So periodically, I see this question comes up online of whether or not a writer should (or shouldn’t) go for an MFA. And there’s always a chorus of replies either for or against, and I always think I’ll chime in, but never do. So instead, I’m just collecting all my unsaid thoughts and reflections on a BA and an MFA in creative writing in a single post, and admittedly, it’s been a few years since I graduated, so everything that follows has a retrospective tinge. This is a long one, so strap in.
First and foremost: no, attending an MFA program will not automatically make you a great writer.
Or, rather—not the way you think. You CAN get things out of an MFA program that WILL make you a stronger writer, a more efficient writer, a more confident writer—and a more precise critic and a more active reader.
In my six years of formal education in creative writing, I wrote just shy of 2 million words. I totted up my word count back when I was graduating from my undergrad, but I didn’t precisely tally what I did for my grad program, but it’s probably around 2 mil. And much of that word count was produced on tight deadlines.
I often joke that my undergrad program was a crucible and my grad program a forge—because for my undergrad, I typically had to produce about 3k-15k a week for four years, often following strict prompts, with little time to revise or edit, so it better be right—or, at least, something I could live with—the first time. I didn’t have the luxury of multiple drafts. I produced a fuck-ton of wordage. Most of it utter garbage, but some of it salvageable. I’ve sold a few short stories I wrote in undergrad to magazines and anthologies, but what my undergrad really did was built up my writing muscles to the point where knocking out a 7k short story following a strict anthology theme prompt a week before the deadline is not hard.
It also built the habit of writing, and now I don’t feel right or comfortable with myself if I haven’t written in a few days (unless I’m pouring my creative juices into some other expression, like painting). Writing is my joy, my happy place, and what I turn to when I’m stressed. Something which I probably could have built up on my own without the undergrad BUT doing the undergrad caused it to happen in a FAR MORE COMPRESSED amount of time. It did have the severe drawback of ridiculous stress and bouts of depression and anxiety that took a few years to work through, but hey.
Grad school had looser deadlines, but a greater focus on honing the edge of my skills and helping me figure out who I am as a writer, what it is I’m trying to do. For that one, it was bizarrely based on page count, not word count, with 30 pages a month, one major 30-something page dissertation paper, and one 120-page minimum thesis.
Basically, in short, the BA and MFA made me work, and it made me learn how to write while having other commitments. I currently have a full time job, am a full time student for another program (in support of the job—will be done in three weeks, woo!), and of my current novel, I’ve written about 130,000 words in less than four months. True, I don’t have many friends I see in person but, hey, pandemic times? Would this regimen work for everyone? Fuck no. It worked for me, but even while having a good end result, it wasn’t what I’d call a comfortable experience. So. What did I learn from those six years of schooling?
1. How to write a lot, and the benefits of quantity over quality. For a very long time, I wrote pulp stories. I embraced that, and wrote a lot, much of it terrible, but a lot of it, not, and on that foundation of what was not, I built my craft. You can get there with quality, it just tends to take longer, and in my personal opinion and experience, it’s easier to get to quality by going through quantity than to get to quantity through quality. Not that it can’t be done, but…easier.
2. Schooling did teach me to “hear” the rhythm and poetry of words. Now, I’m not a poet, but I appreciate the poetic beat—which, by the way, is why I will FIGHT YOU if you say, “high word count? just remove those filler words like ‘that’!” because those “filler” words have a purpose beyond the baseline of creating clarity, they also create rhythm, and I can TELL when something is over-edited. Why? Because it’s arrhythmic. It doesn’t “sound” right to the inner ear. Usually because words have been cut out with a search/find tool, so the sentence rhythm and structure has been changed…but all the sentences surrounding it haven’t, so there’s this discordancy where the sentences don’t mesh. Going to cut out words? Do a full read-through as you do it to make sure your words are still dancing to the music of the whole narrative.
3. How to critique—both how to give it and how to receive it. Most MFA programs are workshop based, and the more you do workshops, the more you learn there are different methods and approaches and which ones work for you (and which ones really don’t). The gift of tons of workshopping hours is that…I’m far less critical. Because I’ve seen that there are so many ways and methods and approaches, I’ve given up the whole idea that there’s a right way to do this. Really, there’s just many ways, and it’s highly individual; what’s right for someone else isn’t necessarily right for you. Which is frustrating, at first, because people tend not to like ambiguities. But, to quote Barbossa, “They’re more like guidelines.” It teaches you how to separate personal taste from the writer’s vision, and refine your ability to give feedback that strives for that vision, rather than what you, personally, would like. Yeah, sure, of course, this isn’t 100%, and critique will never, ever, be truly impartial, but practice helps get you a bit closer.
