Why a Fiction MFA Worked for Me – And Could Work for You, Too

Because of my MFA application guide, I often find myself on the receiving end of Google queries about MFA writing programs. People want to know the odds of getting in an MFA program*, necessary GRE scores**, or what MFA programs are looking for, exactly***. But the number one query that lands people at that application guide is some variation on “What is the point of getting an MFA?”

It’s a valuable question. What is the point of getting an MFA in writing? After all, getting a fine arts degree in the middle of a recession seems, at best, foolish. And people are sometimes hostile at the idea of an MFA. After all, they’re snobby and elitist and a waste of money! People in MFA programs hate genre fiction! People in MFA programs churn out processed garbage! An MFA is a useless degree! Why bother?

If you don’t want to get an MFA, that’s okay. Really! Unlike being a doctor or a lawyer, you don’t need a degree of any kind to write professionally. But if you’re reason for not getting one is any of the reasons listed above, I have news for you – they’re not true. And you might be missing out on a valuable experience because of some really common misunderstandings about these programs.

(A disclaimer: I’m not here to tell you what you should do. I want to debunk some common misperceptions about MFA programs, and talk about how I feel getting MFA has been valuable to me as a writer and as a person. In the end, you gotta do what feels right for you.)

The 4 Things I Found Most Valuable About Getting an MFA in Fiction

  1. Funded time to write. I had three years (two MFA years and a post-grad year of teaching) during which my only duties were teaching and writing. I made enough money to live from teaching and didn’t incur any debt. I had three years to devote entirely to my craft. And I really needed those years. The difference between the work I came in writing and the work I left writing is staggering, and, I think, accelerated compared to how my writing would have progressed otherwise.
  2. A community of writers. I got my undergraduate degree in visual media, so I was mostly surrounded by photographers and other visual artists in college. An awesome group, but not writers. Going to my program opened up this incredible new resource: other writers who became my friends and colleagues. People who read my work and said “You need to read Kelly Link/George Saunders/Karen Russell/Lorrie Moore/Italo Calvino/you need to read Conjunctions/Tin House/Strange Horizons/Lightspeed/you need to go to Clarion/how do you not know about Clarion/let me tell you about genre/let me tell you about slipstream/fabulism/science fiction/realism…” People who wrote in genres I’d never even heard of. People who alternately blew/expanded my mind every week. Teachers, yes, but also fellow students. I learned so much from them. And yes, there are dozens of ways to build writing communities. But this was mine, and it was exactly what I needed, when I needed it.
  3. Interaction with professional writers. If being a professional writer is one of your career goals, being exposed to many variations of how that life can manifest is invaluable. (And exciting and nerve-wracking all at the same time.)
  4. Teaching. Before I came to Iowa, I was nervous about the idea of teaching. After having to opportunity to teach/design my own class, however, I learned that I absolutely want to teach at a university some day.

Before I started writing this post, I took an informal survey of people who have received MFAs in writing. I asked them what they thought the primary benefit to receiving an MFA has been. In no particular order, here is what people said:

  • time to write
  • a community of writers
  • credentials for a teaching job
  • being given the opportunity to teach
  • exposure to new/different writing

So, not so different from  my own list.

Common Misconceptions about MFA Programs

1. MFA programs are a waste of money.

I hear this a lot. Here’s the thing about MFA programs: there are a ton of them, and the cost varies from program to program. But more importantly: there are quite a lot of MFA programs that do not cost any money at all. Many programs offer tuition remission (also known as free tuition, woohoo!), and a lot of those programs also offer full or partial funding, either through fellowships or TAships.

I did not realize this the first time I applied to MFA programs. I applied to a few local programs, none of which offered any kind of funding, and all of which cost staggering amounts of money. I was poor and already had loans from undergrad, and there was no way in hell I was going to take on more debt. When an old professor of mine told me how many funded programs existed, I decided to wait one more year and apply again. The thing is, to be in these funded programs, you have to be willing to relocate, depending on your location. (There are not any no-cost low-res MFA programs to my knowledge, though I invite anyone who knows of any to please let me know.) I was in a stressful, dead-end job in a city where I didn’t want to stay, so I was more than happy to move. I applied to a scandalous number of programs across twenty states, all of which had no tuition and all of which were funded (some more than others). I ended up at a funded program, which was an incredible privilege.

Whether or not you should spend money on an MFA depends on a variety of factors. I, personally, would not have done it at all. If you’ve got the money, that’s another matter. You also might be interested in a more specialized MFA program, like the Writing for Children & Young Adults program at VCFA, which is low-res and has tuition. But don’t think for a second that there aren’t options for writers who aren’t independently wealthy or willing to incur a pit of debt.

