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To MFA or Not to MFA?

Getting your MFA in creative writing can be both extremely rewarding and extremely challenging. How can you decide if it’s right for you?

I’ve actively avoided participating in the ongoing debate regarding the utility, or lack thereof, in getting an MFA in creative writing. There seems to be, on both sides of the argument, a lot of sanctimoniousness and not very much in the way of useful information for one who is actually caught in the chaotic decision-making process. I don’t aim here to take a side in an argument I find futile and unproductive. Rather, I wish to speak from the stuck-in-the-middle place, from the versus, as one who has been there, and provide what I hope are helpful thoughts and questions to consider. I did choose to get my MFA, and it was an extremely rewarding, extremely challenging three years; an experience for which I would trade nothing. That being said, upon graduating with my MFA, I have never been more certain that it was simply one of a number of choices I could have made in my pursuit to become a working writer. It wasn’t the only or right one—just the one I made.

All Experience Is Life Experience

One of the ideas offered up by the camp of those who discourage one from getting an MFA is that, instead of entering a two- or three-year academic setting, why not instead have life experiences. This is posterior either/or-ing, for the two—need it be said?—are not mutually exclusive. I know of no MFA program so demanding of one’s time and resources, so all-consuming, that it disallows the experience of life outside of its confines. The life experiences you’re being encouraged to seek out in lieu of a creative writing degree are absolutely available to you while getting one. In fact, not only are they available, they are unavoidable. Your program will take place on this planet, in this mortal coil, and therefore the experiences of unabashed joy, unendurable suffering, and everything in between are always waiting to meet you. One need not travel abroad, hike the Pacific Crest Trail, nor go off the grid and work on an organic mushroom farm to gain that broadened perspective seemingly promised by those who are trying to steer you away from academia.

The Myth of the “MFA Story”

There is no such thing as an “MFA story,” and entering an MFA program will not result in you producing “MFA stories.” This is the main fallacy regarding MFA programs I’ve heard—that to enter one is to enter a space of inevitable, categorical homogenization of one’s work and one’s taste. The idea that you enter an MFA program as one kind of writer—as the writer you inherently are—and unwittingly exit as a glued-together assemblage or hologram of your cohort, shaved of the idiosyncrasies and point of view that got you accepted into that very program in the first place, is just ridiculous. I’m quietly furious when I hear someone use that phrase—when they say a story is so clearly an “MFA story”—because it legitimately means nothing, it’s lazy criticism, and it’s an argument that doesn’t retain water. Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, and Joy Williams are three writers who got their MFAs from Iowa. Using this flimsy logic, that would make “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” “Cathedral,” and “Escapes” those dreaded “MFA stories.”

Do You Want Your MFA for the Right Reasons?

In much the same way that a couple should not have a child to save a marriage, one should not seek an MFA under the auspices of getting a book published. It is certainly a desired, happy-making outcome, one visited upon many MFA graduates, but I stand firmly on the grounds that one should pursue a degree in creative writing because one wants to become a better writer, wants to make better sentences; because one wants to be exposed to writers one may not otherwise have come across; because one wants to receive feedback from both the “right” readers for one’s work and the “wrong” readers for one’s work; because one wants to be challenged on that about which one feels oneself certain; because one has an interest in discussing craft as though it were a religion, which of course it is. If your primary or exclusive interest in entering an MFA program is to leave that program with an agent and a book deal, you’re absolutely doing it for the wrong reasons. A desire for one’s own establishment is a horrific and misguided impetus.

Read Anywhere and Everywhere

Presuming one’s primary goal in applying for an MFA is to become a better writer—which, to me, does not seem like much of a presumption—it must be admitted that the tried-and-true best way to become a better writer is rather simple: read more. Read ten times as much as you write. You will read a great deal in your MFA program—classics, contemporary work, the work of your peers—but if you have the fiscal capability to do nothing but read a book every day for two years, you’ll likely learn just as much as you would in an MFA program, and you will become a better writer. This is just one of many ways of saying that getting an MFA is by absolutely no means the only path to becoming a better writer. There are certainly resources available to you in a program that wouldn’t otherwise be—advisors and mentors, feedback from professors and peers, classroom discussions, and so on—and while I think those are invaluable resources that I found helpful for my work and for my growth, it doesn’t mean that you need a seat at that long workshop table.

Do Not Go into Debt

There are many, many programs that provide stipends to their students—some very generous, some just above the poverty line; some untethered, some on the condition that you teach unforgivably large sections of undergraduate composition classes—and so to apply to and attend a program that is going to put you deep into debt, for a degree that you by no means need to be a writer (though it does help if what you want to do is teach writing), is fiscally imprudent. Suze Orman would chide you for it, no questions asked. To say nothing of the fact that writing is very rarely lucrative enough to pay off that accrued debt.

