Does MFA = Publication? WFMAD Day 21


All over America, college is getting under way.

(Note: this could be happening in other countries, too, but I don’t want to make assumptions about the collegiate calendar in places I’ve never been to, and if I stop writing to research this, I will be sucked into that swamp we call the Internet and won’t emerge for hours.)

So. USA. College.

This means that kids will start attending some creative writing classes. And a few kids and adults will start in on their MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) Writing program.

This worries me.

I divide the Academic Creative Writing Experience into two columns.

Column A    I know a number of people who had wonderful creative writing professors who created a safe, stimulating atmosphere that fostered creativity and led to growth. I know people who graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing and then went on to publish successful books. So far, nothing to worry about, right?

Column B   I also know people who stopped writing forever because their college creative writing professor was a bitter, unpublished writer who got his kicks out of making young writers cry. I have friends and fans who are tens of thousands of dollars in debt for their Creative Writing MFA, and who have not been able to land an agent, much less be offered a publishing contract.

I know way more people in Column B than in Column A.

Please do not take this as a personal attack. If you want to get a degree in creative writing, go for it. Have fun. Enjoy the gift of time and focus that academia offers. Write and dream. But I hope you enter these programs with your eyes open and your goals clear.

Publishers don’t care how many creative writing classes you’ve taken or what your degree is in.* All they care about is the quality of your work. If you can find professors and programs that will help you develop your writing craft, then it might be a good investment of your time and money.

Creative writing classes rarely, if ever, teach their students about the publishing business and the financial realities of being a full-time writer. (That’s why people are so stunned when I write posts like this one.) I’ve had a couple of heart-breaking conversations with writers who are drowning in debt because they had no clue how hard it is to make a living as a writer and they assumed that an MFA from a prestigious university would be their ticket to their dream career.

(John Scalzi has written a couple hard-hitting pieces on this and other weaknesses of MFA writing programs. Before you go into debt to get one of these degrees, I suggest you read what he has to say.)

If you want to be an engineer, you study for a degree in engineering. If you want to be a nurse, you go to nursing school. This equation, degree=career, is extremely fuzzy when it comes to the arts. Not just fuzzy. Swathed in yards of dun-colored cloth woven from dust bunnies, dog hair, and belly button lint. Just ask the theater majors wagging signs outside of a pizza shop.

Again – I’m not judging. It’s your life. Do whatever the hell you want with it. But be informed. Be a skeptical consumer before you plunk down hard-earned cash (or go into debt) for that degree. Know exactly what you are buying and take the time to calculate the true cost.

What do you think?

 *For the record, I have an A.A. Liberal Arts degree from Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, NY and a B.S.L.L. (Bachelor of Science in Languages and Linguistics) from Georgetown University, Washington DC. Number of creative writing classes taken? None.

Today’s Quote 

“All attempts at gaining literary polish must begin with judicious reading, and the learner must never cease to hold this phase uppermost. In many cases, the usage of good authors will be found a more effective guide than any amount of precept. A page of [Joseph Addison] or of [Washington Irving] will teach more of style than a whole manual of rules, whilst a story of [Edgar Allan Poe]‘s will impress upon the mind a more vivid notion of powerful and correct description and narration than will ten dry chapters of a bulky textbook. Let every student read unceasingly the best writers.”

H.P. Lovecraft 

Today’s prompt: Start with this opening line: “I had never jumped out of a window before, but…” Don’t stop writing for fifteen minutes. Don’t think, don’t worry, don’t edit, don’t plot. Just keep the pen moving, or your fingers tapping the keys. Stand back and let it flow.

Scribble… scribble… scribble…

35 Replies to “Does MFA = Publication? WFMAD Day 21”

  1. Thank you! I married into a family where everyone is either a doctor or has a masters in their field, and I’ve often felt like I should go for my MFA–so I won’t be the slacker of the family. However, I also remember a handful of creative writing and literature classes I took in college that were combined with grad students. They always seemed stressed and more concerned with impressing each other and their professors than developing their own voice and craft. I had one writing of poetry class that started out with such a cool, eclectic group of students, but by the end of the semester, I couldn’t tell you who wrote what poem. They all started to sound the same. It was the worst case of writers block I ever had.