2. MFA programs do nothing but help churn out boring, carbon-copy fiction.

I obviously can’t speak for every MFA program in the universe, but I just came through one where some of the most exciting, funny, innovative, genre-bending, heartbreaking fiction I have ever read emerged from the workshops. Did I like every story I read? Of course not. Was some of it not to my taste? Sure. Did I listen to every piece of advice I got from every classmate and teacher? Nope. Part of workshopping is learning that some people aren’t your ideal readers, or that some people aren’t able to give you constructive criticism based on your project and not their vision for your projects, or that some people simply don’t have anything valuable to say about your work.

The nice thing about being workshopped so heavily is that you learn to know when you’re getting advice from a reader who’s trying to make the story more like something they’d read/write, and when you’re getting advice from someone who sympathizes with the story’s project and wants to make it the best form of itself. This is a valuable gift for any writer.

Sam Chang, the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has said “I sometimes feel if I just brought [students] to the room and fed them some chicken soup, they would get better anyway. The elements that go into creating a great writer are completely mysterious.” And that’s it! There’s not some magical formula being imposed to make someone be a writer (or, worse, a single, objective idea about what fiction is, uniformly imposed on every writer who walks through the door). An MFA program isn’t teaching anything – it’s bringing in people who already have what it takes, and giving them the resources to improve their own work. It’s the difference between telling someone you’ll fund their housing if they move into a cookie-cutter suburban development, and telling someone you’ll fund their housing, handing them a check, and telling them to go build whatever they want, wherever they want, however they want, and letting them know that there’s a library of resources here if they need to figure out how to wire the house or hang drywall or build the whole thing over a waterfall or shellac burnt toast to the living room floor or whatever.

3. You need an MFA to be a writer.

You do not need an MFA to be a writer. Again: you do NOT need an MFA to be a writer. I know that you probably know that, but I want to be crystal clear. You absolutely, positively can be a writer without an MFA.

An MFA can help you become a better writer. Not because you’re being force-fed objective ideas about fiction, but because you are being exposed to so much, you have time to read and write without the other pressures of the world intruding, because you are learning how to critically analyze fiction by doing it over and over.

4. MFA programs discriminate against [insert type of fiction here].

I hear this a lot. Sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s not – it entirely depends on the program. Remember, these programs are made up of people, professional writers with their own tastes and biases. Few, if any, programs are going to openly admit to discriminating against a certain type of fiction, so the best way to figure out if a program is the right fit for you is to look at the graduates of that program, and, more importantly, communicate with current students in that program. They’ll be able to tell you everything the brochures/instructors/University/program admins can’t or won’t.

Are you worried that the program you’re applying to hates genre fiction?****  Or young adult fiction? Don’t rely on rumor or chatter about a program – find out who is currently/has recently attended the program and email them. Be honest. “I write YA/hard sci-fi/slipstream/fantasy/old-school realism/etc. – is this the program for me?” If the faculty is permanent (not many or any visiting faculty), ask if any particular professor is not a fan of a certain type of writing. Ask questions, and don’t assume.

The same applies to issues of diversity (race, gender, sexual orientation). Make sure that you check out the faculty and ask current students about diversity at their program.

5. MFA programs/degrees are useless.

Again, this depends entirely on your needs. For some people, the time spent in a program is more valuable than the actual degree. For others, especially people who want to teach on the university level, the degree is absolutely useful.

Look, every MFA program is different. Some have extensive academic requirements. Some programs are one year, some two, some three. There are different workshop methods and different thesis schedules and different sizes of program (anywhere from 3 – 100 writers). In the end, you have to figure out if a program is a good match for your needs. Do you feel comfortable with the progress of your work, have a stable job you can’t or don’t want to leave, and have no desire to teach professionally at the college level? You might not want to get one. But there’s no one answer.

6. MFAs are not hard work.

I keep reading this and it fills me with incoherent rage. I dare you to tell anyone working on a 300-page-book that they’re not working hard. Go ahead. I dare you.

Why Do I Care?

I can imagine you may be wondering why I just devoted so many words to this topic.

Look. The world can be utterly hostile to writers (and artists of all stripes). My MFA was the first time in my life that, instead of discussion of my writing goals invoking anxiety, concern for my mental health, talk of stability, skepticism, or condescension from people, I was met with complete support and care. My program demanded nothing extra of me: not money or success or notoriety, not a flawless resume or a particular kind of history. Nothing except my passion and hard work. And on the other end, I’ve come out with a body of work, a strong writing community, a better understanding of where I want to go from here. What more could I have asked for?

