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Do You Need a MFA to be a Writer?
Is that fabled degree necessary to be published?
Well, that solves that then! Hope you’re enjoying the newsletter and…
Okay, okay, the answer is more complicated than that. Getting your Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing can be a good opportunity to focus on your craft, work with amazing mentors, and connect with fellow writers to build a writing community. An MFA can be a great foundation for your writing career. I value my time at CalArts immensely, and I’m glad I did it. But MFA’s aren’t for everyone, and it certainly is not a necessary step be a successful writer.
MFAs are expensive:
The major downside to an MFA is cost, in time and money. There’s no way around this, MFAs are expensive, according to this Atlantic article I’m blatantly cribbing from, (https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/12/mfas-an-increasingly-popular-increasingly-bad-financial-decision/383706/) the most influential MFA’s average at 38,000 dollars, and that’s not including the cost of housing, food, ect. If you’re doing a full-time MFA, then it’s also challenging, if not impossible, to do a full-time job as well. In my instance, I was fortunate that I had family support to defray the cost of tuition, but were that not the case, I’m not sure if I would have made the same decisions that I did. Though many of my fellow students were pleased with their experience at CalArts, one of my friends, a talented writer, dropped out after one year, as he felt continuing simply wasn’t worth the price and time. And unlike, say, a law degree, MFAs won’t land you high-paying jobs to repay any student debt incurred.
One alternative to a full-time MFA is a low-residency MFA. At a low-residency you take online courses for most of the semester, then meet up for a short in-person intensive. For example, at the UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Low Residency MFA, students meet for five 10-day residency, and do the rest remotely. This massively frees up your time, allowing students to work full or part time, or raise their kids, or do whatever else they might with the time, while still getting an MFA experience. In additions, low-residency MFAs tend to be cheaper than full-time (though still not cheap). Before I went to CalArts, I did one semester at Palm Desert, and it was great. I was able to take classes with Stephen Graham Jones, an amazing experience, and though I don’t regret switching to CalArts, I know I would have had a great education if I stayed.
What MFAs get you:
What MFAs are great for is giving you time to focus on your writing and access to amazing writers, both as instructors or as peers. At CalArts, I was able to work under the mentorship of Brian Evenson, and got detailed feedback on my thesis, which would become my debut novel The Sightless City. My novel evolved during those two years, metamorphizing from a messy, disorganized caterpillar, into a comparatively well-focused and thematically consistent butterfly. With this dedicated focus, I was able to develop my skills, and was introduced to material and ideas I never would have come across on my own. I also met amazing fellow writers, whose friendships I cherish. For me, these short two years were an incomparable experience that helped me develop as a writer, and which I wouldn’t give up for the world.
What MFAs don’t get you:
Published. Or a job.
Don’t get me wrong, they can help with both, but its neither a requirement for your career, nor is an MFA sufficient you get you published. As for publication, if might be nice to put MFA on your query letter to agents, but trust me that’s not enough, and though I am not an agent, and don’t know what agents want, I have yet to find an agent or agency website that requires people to have an MFA to submit. At the end of the day your book is either going to grab their attention or it isn’t, what degree you have really doesn’t change that. An MFA might give you the skills to revise your manuscript, but if you manage to develop the skills through other means, then that works just as well.
In fact, many of the Swordfights & Spaceflights authors do not have an MFA, and yet have succeeded in getting their books published. For example, though Angela Super, author of the Seven Stars Saga, got her B.A. in Creative Writing and Theatre, she does not consider such degrees necessary for publication, and neither Liam Quane, author of Road to Juneau, nor Katherine Forrister, author of Lodestone have Creative Writing undergraduate or graduate degrees, and yet all have found success through hard work and the quality of their writing.
As for jobs, yes many teaching posts require MFAs. If you want to teach creative writing at university level, you’ll probably want a higher degree. Though this is a tough road even with an MFA, and for academic positions you might be better served with a PhD. However, there are a number of online workshops that do not require their instructors to have MFAs. For example, Grubstreet specifically says they are not necessary, Gotham Writers says advanced degrees are “a plus” but likewise does not require them, and Blue Stoop requires “an MFA/MA in chosen genre or community-based/grassroots knowledge equivalent.”
“Knowledge equivalent” is interesting phrasing. Because here’s one of the secrets about MFA’s…
Much of what MFA’s offer, you can get without an MFA:
I started my writing career with classes at UCLA Extension. It’s one of many such programs across the country and online that connect writers with excellent instructors in a workshop environment. During these classes I met writers who I’d end up forming writing groups which have been vital to my craft, helping me revise my novels and stories, as well providing me a community of professional peers and friends. The higher levels of these Extension classes were of quality and rigor comparable to MFA’s. They won’t ever give you a degree, but the degree is one of the least important parts of an MFA. Fellow UCLA Extension Alum, Aatif Rashid, got his excellent debut Portrait of Sebastian Khan published in 2019 and now teaches at UCLA Extension himself, all without stepping foot in an MFA. We’ve worked together in a years-long writing group with several other talented writers, which has been an experience at least central to my growth as a writer as my MFA, but cost zero dollars.
So in conclusion:
You will never get all the elements of an MFA in one place outside of an MFA program, and there are some opportunities unique to them, but most of the benefits from an MFA: mentorship, a chance to improve your craft, a sense of community, can be cobbled together from various other classes, workshops, and writing groups. I don’t say this to dissuade anyone from pursuing an MFA if they want to and can make it work. Again CalArts helped make me into the writer I am today, and I am forever thankful for the support and community provided by my mentor, my instructors, and my classmates. But if you are worried that you can’t get published, or won’t be a “real writer” without a degree, don’t. There are many paths, an MFA is just one of them.
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