    I also know a number of amazing writers who received their MFA and have great writing careers. For me, though, I think I’d like to craft my own writing voice without taking on a massive student loan debt.

  2. The sole creative writing class I took as an undergrad = disaster. Daughter’s experience several decades later = same.

    However, I am now earning an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults in a low-res program. It is a completely different experience than my undergrad classes. I’ve found a supportive community of writers and advisors. That support, the sharing of resources, the feedback, the immersion in reading novels and poetry and non-fiction, as well as craft books, all that improves my writing, all are worth it.

    No one should enter an MFA program thinking it will guarantee publication. The one tangible benefit an MFA brings is qualification to teach at the college level, because it is a terminal degree. But that’s not why you should earn one, either, unless you are particularly keen on teaching at the college level.

    You should enter an MFA program because you want to dedicate yourself to the craft and buy yourself two or so years of full immersion. And if you decide you want to pursue the MFA, look for the program that is the best fit for you. There are so many options now, from the traditional residency to low-res, and programs that focus on only one kind of writing to programs that let you pursue a variety of genres.

    If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Do what works for you.

  3. I started a creative writing class while attending community college. My professor? A bitter, unpublished writer that loved to make students cry.

    I dropped out after a week.

    Thanks so much for the post!

  4. Due to getting a job and marriage at age 17, I have only taken one college class ever. And it wasn’t writing. But I read voraciously, so words seeped into my soul, and when I dove into the professional writing world, i joined writing groups, attended conferences, and went to critique groups. My 37th published book came out this year.

  5. I agree. On top of this, genre writing (as well as mainstream popular fiction) is frowned upon in many fine-art circles. If you study writing, you mostly study literary fiction. If you study any other subject (philosophy, art, linguistics, plumbing), you end up with something to write about.

  6. I’m probably more in Column A in that I had a good MFA experience, and my professors were honest about the submission process and how much work is involved (with very little financial reward). But I also went into the program with no preconceptions that this degree would guarantee me a career as a writer. I wanted a set amount of time to focus on writing, further my craft, and learn from other writers, both faculty and classmates. I’m always a little surprised when people think an MFA means you somehow earned success as a writer. Like you mentioned, only your work can do that, and even then it’s hard. But I think the MFA is a good place to get writing done, get it workshopped, and learn from other writers.

  7. Great post! I think your advice is true of nearly any profession. You gain job skills and industry credibility through actual experience. I have a Master of Library & Information Science. It was a hoop I had to jump through to become a “professional” librarian.

    I personally think the USA places too much emphasis on “degree=career,” when it should place more emphasis on “degree=knowledge” and “experience=career.”

  8. ” If you study writing, you mostly study literary fiction. If you study any other subject (philosophy, art, linguistics, plumbing), you end up with something to write about.”

    I love this!

  9. “Well, we bursted out of class
    Had to get away from those fools
    We learned more from a 3-minute record, baby
    Than we ever learned in school … ” – Bruce Springsteen

  10. Wonderful advice. I’ve never gone for my MFA because I already have a theater degree (fortunate to make a living in the arts) so I’ve already learned the lesson that degree doesn’t equal career but I at least know I couldn’t take the debt of an MFA program. I do love taking writing classes though.

  11. Laurie, thank you for your honest posts! A couple years ago I was debating between an MFA and an MLS. I chose the MLS. It’s good to know that bypassing the MFA won’t necessarily be the death knell for my writing.

  12. Thank you so much for this post! I got my MFA in creative writing and while my experience was most definitely in Column A, I remember sitting at graduation and thinking: “um, I could have done this all myself… and for free.” This realization is what led me to start DIY MFA, a website to help writers get that MFA experience without actually getting the degree.