4. How to receive critique…and not be rocked off course. Schooling helped me figure out what I want from my writing and what I want to do, and taught me how to listen to critique, say thank you, that’s an insightful reading and has give me much to consider…then not act on it at all. Because the critique in question wasn’t helping to further my vision and bring my work closer to what I conceptualized it to be. It helped me figure out what were my hills to die on…and what is just stubbornness and being enamored with my own work. I’m more centered now, more grounded. I have a better idea of what I’m doing and what my intent is, and have learned how to define it, if only to myself.
5. How to reverse engineer other people’s writing! Like, other people talk about how studying writing or becoming a writer ruined books for them and they can’t just read for fun. Au contraire! You can read to reverse engineer and revel in the recognition that someone else is doing something a fuck-ton better than you can…and then you can figure out how they did it and do it for yourself. It isn’t theft! You’re acquiring a new tool for your craft.
6. I’m going to be absolutist and talk about extremes, but there are two kinds of writers: those who love the act of writing and those who love to have written. Of course, this is really a spectrum, and people fall everywhere in it, but the strategies for finishing your work can be different depending on where you fall.
Those who love to have written tend to be more productive when they have deadlines, prompts, and often, an outside force goading them on. Many of these sorts, if they don’t end up finding a community of like-minded writers in their MFA programs, tend to stop writing after getting their degree.
Then there are those who love the act and will do it regardless…but not necessarily see projects to completion. Because they have a thousand ideas, and chase plot bunnies with abandon. They, too, benefit from deadlines and outside forces placing constraints to keep them on track, and after they finish their program, while they may continue to write a fuck-ton, they might struggle to complete things.
So what can MFA programs do? Help you figure out where you are on that spectrum and give you strategies and tools that you can do beyond the program—this might take the form of dedicated spaces, writing goal tools, communities, workshops, a regular submission routine to agents or editors or markets. Whatever fuels you.
And, while we’re on the topic of finishing: yes, finish your shit. Because the more you finish, the more you’re able to recognize the feeling when something is finished. And the easier it becomes to replicate. Also, if your goal is publication, you can’t usually publish something without it being finished. So. Finish things.
7. Rules are bullshit. No, really. They don’t actually exist. EXCEPT! When you’re starting out, you NEED the rules, because the rules create context which, until you get more experience, you’re not going to have. So rules = necessary, but also rules = illusionary. When it stops shoring you up and giving structure and instead starts stifling and constricting you, and you find yourself having to do writerly gymnastics to get around it, jettison it. You don’t need it anymore.
8. The philosophy of “Fuck it.” It’s so very freeing to reach a point where you just yeet all those rules into the very sun and scream, “Fuck it!” and do what you want. Also, writing, like any art, doesn’t end. You always have a new bar to strive for, a new goal. Which…can be intimidating and defeating, at first. But eventually, you might, like me, come to the conclusion that it’s a hell of a lot more fun if there’s no level cap.
So are MFA programs necessary? Of course not. And they tend to be very expensive, and for the most part, if you are driven and dedicated and have the support—either from yourself, from those around you, from a larger writing community—you can easily replicate the lessons an MFA program can teach you for free—or nearly so. But is it worthless? Also, no. But the caveat is, you tend to get back what you put in. Although, if you’re willing to go $20k into debt with student loans, I hope you’re willing to put in the effort. ‘Cause with that kind of money, you could instead take out a loan for a good car…
Would I trade my BA and MFA? No. Because they worked for me. However, I do want to note that while I do have some short stories published and regularly submit to agents, editors, and markets, I haven’t sold a book, I don’t have an agent, and I’m not popular. So having a degree in this is not going to guarantee you success or a book deal or whatever. That’s a separate, though closely parallel, thing. Same way attending that prestigious workshop isn’t going to get you a book deal, either. It can, however, help you build a community, a network of fellow writers and, sometimes, agents and editors. It can help you get perspective not just on your work, but also the industry.
But, honestly, as stressful and intense as it can be, MFAs and workshops and classes can also be fun. ‘Cause you’re basically in a room with a bunch of people with brains that work like yours, that see stories and patterns and the rhythm of words, and are bursting with ideas and characters and plots and metaphors. You ain’t alone, is all I’m saying.
Anyway, my nearly two thousand words of two cents. Congrats! You made it here (and I honestly have no idea why you put up with me…?). Have a cookie. 🍪
Cross-posted on Reddit, thus, the Reddit cookie emoji.