Sunday, August 28, 2011

To MFA or Not to MFA

"Should I get an MFA?" -- that's a recurring question that comes up from the aspiring writers that I meet a lot.

I don't have an MFA in Creative Writing. Like quite a few novelists these days, I have an MFA in Dramatic Writing (writing for stage and screen). I've spoken here before about why I made the switch from screenwriting and playwriting to novel writing, but even if I had known how it would all turn out, I would have still chosen to get my MFA in Dramatic Writing. Why? Well, Dramatic Writing teaches you all the lessons that most Creative Writing MFAers have to learn the hard way: how to structure, how to outline, how not to waste your audience's time or money, and how to write on deadline. Dramatic Writing MFA programs also tend to be more business-focused.

I think a Dramatic Writing MFA was just perfect for me. But that doesn't mean it's for everyone. There are plenty of bestselling novelists, who don't have MFAs, but are so in tune with story and perhaps more importantly, their intended audience, that really, they could teach MFA programs a thing or two. At the same time, most of this millenium's Pulitzer winners have Creative Writing MFAs.

So really, the trick is knowing both your weaknesses and your goals. Do you have a bad habit of rambling on? Do you find beginnings, middle, and ends a bit tricky? Do your overall storytelling skills need work? Then consider an MFA in Dramatic Writing.

When you dream of being a big-time writer, do you see yourself giving acceptance speeches for prestigious prizes? Do you love the study of craft? Do you love it enough to want to teach it to other people? Then consider an MFA in Creative Writing.

Do you want to make lots of money? Do you have actual stories with beginnings, middles, and ends that you're just burning to tell? Are you a natural storyteller? Like when you tell a story at a party, do people let you get the whole thing out without interrupting? Then you might want to just skip the MFA, pick up 10 craft books in your chosen genre and just go for it.

Do you plan to write a certain kind of fiction about a certain kind of subject? Then consider getting an advanced degree in that subject. For example, bestseller, Daniel H. Wilson has an advanced degree from the same university as me -- but in Robotics. Wanna guess what he writes about? I just love a sci-fi writer who has a degree in physics, or a mystery writer who used to be a cop. John Grisham, the former lawyer, has slung a few law-centered books, hasn't he? Don't be afraid to get a career education in whatever you'd like to write about.

Most of all, don't get an MFA, just because you think that's what you ought to do. Consider your goals, and educate yourself accordingly.

But now I'm going to kick it to the other authors in our group. How did you decide to MFA or not to MFA? Let us know in the comments.

image credit: QuintanaRoo


  1. I have 18 years of education, but no MFA. For me, attending countless writing workshops and being part of an on-going critique group over the past 20 odd years have made the most impact on my writing. Since writing is my passion, but I make $ at another job, it is very difficult to justify returning to school (I'm over 60) and spending time in a classroom again when I just want to write and teach young people to do the same. The current issue of Poets & Writers has a great article on whether an MFA is right for you. I feel justified in my decision after reading your words as well. Thank you Ernessa!!

  2. I did a traditional masters in literature before deciding that really I wanted to learn more about the craft of writing. Mostly, I stumbled upon my MFA. It was a low-residency program (Vermont College) because, like Emma said, I had to make $ at that time and couldn't take off completely, plus there were no official MFA programs in my general vicinity. The low-res. gave me a balance between work and school. The program also gave me a bag of tricks from which to pull when crafting. I will always be grateful for one teacher, especially, who taught me Russian Formalism, because structure holds narrative worlds together (at least for me!). Would I have learned these tricks without the MFA? Maybe, eventually. The MFA might have hurried things along a bit. Even then, the MFA could not teach me to write AFTER the program, or to write through rejections. But it did encourage me to see myself as a 'writer' for two years, and that was a start in a good direction.

    Emma: Agreed. The article on MFAs in Poets and Writers was quite good!

  3. Great post, Ernessa. I'll earn my MFA in creative writing in January. (Also a low-res program.) I enrolled because I wanted the option to teach and also take my writing to another level. You made some very good points. I think MFAs are best for short story writers and people who want to improve craft. (Storytelling craft, however, is not addressed.)
    If you write novels, MFA programs are also not set up to evaluate book-length books. My thesis is only 125 pages, which is not even half a novel. The program did make me a better writer though.

  4. Karin: AGREED! I did short stories in my MFA (many are being published in my collection, out soon). I would have been *miserable* having a novel workshopped across residencies, and faculty advisers. We often had people workshop their novels, and it was always so difficult to comment from res. to res. too (I seldom saw any novel twice). Pretty sure it would be more or less the same in a traditional MFA program, too, but at least there is the benefit of one adviser and more continuity of workshop groups, in a traditional...

  5. Thanks for the great post! Karin and Sandra, I did my MFA in long fiction and our requirement was to create a book-length work (about 230 pages) so my experience was different from yours. Yes, it's always challenging in a critique group to get a whole novel critiqued, but in my program during two summers we worked with a mentor who did read the entire ms, which was invaluable.

  6. That makes so much sense to me, Wendy. I wonder if your program is more the exception than the rule.

  7. Karin, Sandra: When I think of MFAs I think of short stories, too. I can't imagine trying to get an entire novel done and workshopped. But Wendy, I love the sound of working closely with a mentor during the summer sessions. What a way to make that degree really "work."

    Emma, thanks for the P&W ref. I'll grab it the next time I'm at a newsstand.

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  9. Thanks for answering this question about MFAs. I was wondering how you felt about it.