    Unlike other degrees (law, medicine, etc.) the writing MFA is more an experience than a degree per se. And and with a little planning, it’s possible to simulate that experience without actually going to school. Also, writers who do it themselves, can write any genre they like and keep that experrience going for as long as they want to write. Much more flexible than a two-year degree in literary fiction.

    As you said so well in this post, the degree doesn’t guarantee publication (and even if one does get published, that doesn’t guarantee Harry Potter or Twilight levels of income) so why go into debt when you could get the same results without the degree? It’s so refreshing to hear authors speak up on this important topic! Thank you for writing this!

    (Side Note: Of course, since starting DIY MFA I’m probably one of the few people whose job actually requires an MFA,. After all, DIY MFA would have little credibility if I didn’t have the degree. This irony rather tickles me.)

  13. First off, I just want to say “hi” to Laurie–I’ll be studying with you in October!

    I have an MFA in fiction, and I understand your warning to those considering one. My experience was, for the most part, positive. I did encounter people who tried to bring others down and make them cry. In fact, I cried a few times and then learned to toughen up. We had some lectures on the business, but not nearly enough. I am now teaching myself the business part–by getting an MS in Publishing (and I LOVE it). You don’t need an MFA to be a writer. All you need is passion and discipline and a willingness to never stop learning about the craft. I chose an MFA because it was good for me, and it changed my life in ways I never expected. Getting an MFA doesn’t promise anything, though. Writing books is not guaranteed to a lucrative career path, unless you have the rare luck of being a J.K. Rowling. I work a full-time job as a copywriter to pay my bills.

    I would caution those entering an MFA to keep both eyes open. Remember that (unfortunately) some writers in academia can be competitive, especially professors who are unhappy with their own writing careers. They like manipulating naive writers who believe everything they say. They get off on calling your writing garbage, then watching you fall apart. And they especially enjoy taking your work and making your revise until it’s theirs, then saying they “love” it.

    Stay true to yourself and your writing. Learn the business–don’t expect the information to be handed to you. Beware of those who will try to mislead you. Take what is meaningful to you… and leave the rest.

  14. This is a great post, and I hope I didn’t sound too argumentative on twitter yesterday. I feel naive but I had no idea how bad some of these situations got. My program (which I think I respected enough but not a big name really) funded all participants and at the beginning of each year discussed the harsh realities of the writing life with students, at the start of workshops and once in a rather sobering special meeting. Many of us used our mfa’s as a stepping stone to related degrees (I got into an mlis program based on my mfa grades-my gre scores were abysmal). I should also say I never had any expectation of making a living as a writer since I’m a poet (and they also stressed the extreme difficulties of finding work in academia). When I started college I actually thought creative writing programs were completely pointless, but I knew I’d only be unattached and childless for so long so in the end decided to take the plunge. I totally agree with your advice to do it with your eyes wide open, and to pick your program with your perception of their honesty in mind. I saw my degree as my “crazy stupid young person thing to do”, and in turn whenever it’s impressed an interviewer or whatever I’ve been pleasantly surprised. But a necessary tool, a must have, a path to publication or a worthy investment guaranteeing a financial return it isn’t, and advise people to do it if they truly long for the experience and can one way or another float the cost.

  15. Ugh…stupid pregnancy hand….I think IS respected enough, not “i”, and “I’d advise” not just advise. I should probably also add in all that that my professors and fellow students undoubtably did help me learn many things that have made me a better thinker and writer- I started to summarize exactly what but was getting too long winded so edited it out 🙂

  16. Thank you so much for this! As one of those full-time writers standing on the edge of plunking down money for an MFA, this really makes me stop and think. And that is always a good thing! Thanks again!