Any writer who has had any kind of success knows what it feels like to catch a break. The first time you sell a story to a magazine? Some reader pulled your story out of a slushpile and passed it on to the editor, and the editor said “This one.” An MFA is like that. Someone looked at your application and said “This one. I think they could have what it takes. Let’s give her some chicken soup and see what happens.”

I recognize that there are fundamental faults of the academy, from which MFA programs are often not immune*****. I’m not saying they’re perfect. But they are far better (and often different) than the portrait painted by the blunt criticism to which they are often subjected. My fiction MFA worked for me. It might work for you, too.

Have questions? Disagree with me? Comment below. And good luck with your decision-making process.

* It’s not the lottery! You aren’t being picked randomly out of a hat, you’re being selected on the basis of your manuscript, at the very least, and possibly a host of other factors.
** Depends on the program. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter for admission but may affect a university-issued fellowship.
*** Again, this varies from program to program, but often the answer is simply “A writer with promise.”
**** This comes up a lot with regards to Iowa, and here’s the kicker: it’s not true. Historically, the IWW has been a bastion for realism, but the program is at a really amazing genre-friendly turning point. I took courses on Science Fiction & Fantasy and YA while I was there. Half of my classmates were writing non-realist/experimental fiction. Anyone who says that the program is hostile to genre either attended the Workshop a very long time ago or is making assumptions.

***** For example, I think it’s unfair and wrong that some fellowships/jobs, especially connected to universities, actively require an MFA. 

8 thoughts on “Why a Fiction MFA Worked for Me – And Could Work for You, Too

  1. Renee

    Hi Carmen! This article is a gem, seriously! I am struggling with what I want to do with my life, I’m 22 just graduated and flailing about in a part-time job, and wondering if I should pursue an MFA. Thank you for your words!

    1. Hi Renee! I’m really glad that you found my article helpful. That was exactly what I was shooting for.

      An additional thought: while some people enter MFA programs directly out of college, I personally think that a few years between college and an MFA is generally a wise decision. I did it, and I was really happy I made that choice. Your milage may vary, of course – there are plenty of people, including some at my program, who go directly into MFA programs from undergrad, and they seem fine. (I encourage you to seek out people who have made that choice, and talk to them about it, to get another viewpoint.) I just felt that taking a break from academia gave some time for – the dreaded r-word, I’m so sorry – real-world experience and a break from the school year ritual. It also gave me time to develop and mature as a writer. Had I applied to MFA programs when I was 22, I absolutely would not have gotten into Iowa. I think years of reading and writing and honing my craft really helped. But again, that was my personal experience.

      I understand the desire to go to an MFA in this economy. When I left my full-time job, it was such a wonderful relief to have a place to go, something stable. Graduate program applications skyrocketed when the economy tanked for that very reason.

      If you decide to apply, best of luck. If you don’t get into a funded program the first time, take a step back, read, write, and keep trying.

  2. Renee

    I think in another one of your posts, you said the GRE score can make or break your funding. How likely is it that the admissions people will use that as the determining factor between two potential candidates?

    1. I obviously can’t speak for all programs, but my guess is extremely unlikely. I imagine that a low GRE verbal score, perhaps paired with a poor academic history, might set off a red flag of some sort, but a school isn’t going to reject an excellent writer because of a low GRE score. The only place one might run into trouble is if the university has certain minimum GRE/GPA requirements, but I’ve heard of programs making appeals to their universities to admit otherwise good candidates who fall beneath that range.

      1. Renee

        That makes sense, but I am considering not taking it at all since a lot of the programs I’m considering don’t require it. But funding is a large factor in my decisions.

  3. Well, this made me tear up:

    “Look. The world can be utterly hostile to writers (and artists of all stripes). My MFA was the first time in my life that, instead of discussion of my writing goals invoking anxiety, concern for my mental health, talk of stability, skepticism, or condescension from people, I was met with complete support and care.”

    I’m beginning an MFA program in the fall and I hope I’ll be able to say the same thing.

  4. I’m late to the party here, but I’m just now considering applying to an MFA program at 44 years old. I believe my chances are incredibly slim, but I’m at the point in the journey where I’m just being optimistic and not yet pinning my hopes on anything. I’m enjoying reading about your experiences. I’m a stay-at-home, homeschooling mother of two very young children. I taught high school English for a bit, and have done some boring corporate work. I feel like, if nothing else, I will not be the average applicant!

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