Should you get an MFA?

Sorry it’s been a while since I’ve done a blog update. I’ve been working on edits to The Sea Queen from my editor at HarperCollins–all done now! I’ve also written some essays that my publicist and I are trying to get placed in various publications to promote The Half-Drowned King.

Recently, I’ve been reconnecting with some friends from my MFA program. Also, one of my cousins is considering going for an MFA, and it seemed worthwhile to write about my experience for anyone who googles “Should I Get An MFA” as I frequently did when making that decision. When I was about 30, I was working at an internet startup that I was not particularly excited about. I had gone through several years of therapy to help with cycles of depression and anxiety that made my life rather unpleasant. I was starting to feel like I was not, actually, one mistake away from utter ruin, and that I could try different things with my life and it would be okay. At the same time, I was considering my career path, and where I might find meaning in my life. I loved writing and wrote whenever I had free time, but didn’t feel like it was a serious enough pursuit, or that I was good enough at it, to commit to it.

I was considering going back to school, possibly to get an MBA so I could be better at helping run internet startups. Maybe if I threw myself into that, I thought, it would start to feel fulfilling. I was ruminating on that possibility on a now defunct journalling platform. One of my online friends, who had seen me start and stop many writing projects, including what would grow into The Half-Drowned King, wrote, “You shouldn’t get an MBA, you should get an MFA.”

It was exactly the right thing to say to me. I thought: yes, I should get an MFA. But before committing the time and money, I wanted to make sure it was the right choice. I signed up for a Gotham Writers Workshop’s Intro to Creative Writing Class with Evan Rehill and then took several iterations of Gotham’s Novel-Writing Workshop with Diana Spechler.

I loved both of those classes, but eventually I found that wanted more than they offered: to study with students who were perhaps more committed to their craft (though I worked with many very serious writers at Gotham), to read and learn from published literature with my fellow writers, and most of all, I wanted to make a commitment to myself about writing. By the time I began my MFA program at NYU, I had finished writing a few drafts of The Half-Drowned King, and had representation for it, but I wanted to learn more, and continue down the path of becoming a more skilled and interesting writer.

It was the right choice for me. I had savings so I wouldn’t need to go into debt. I had an established career I could go back to. I had confidence in my writing, along with a desire to learn and change. I don’t think these are prerequisites for anyone doing an MFA, but they were for me.

Things to know about MFA programs:

  1. They do not guarantee a writing or teaching career, but they can help An MFA is a degree that qualifies its bearers to teach Creative Writing. Many programs help writers meet agents. But teaching jobs can be scarce, and agents accept plenty of writers who don’t have MFAs.
  2. Workshops are both good and bad. I plan to write a whole separate post about this, but they are not the be-all, end-all of learning to write. I think, at their best, they reflect your writing back to you, so you can see if it had the effect you wanted.
  3. It’s a Masters of Fine Arts, with the emphasis on arts. I view writing as both craft and art, and like to make sure my craft is solid, while art comes like grace. Some of the works we studied felt to me like diving in at the deep end of the pool, looking at novels and stories that broke every rule and still succeeded before learning how and why the rules exist in the first place.

Things I loved about getting an MFA:

  1. Spending so much time with other writers. We’re an awkward, introverted, vain bunch, infuriating and wonderful at the same time. Most of us see our own foibles and each other’s far too clearly for comfort, but there’s something wonderful about that as well, like being with family. I don’t always love the workshop format, but some of my best workshops were great because of my fellow students at least as much because of the faculty.
  2. Reading, reading, reading. My dearest hope going into an MFA program was to get to read things I would not otherwise read, and expand my horizons that way, and I did, in many wonderful classes, and then I filled notebooks with lists of books I should read in addition to those.
  3. Devoting the time and mental energy to writing. For two years, my whole life was about reading and writing. When I graduated, I did get a full time job again, but I knew writing was my most important pursuit and chose my job accordingly.

So should you get an MFA? Yes, if you want to, and:

  • You can afford it
  • You’re serious about writing and want to spend 2 or more years thinking about writing
  • You’re open to growing and changing as a writer
  • But also have a clear vision of and commitment to who you are as a writer. I was very glad I took a number of writing classes before getting an MFA, was practiced at taking critique, and had some experience sorting helpful critique from unhelpful.

Getting an MFA was the right choice for me, that continues to pay wonderful dividends in my creative life, but it is not the only choice for writers.

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