  17. Majored in music in college, then went to law school, so I already have two degrees I don’t use. However, I learned a lot from both, and I believe my education gave me perspective as a writer and, indeed, some of the subjects I learned (including, oddly, music theory) have helped my writing. As far as writing classes, I took one at the library for 5 weeks, and I read lots of books about writing. I’ve considered going the MFA route for the learning experience as well. If that’s why someone wants an MFA, I guess it would be as good a learning experience as anything. That said, I know some bitter, angry people (including published writers who are maybe not as successful as they’d like) with MFAs.

  18. Such a great, must-needed post. I’ve tried gently to steer aspiring authors away from MFA programs, too. Of course they can be a path to literary success and/or an illustrious career at the New Yorker, but mostly…they aren’t. Especially degrees from for-profit colleges. They’re a way to get horribly in debt–or have your dreams squashed by those bitter unpublished guys who got horribly in debt getting *their* MFAs. A sad and vicious circle.

  19. There are better uses of time and money than an MFA (my opinion). Spend that same time writing and use the money to travel and life a life worth writing about. A writer can take classes and workshops from leading authors in the industry for a fraction of that a university charges. Why spend that kind of cash learning from a professor who might not even be published when you can learn from NYTBSAs or USA Today Best Selling Authors.

    There are plenty of successful literary authors who also hold workshops and teach. I could see if there weren’t any other ways, but seriously? If I want to learn to be a billionaire, do I listen to the college economics professor who drives a 15 year old Volvo when I could take classes with Bill Gates?

    Again, just my opinion. I would like to get an MFA one day just to do it, but I certainly don’t equate that with writing success. For that I take classes with Bob Mayer, Shirley Jump, Les Edgerton, James Scott Bell, Steve Berry, James Rollins, etc.

  20. I feel that with the astounding amount of information available to writers today, we can still learn about writing and the publishing industry without having to go into debt or spend time and gas money attending a MFA program. I just wrote a blog post about this very subject. With social media, informative/educational blogs, books and workshops, you can learn so much from so many different sources.

    I once entertained the idea of earning my MFA, but decided that it might not be such a good idea. At first money was my main obstacle, but then I realized that with so many people in college, even a bachelor’s degree has almost become the same as a high school diploma in certain careers. When you’re in the creativity industry, it becomes less about where you went to college or your class ranking and more about raw talent and refined knowledge about the business you’re going into.

    None of this is to say that MFA programs are worthless or a waste of time, just that they aren’t for everyone. Much like self-publishing and traditional publishing should be seen as different routes to get you to the same destination rather than an “either/or” issue, so can MFA programs and self-taught strategies be viewed in the same light.

  21. I am column A, and I think the key is, as you said, knowing what your goals and expectations are. I do want to point out that while the stereotype of a certain type of MFA program does exist, not all programs are like that. In going into an MFA, my goals were:
    1. Writing for children and young adults
    2. Faculty members who are currently publishing and/or have published in the last 2-3 years
    3. The ability to focus on novel writing and gain feedback on a long piece of work, particularly continued assistance during the revision process, rather than being forced to write short stories since that’s what fits in a traditional workshop time slot.
    4. A collaborative rather than competitive student environment. Constructive critiques, not tearing each other down.
    5. Ability to work individually with a number of instructors rather than just the 4 or 5 “core faculty”
    6. A program that encourages variety of work rather than churning out one “type” of writer.
    7. Multiple opportunities to get the nitty-gritty information on the publishing process including how to write a query, etc.
    8. A program that is well-respected by industry professionals, agents and editors, not just respected within the academic community.
    9. Networking opportunities.

    Such programs DO exist, and I believe that I very much got my money’s worth from one of them. But absolutely if you think that having an MFA is your ticket to publication, stardom, and National Book Awards, then you need to do a little more research.

  22. Thank you so much for addressing this topic. I’ve felt guilty that I haven’t entered an MFA. It give me more confidence that I, too, can succeed without one.

