This tweet by fantasy author Myke Cole popped up on my Twitter home page this morning:
It’s a question a lot of new or aspiring writers ask themselves: do I need an MFA? In my experience, Myke Cole is right: the answer is a resounding “No,” with a couple of exceptions that I’ll discuss below.
Given that writing ability is a prerequisite for admission into any Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program, you can cross “learning how to write” off of your list of reasons for getting an MFA. You need talent and a portfolio to get in to a program, especially a reputable one. Would you learn more by getting this degree? Would it improve your writing skills? Probably–again, presuming you’re in a reputable program. But given that most of what you’ll be doing while getting your MFA would be–you guessed it–writing, it’s hard to know for sure that the reason for any improvement was the program itself and not simply the fact that you’ve been doing a lot of writing–and thereby gaining personal experience.
Sure, MFAs offer a structured environment in which to write, (hopefully) experienced faculty, and talented peers who will be reviewing your work. But none of this is something you couldn’t get somewhere else, and cheaper. One thing to keep in mind about writing professors, too, is that chances are they’re teaching for a reason: they need the money. Which means they’re not making sufficient money by selling their writing, which should be a warning sign to anyone proposing to learn from them. Now, before you accuse me of being unfair, consider these points. Yes, there are exceptions. Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson, for instance, still teaches an undergraduate class at BYU on how to write fantasy and science fiction. Given that he’s a multiple New York Times #1 best-selling author, we know he’s not still doing it for the money. There are also some legitimately talented people who write things that simply aren’t feasible as primary sources of income: the vast majority of poets, for example, have to teach or seek out fellowships or other grants because there’s just no money in writing poetry.
There are also those authors of literary fiction who are talented, and published, and prolific, but whose work just doesn’t hold mainstream appeal–and who are unfortunately left in the position of taking teaching jobs to supplement their income. Can they help you? Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on the professor. After seven years of higher education, I can confidently tell you that neither intelligence nor experience nor success makes a good teacher–truly inspirational instructors are rare, and their prevalence seems to be about 1 in 10.
Generally speaking, you’re almost certainly better off writing rather than worrying about the fact that you don’t have certain letters after your name: as Mr. Cole says, that’s not what editors and agents care about. They care about work that is likely to sell. Period. All you need to get more experience writing is a pen and paper. Or a laptop. Once you’ve produced some, it isn’t difficult to find writing groups or beta readers who will read and critique your work–and once you have that, you have pretty much everything an MFA program would offer you, except without paying thousands of dollars for it.
There are, as I said above, a few narrow exceptions to this rule–situations in which getting an MFA might be the right move for you.
1. You want to write literary (read: serious) fiction. For those authors whose dream is to write the next Great American Novel, to be the next Chabon or Franzen or DeLillo (of whom, incidentally, only Chabon actually possesses an MFA in creative writing), an MFA can be a foot in the door with publishers and agents. Most serious writers of literary fiction start out by writing short stories, and editors of literary journals do care about MFAs–just look at the submission guidelines for your favorite journal. If you’ve got an MFA, they want to know about it. So it might help you get published initially–and having been published once, it’s that much easier to get published again.
2. You’re young and want to focus on writing full-time. If you’ve just graduated from college, you’re single (or more importantly, childless), and you know that all you want to do is write, getting an MFA can be a good way to support yourself while practicing your craft. Attending a graduate program full time with the assistance of student loans means you’ll have a place to live, basic financial support, and a legitimate reason (the completion of your degree) to devote all day, every day to writing. In my opinion, doing this is a better use of your time and energy than getting a dead-end job just to support yourself while you write on the side. I say “young” because if you’re older and have children the opposite, in my opinion, is true. Taking two years off from your job to get an MFA is not the same as taking time off to get an MBA or another professional degree. Unlike the latter, an MFA provides practically no assurance whatsoever that your time and money will prove financially fruitful in the short or long terms. If you’re looking into writing as a second career, don’t worry about getting a degree. Just write. Write often. As Neil Gaiman says, “Write. Finish things. Keep writing.” There’s no better advice out there.