to go through edits and travel the road, Hope to be Published. The difference will be the initials after our names. Mine would be ITHADIMW (I Tried Hard And Did It My Way), and hers would be IAQ (I Am Qualified).

    Seriously, the platform building and marketing are a HUGE part of writing life nowadays. I would have thought it ought be part of the curriculum.

    Interesting post.

  35. Ugh…I felt the same frustration with my Fine Arts program…I was looked down upon by the majority of faculty and students because of my goal of becoming an illustrator. They were all about the process, not the end product, and it seemed like so much pretentious, elitist bs to me.

    I also write, and I’m glad to know that not having an MFA on my query letter doesn’t say lack of commitment to my craft. I’ve learned so much from hangin’ with other writers, having an awesome crit group, reading as much as I can, and of course, following Mary’s blog!!

    Great post, Mary!!

  36. I have heard this over and over again, and had the same experience in achieving my BA in CW. We had one tiny mention of publishing at the end of our thesis class. I knew more than my profs on the subject. However I disagree that “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.” The Internet makes this completely untrue. There are writing communities online even for snooty post-MFA-style writers, and the wealth of info on how to sub is invaluable.

    There are no good excuses anymore.

  37. Elizabeth says:

    While I agree with Mary’s concerns about MFA programs in general, I did the MFA in Children’s Lit at Hollins University down in Roanoke, VA, and it has some real strengths. First, it is a summer residential program (6 weeks each summer for 3 summers). You just go down an absolutely bury yourself in Kid Lit for six weeks with other people who love Kid Lit. Really, really fun. Second, it is pure Kid Lit program, so you don’t encounter any snootiness. Third, it has a writing and an academic thread, so even as a writer, you take a lot of “study of children’s lit” classes, which I loved, and thought were really helpful for realizing just where kid lit came from, where it is now, and where it is going (and where I fit in). I agree that it could have done more practical/professional coaching, but there was never any sense that “one should not soil one’s mind with those considerations right now.” People just didn’t take themselves that seriously. Essential for me as a writer? Absolutely not. Fun and inspiring and useful? Yes. If you have the time and means, look into it, but don’t think you are handicapped if you don’t.

  38. Gail Shepherd says:

    An MFA is, and really always has been, a luxury product — you’ll never get your money out of it. My profs always told me point blank I couldn’t hope to get a job with the degree (it was an MA in Creative Writing, back then), and I took them at their word. Still, there are good things to be said for having two full years to do nothing but stare out a window, dream, write, and think about literature with no distractions (it really IS an ivory tower). I remember that period as incredibly intense and exciting, but practical? Real world? Hardly.

  39. As I read your post, I thought over and over, “Wow, that’s not my experience.” My MFA experience was great. Like Ginger said, it was the second best decision of my life. I am a nurse who wrote for a hobby. I always wanted to be a better writer. Thanks to my MFA, I am a better writer. Like Ginger, I went to Vermont College of Fine Arts.

    I’m not published yet, but when I do get published, I will have VC and all of its people to thank for it. Not only did they teach me about the craft, but they provided friendship, support, and continuing opportunities to network within the industry to get published. Editors and agents tell alums they will read our works simply based on the fact that we graduated from Vermont College. My VC classmates and friends support me in my endeavors more than any writing group ever could (no offense to my writing group friends–it’s just a different kind of relationship). My MFA provided me with a whole lot more than a chance to finish a manuscript and be in a workshop. It changed my writing and it changed my life.

    The decision to get an MFA in creative writing isn’t an easy one to make. You have to weigh in so many factors–can you dedicate the time and money that you need to your education? What do you want to do with your degree when you are finished? (Many VC alums teach with their degrees.) There are many other personal factors to consider as well. In the end, for me, I took a chance and committed myself to the program, and it was one of the best decisions of my life.

    I can’t speak to the other programs–I only know Vermont’s program. If you’re interested in working with highly renowned authors and top-notch teachers, if you’re interested in meeting other people as dedicated to learning about writing for children and young adults as you are, and if you want to part of a community that will embrace and support you through the rest of your writing career, check out VCFA. It’s worth it.