  23. Laurie, this is a great post and I really hope it helps out those who are sturggling with the decision whether to go for the MFA or not. That was over 20 years ago, now. I recently came across the stories I wrote for that class, and remembered what a remarkably disappointing experience it was. The only good that came of it was some classmates telling me they liked my work. The teacher himself offered nothing but useless criticism (as opposed to critique) — “that doesn’t happen,” “are you going anywhere with this?” and “this is a cliche” are all I remember of the teacher’s comments (he was right about the cliche, but offered nothing about how to remedy it.) While I didn’t leave crying, and I didn’t give up writing, I was terribly discouraged about the usefulness of writing workshops, which did serve to slow me down somewhat.

  24. Phooey, I see that my computer cut out an important part of my story. It said that I did take one creative writing class while I was doing my undergrad in college.

  25. Laurie, thanks for bringing up this important topic. Many programs do fall short in terms of both student nurturing and alumni publication rates. Horror stories are out there. And I myself entered our field with a background in journalism and law.

    That said, I find it disheartening that–big picture–the primary measure of a successful MFA in WCYAs would be publication. At Vermont College of Fine Arts, many already well published students enroll to join a supportive community of like-minded souls, to take their craft to the next level, and/or to honor their love of writing for young readers by immersing themselves fully in its creative and critical study.

    That said, remarkably many of our previously unpublished graduates do go on to enviable careers in writing, and editors/agents do vie for in-person and other opportunities to snatch them up.

    As an aside, the college has ongoing publication requirements for faculty to remain eligible to teach. Each of them and all of them are players, so to speak, and many compromise their publishing careers because they love teaching so much.

    I say “I” and “we”…. I’m on extended leave at the moment, but I adore my former students (and colleagues) with the fierceness and tenderness of a mama tiger.

  26. great post — and I think people considering an MFA have to pay specific attention to the requirements they are getting into. My MFA program was awesome, but if I hadn’t already gotten an MA in Literature, I would have been LOST. because my MFA required we take a certain number of non-writing courses. Courses in literary ANALYSIS. academic courses, with students who were not getting an MFA. I knew this going in and only had to take one course because of my transfer credits, but many of my fellow MFAers were coming from non-literary degree backgrounds and had to adjust to writing 10-15 page papers as well as short fiction.

    Some programs don’t require any or as much academic writing, but don’t be surprised by the requirements!

  27. Laurie – this is an excellent post, and an important one for those thinking that an MFA will lead to a successful (and lucrative) career. I think it’s especially useful for younger writers fresh out of college.

    I earned my MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts a couple of years ago and I echo Cyn’s words: I found a collaborative environment of like-minded souls who have become both mentors and life-long friends. My learning curve was vertical, and my work is far better for the experience. It was absolutely the right thing for me.

    But when I entered the program I was older than most students, already agented and already published. I had the benefit of family savings so I didn’t have to go into debt (because, as you hinted, this is not a career that will generally make one rich.) My goals were clear: improve my craft so that I could write better books, and secure a degree that would allow me to teach.

    And not make students cry unless it’s for joy.

  28. I decided to enroll in a Writer’s studio, rather than an MFA right now due to the cost. I wanted to be in an environment where I had people holding me accountable to actually spend time on my writing. But I also wanted to the workshop element of it. So I see this all as being very beneficial.

    I’m still wanting an MFA, but I’ve never looked into it as a guarantee that I’d get publish just because I have the degree. I see my time getting an MFA as more of an opportunity to refine skills that will eventually get me to a place where my writing is of publishable qualities. Also, in my case, it’s a chance to work with one of my favorite authors. Cost, however, will always be a determining factor of whether or not I attend.

  29. Gotta throw in my .02 — I just graduated from Hamline University with the MFA for writing for children, and I am crazy about those guys, learned a lot, and hung around with a lot of supportive and friendly writers. They share your contempt for pretentious SOBs who are only there to cut down the writer in those adult MFA programs. MFAC programs are in general much more supportive than the MFA “for adults” programs, because children’s writers rock, compared to adult literary writers. And also, sometimes at Hamline there is square dancing.

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