Read the Faculty

An MFA program’s website will tell you most of the logistics you need to know—and pay attention, because you should know them—but I can think of nothing more important, in the process of determining which programs you’re going to apply to, than simply reading the work of the faculty. I would go so far as to say it is incumbent upon you to do so. I found it rather shocking, in my own MFA program, how many of my fellow classmates hadn’t read the stories, novels, poems, and essays of the professors with whom we were studying, with whom we were entrusting our work. Another way of saying this: before deciding which dentist is right for you, it might behoove you to look at that before-and-after binder in the waiting room. Because what is our work if not our teeth—what we show to the world—and what are our professors but those providential paragons we trust to guide us in our efforts to polish and chisel? Does the work of the faculty seem, in some way, to align with what you’re hoping to make happen on your pages? Then that program might be a good match. Did you read the novels and collections of a certain program’s faculty and find yourself unable, for whatever reason, to connect to any of their work? Then you might want to reconsider.

A caveat: do not apply to a program based solely on the fact that you love the work of a particular faculty member. That writer may be teaching in a different program by the time you arrive. That writer may be on sabbatical. You might not get to study with that writer until your last semester. And remember: there exists no proportional relationship between being a great or well-known writer and a great teacher.

Some Final Things Worth Considering

Location. It’s no big secret that some of the greatest MFA programs are situated in towns and cities you might not ever choose to live in otherwise. Location is important. As Elizabeth McCracken has said, “You can’t outwrite geographic depression.” Ask yourself, when trying to decide to which programs you’re going to apply, “Can I call this place home for two or three years? Does this place have the things I need—whatever those things may be—to sustain me?” If it’s within your budget, visit these places. If it isn’t, I’ve found that Yelp and Google Maps—or asking the current students in the program, if their contact information is given to you—can be of great help in illustrating what it might be like to uproot your life and move to, say, Ann Arbor, Michigan or Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Size. What size do you want your cohort to be? There are programs which accept only three or four new writers each year, and others which accept twenty-five or thirty. There are pros and cons to both, and mostly you should consider this question in the context of community-building, for that is, in my eyes, the best part about being in an MFA program: being surrounded by others who have made the same improbable decision you have made to dedicate their lives to language. It’s just a matter of whether you find the possibility of a smaller group of comrades or a larger one more nourishing. Regarding smaller programs, since I attended one, I think there is probably something to be said about the ratio of students to faculty, too. The professors with whom I studied made abundant time for everyone; I don’t know how possible this is with a cohort five times as large.

Length. Is a two-year or a three-year program better for you? In my own search for MFA programs, I knew I would only be applying to three-year programs. This has much to do with self-awareness—namely an awareness of the speed at which you produce work, which, in my case, is not especially fast. If you’re like me, that third year before being escorted back out of the program bubble will be crucial. I’m amazed by friends who’ve completed their MFAs in two years and come out on the other end with a finished manuscript; maybe you’re like them, in which case a two-year program will suit you just fine.

Alumni. What have the alumni of any given program gone on to do? Have they published their novels, their collections? Are they teaching? This is not necessarily an indicator of the program’s success, and in fact likely says more about the writer than the program, but it’s still something worth looking into.

Teaching Opportunities.Many writers support their writing habit by teaching. If this is a path you think you might like to take, gaining teaching experience while in an MFA program may help secure future teaching positions. It’s also a way to try your hand at teaching and find out whether you like it. Some MFA programs have a limited number of teaching opportunities, making competition for these positions high. Some schools allow graduate students to teach creative writing, while others require graduate students to teach freshman composition only. If you’re interested in teaching while in graduate school, find out more before applying. In some cases this information may not be on the website, so feel free to ask around.

In the end, the answer to the question of whether or not one should get an MFA is, like most questions, individual-specific. Should one get married? Should one procreate? Should one get a Kurt Vonnegut or Kurt Cobain tattoo? Who’s to say. All I feel able to speak to is what I know, which is that an MFA is by no means a necessity, nor a guaranteed path to become an established writer, but under distinct circumstances—namely well-funded, well-located circumstances—an MFA program can offer you two to three years to devote your life to your work, and that this can be an unfathomable, immeasurable blessing.

Vincent Scarpa is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers. His work has appeared in StoryQuarterly, Indiana Review, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and Hobart, among other journals, and was recently anthologized in The Best Small Fictions 2016.