  40. I’m in an MFA program, and I’m finding that I’m way more experienced than everyone else. I’ve written upwards of ten novels (most of them are trunk novels, but great practice) and just seems bizarre to me that most of the people in my program have maybe one or two. It just makes me think, they’re writers, why aren’t they writing like crazy like I always have?!

  41. Can agents PLEASE make that program?!!! I’ve always wanted a MBA and MFA…this would make all my dreams come true. 😀

    I’m feeling slightly smug that my suspicions of an MFA are true…(garnered from my interactions with open houses and MFA graduates)

    But yes, you guys would make bank with an MFA/MBA…just sayin’

  42. Mary,

    Thank you for the great post. I’m also sorry to hear that you had some bad experiences with your MFA program. I spent four years researching and debating whether I * needed * an MFA. What tipped the scales was visiting Vermont College for its special weekend dedicated to edgy writing for kids (from picture books through YA). There was magic in that room, and I knew immediately that I had to be part of it.

    Although I’m still paying off my MFA loans (I graduated in 2006) and will be for many years, the experience was one I wouldn’t trade for anything. I think there are many importance differences between what Vermont offers and a traditional MFA program.

    First, Vermont offers a low-residency program, which means that students visit the campus for about 11 days each semester, using that time for lectures, workshops, readings and building community. The rest of the six-month semester is spent at home, working one-on-one with a publishing author who also happens to be an incredible teacher. This structure is more attuned to a regular “working writer’s” schedule. In fact, the program is designed to allow working people to participate. (I worked while earning my degree and also have a family.)

    The other special component, of course, is the focus on writing specifically for children and teens. I’m proud that Vermont was the first university in the US to offer this kind of program. Many have followed, including Hamline University in St. Paul. I was able to serve as a graduate assistant at its first residency in January 2007 and it is a great program (started by some teachers who were involved in the Vermont program).

    I feel sad that some here have commented that people with MFAs are haughty and look down at others. I can say that I don’t feel 1) I’m better than anybody because I have an MFA or 2) that you have to have an MFA to be published.

    Still, I spent so much time, money and effort to get an MFA because I wanted to immerse myself in learning to write for young people. I wanted to experiment, make mistakes and grow as a writer. Reading and writing under the guidance of such a smart, fun and loving community changed my writing–but it also changed my life.

    I agree that more should be done to teach MFA students about the business side of publishing, but there are also many resources online and elsewhere that offer that kind of information.

  43. This post really resonated with me. I’m a YA writer in a traditional (albeit low-residency) MFA program. During my first year, I got in a somewhat heated e-mail debate with my (amazing) mentor about the merits of “commercial” versus “literary” fiction. (My take: Isn’t the ideal both literary and commercial? His take: That’s nearly impossible.) While there’s definitely been some skepticism about the genre of my YA novels, most writers have come around once they read the work; in fact, I see myself as a sort of ambassador to the ivory-tower literary types about the awesomeness of the YA world.

    That said, I’m a teacher, and I’m required to take classes to keep up my certificate. There are easier ways of doing this than pursuing and MFA, but I’m enjoying the work (work I was doing anyway, writing novels and reading like crazy), and it’s nice to have that practical professional purpose as well. I didn’t need the program to write–I had several desk-drawer manuscripts before I even started–but it does help clear need-to-write time. I’ve found it’s much easier to tell people I can’t do something because I have “homework” than because I want to read or work on my novel. I wish we didn’t live in a world where the necessity of homework is more understandable than the necessity of art, but for the most part we do. I agree with everything in this post, but I will add this: the MFA is one of the few places where people have permission to do something that, yes, may have no practical purpose in the world (writing a whole bunch of stuff that likely won’t ever reach the public eye). It’s kind of a leap of faith. But isn’t that what writing is too?

  44. I’m still thinking about this post and responses. I wanted to add a couple of things:

    1. Mary, I think your idea of having MFA programs publish their “placement” stats is a good idea. How many students are published 5 years after graduation? 10 years?

