How to Write (Better): Do You Need a MFA?

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She Writes

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Nancy Rawlinson, writer/editor/teacher/coach -- and this Wednesday's webinar instructor at She Writes -- offers four ways to know whether a MFA is right for you, and whether you are right for a MFA. (Three days left to register for her info-packed webinar, right here!)

Anyone who writes regularly –- whether it’s honing a novel in the small hours of the morning or blogging up a storm or crafting a line of poetry -– has probably considered the following question: Should I get a MFA? After all, it’s hard not to notice the proliferation of programs and the increasing number of people who have MFAs. But a MFA is a big commitment. All that time and money -– what’s the return? Is it really worth it? And how do you know if it’s the right move for you? I have helped many clients and students answer these questions, and I can tell you the four factors I consider before I give my advice.

1. Are you ready for a MFA?

A good question to start with, maybe, but one that’s hard to answer. How do you know? You know by workshopping. I would caution against diving into a MFA experience if you have never been in a formal workshop setting. The workshop is the central teaching tool of the MFA, and you need to be comfortable with the in and outs of it –- and know what you are letting yourself in for. If you don’t live in easy proximity of an in-person workshop, try some online classes. There are plenty of them about, and they will at least give you a sample of what it is like to have your work critiqued by strangers, and, just as importantly, help you develop your own critiquing skills.

This first question is linked to the second:

2. Is your work strong enough for a MFA?

This is a bit of a chicken and egg question, as the only way you’ll really know is by applying -– but once again, the workshop is your best barometer. If you are getting enthusiastic responses and lots of encouragement, not only from your fellow workshoppers but also from your professor, you should be good to go ahead with your applications. If in doubt, ask directly, or seek a second opinion from a freelance editor –- some, such as me, specialize in helping MFA applicants, and though no one can say for sure whether you will get accepted or not, you can at least find out if you are in the right ball park.

3. Can you afford an MFA?

There are plenty of fully funded programs out there, some of which carry stipends. Getting accepted into one of those programs is like being paid to write –- what an opportunity! The competition for those places is strong, though, and you also have to factor in the other, hidden costs: the loss of earnings during the MFA period, the cost of relocating if necessary, and the deflation of your other assets as the economy (hopefully) moves forward. For students who end up paying some or all of their tuition costs themselves, the price tag of a MFA is a lot higher –- often too high. So let me just say this right now, nice and clearly: It’s not worth taking on a lot of debt to get a MFA. The potential financial return doesn’t justify it, and graduating with $100k of loans will do absolutely nothing for your writing career. I’d say $20k is the maximum any MFA student should even consider taking on, and ideally it would be less, or none. Do what it takes to avoid that debt, and if you can’t, you may find that your MFA hinders rather than helps your artistic progression.

4. Do you need an MFA?

This is perhaps the most nebulous question of them all, because “need” varies so much from one person to the next, and it can easily be confused with desire. So let’s break this down. What needs can a MFA meet? It can give you time and space to write in a way that is hard to find in “regular” life. A MFA can help realign your priorities –- some people use it as a bridge into a new life, one in which writing is front and center rather than confined to the sidelines. A MFA can also teach you how to read like a writer –- an invaluable skill going forward with your own work, and in many other professional capacities. A MFA can provide a writing community of like-minded souls. And a MFA qualifies you to teach others about creative writing –- though don’t harbor any dreams about landing a tenure track job upon graduating. There is intense competition for those positions, and they usually require a strong publication track record. You are more likely –- at least at first –- to end up adjuncting, which can be rewarding, but is nowhere near as secure or as highly paid.

At this point you might be thinking, yup, I need time and space to write, and I need a deeply immersive experience, and I need to move writing front and center in my life –- so I do need a MFA, right? Maybe –- but the second part of this question is: Can you get those things on your own? Can you find your community, make the shift, and tune up your critical faculties -– all without having to commit to an MFA? Some people can. I have worked with writers who could answer “yes” to the first three of my questions, no problem. They were ready for a MFA, their work was strong enough, and they could afford to go. But when it came to question four –- the assessment of what the MFA would gain them that they didn’t already have, it seemed clear. They didn’t need it. They were already workshopping, making good progress on books or other publishable work, and living the writer’s life -– why break that up, only to set it up again somewhere else? Because -– and here’s the last factor to take into consideration when you are making your own decisions –- MFA programs end. I know, that’s obvious, right? But what I’m trying to get across is that when you come out of your program, maybe having moved or given up your job, you’ll have to set up a life again –- a sustainable, functional writer's life, in which you meet your financial and social needs while keeping your commitment to your work alive. And if you have achieved that tricky balance already, I say hold on to it. Don’t throw it over for a MFA experience that could be intense and transformative but is also fleeting when seen from the perspective of a long writer’s life. And isn’t that what we all want, really? A long and prosperous writer’s life?

Whatever you decide, know that a MFA is just one potential ingredient of that life –- not the be-all and end-all and not the defining factor. It’s just one more choice amongst many.


Nancy Rawlinson is a writer, editor, teacher and coach. She will be running a seminar on MFA applications through She Writes on September 15, from 1-2pm ET via phone and web. Click here to sign up. Visit Nancy’s website at www.nancyrawlinson.com.


This post was originally posted at She Writes, a community and resource for women who write.

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