Monday, August 22, 2011

MFA Q&A: Was It Worth It? – Perspectives from MFA Grads

This last installment of my MFA Q&A series on the benefits and practicalities of getting an MFA in Creative Writing covers the value of an MFA with perspectives from students at other MFA programs:
Q: How has the MFA credential helped advance your career? Have you been able to quantify it in terms of more money made, more work, etc.?
Bonnie ZoBell: I got an MFA because I was depressed and since writing was the only thing I was any good at, I decided to do that. I suppose I had an eye on teaching, but really I wanted to do something I enjoyed with other people who were into it too. I had a great time going to Columbia, though there were those there who hated it. All different kinds of people, big enough for at least three separate fiction workshops.
Publications definitely trump an MFA, and I think that goes for just about anything, including teaching. MFAs are wonderful for the community, to see different parts of the country, and to get to work under admired writers.
I did get my community college job because of my MFA, though I suspect I would have gotten it with an MA, too. I started the fiction writing classes at my school, and now a lot of people would like to teach them. I don't know that I would get my job now because what they really want is people who have taken a lot of rhetoric classes who can teach composition. I teach composition because I've been doing it for so long.
Sequoia Nagamatsu: I think people have to go into an MFA program realizing a few things:
  1. You don't need it to succeed (but you do need it to teach if that's what you really want). Still, you'll need AT LEAST a book to teach with the MFA (if you are looking at tenure-track positions).
  2. There are great writers and not so great writers both inside and outside of MFA programs (and "great" doesn't usually have to do with quality of writing so much as the ability to keep pushing forward).
  3. MFAs aren't exactly the best place to practice novel, commercial, or genre writing.
  4. MFA programs can and do help people network but knowing somebody doesn't get rid of the fact that you have to be able to write something that people outside of academia want to read. Many MFAs may get into a "literary rut."
  5. Not all MFA programs are the same. Some will do more for what you're aiming for than others.
  6. MFA programs are often more about your cohort/workshop mates than faculty. Make sure you're in good company, i.e. in an environment that welcomes what YOU value. Ignoring the differences between programs (and I'm talking mostly about residential programs here, but I'm sure non-res have differences as well), will probably result in not getting very much from an MFA program.
  7. The buck stops with you. Don't listen to your professor or your workshop cohort if YOU know what you want to do. Sometimes you have to hold your ground. Writing professors aren't God and neither are your workshop mates. Take what they have to offer. Take what you need and throw the rest away. It seems to me this last point is difficult for some people which results in stories "written by committee"
  8. An MFA program is primarily about TIME and COMMUNITY. If you already have time (or are able to juggle with your job) and you have a community, you don't necessarily need it. But it can be nice.


  1. This has been a helpful series, Annette. I'm well aware that the first steps to becoming a writer are to write and read all the time. An MFA doesn't get you that. But as someone who is considering a low-res MFA for the mentoring and fellowship that I've yet been able to patch together where I live, it sounds like the degree might get me what I'm missing in the equation -- providing I pick a program that's a right fit.

    That leads me to one question I never saw anyone mention. How did people pick their programs? Did they visit them first or just go on someone's recommendation?

  2. Thanks for your question, Julie! Look out for an encore with answers next Monday.