    I’ve been able to teach writing at two universities because of my MFA. Sadly, I could have probably earned more PER HOUR working at Mickey D’s. (Also, sadly, I do not have the proper degree to be a substitute teacher in my local schools…although it’s different for friends in other states.) With nationwide budget cuts, there are fewer and fewer full-time or tenure-track college teaching positions available. (I also found it very difficult to keep up with my novel-writing when I was teaching full-time, but some people can do it.) However, it would be good for MFA programs to report these stats, too. Or even, where are the grads? Publishing? Teaching? Editing? Freelancing, etc.

    2. The other point I wanted to add was whether having an MFA means anything to an agent or editor. If I were an editor or agent, an MFA mention would mean to me that the querier was serious about her writing and a writing career. In this imaginary position, would I sign a writer who had an MFA but a terrible story idea and poor writing? Of course not. The writing and the story are what matter. The MFA is one way to seriously commit to improving your writing. Other people make that serious commitment on their own, without the support of a program, and that’s fine.

    I’ll say this: I know lots of published kid lit writers: Some with MFAs, some without. All of them worked hard to improve their craft and story-telling skills. There’s no free ride for anybody. For me, an MFA was a tool to getting to where I want to go, and that was a gift to myself.


  45. Thanks so much for posting this. I encountered a lot of this “kidlit is sub-par” attitude during my undergraduate work.

    My fiance directed me to an article about children’s/YA MFA programs, fortunately, though, and I’m starting at VCFA in January. I can’t wait! I think it’s so important to be around people who value your writing. Whether or not they write the same thing is usually immaterial, but if I’d ended up going to a “literary” MFA program, I know I would’ve been snubbed.

    Again, thanks for sharing your experience!

  46. Mary,

    Thanks so much for this piece! I’ve always wanted to teach writing, but everyone requires MFA’s, so every so often I toy with the idea of getting one. I’m usually stopped by the cost, combined with the true lack of fab salaries for instructors. But another thing that stops me is, frankly, the curriculum.

    Writing, discussing writing, critiquing writing…it’s what I do every day in my life as a full-time author. I pulled together an amazing writing group, the Rebel Writers…we’re all novelists and have met for 10 years now. And I’m also fortunate to have developed a wide-ranging bunch of author friends who are my go-to people when I’m stuck, or just need someone writerly to hang with. And, like you, I’m self-motivated to finish what I start. But still, I wish I could teach some day. Sigh. The answer for me seems to be offering writing workshops directly to aspiring authors, avoiding colleges and universities completely. Turns out, that’s not so hard to do! Just find a space to meet, make up that flier, and go for it. It’s a great option for a published author, and I’m now finding this fun and rewarding.

    I so agree with you about the whole business side of things. Maybe back in the 80’s we could focus on our art and leave the biz to our publishers and agents, but these days? You’d better know how to pitch, and position yourself and MARKET. I wish they’d now teach that stuff not only at the MFA but at the BA level. It’s now as essential as voice and character development.

  47. 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!

  48. Theresa Vollmer says:

    Thank you for being so frank. I’m currently-as in just this week-debating whether or not I want to go for an MFA. I am currently a senior Communication: Mass Media & English: Creative Writing major, and on track to graduate this spring. I never considered an MFA because I couldn’t afford to take out more loans, but I found fully funded MFA programs to apply for. I ran an this past my creative writing advisor. She expressed the same concerns-just for me getting in too-because I am a young adult writer and I don’t see myself wanting to come out of that genre. She told me an MFA wasn’t necessary, I had already completed a novel manuscript in three months. However, if I were to look for a program, I should look for genre based programs. You’d be happy to know that in an undergraduate, semester pioneer novel writing workshop, the young adult genre was welcome and they also taught us about query letters and finding agents. What’s your advice to a soon to be graduate, who has already written a novel, editing, and hoping to get published someday? Should I enter the work field? My old plan was to get an internship at a publishing house. Should I work a regular job, and hope I can get my novel published? Or pursue an MFA to better my writing skills?

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