Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Reasons to get an MFA in creative writing

Here's my big question -- before we even get into the "are you ready for an MFA?" and "where should you apply/go?" -- why do you want to get an MFA, and are your reasons strong enough to hold you through 2-3 years of graduate study?

Good reasons to get an MFA:
  • You want to work on improving your craft.
  • You are encouraged by having deadlines for your writing.
  • You want funded time to write (assuming you get funding).
  • You'd like to teach writing at the college level including composition.
  • You learn well in a school-setting.
  • You have a high threshold for pain when it comes to people critiquing your writing.
  • You enjoy classic and contemporary "literature."
  • You want to push yourself.

Poor reasons to get an MFA:

  • You got a BA in English and don't know what to do next.
  • You hate the thought of teaching freshmen to write essays and only want to be an artist.
  • You want to be an artiste.
  • Your writing doesn't need any work, you just need to network.
  • You believe that once you're in an MFA program, you need only stay long enough to network your way to an agent/editor/publication.
  • It will look good on your submission cover letters. 
  • You think a masters degree in creative writing will make you employable.

An MFA, in theory, is the terminal degree for a creative (or artistic) form.  There are creative writing PhD programs out there, but for the moment both a PhD and an MFA are considered "terminal."  As a creative discipline, the Fine Arts part of your Master of Fine Arts degree makes you not terribly employable.  There are no ready jobs for MFA holders they way there are ready jobs for holders of JDs.  (Although lately there's no ready jobs for them either.)

With an MFA in creative writing you can teach college level writing classes -- most of these openings will be college level composition classes not college level creative writing classes. With an MFA in creative writing a couple publications, you can also teach community ed. classes in creative writing. You must have substantial publications in your creative field and substantial previous teaching experience to land a decent job teaching creative writing full time.  Know this ahead of time if it's what you want.

The time spent getting the MFA is a time to learn, but it's also a time to write.  That is the most valuable part of the MFA for any funded student: funding to write.  The most valuable part for the unfunded student: a chance to learn craft from people who (usually) are good teachers.

MFAs are horrible places to network your way to publication. Unless you make it into Iowa.  If you make it into Iowa and convince them to give you a degree, it will be easier (eventually) to get a teaching position and/or your first book contract. But every other MFA in the country is not Iowa.  Only Iowa is the Iowa of writing programs. No other MFA holds that clout -- no matter its "ranking."  More on that ranking nonsense tomorrow.

The MFA community can sniff out those who are there to network not learn. And it takes them about as long to find the fakes as it does the new family on the block to figure out if their neighbor is bringing them a casserole to welcome them in and save them from ordering pizza while unpacking, or it the goo and noodles in the corning wear is really just an excuse to get in the house and snoop. And those who are identified as using the program to network, don't ever integrate fully into the community. Although I will say that most of my faculty are the biggest name droppers I've ever met ... but that doesn't mean they'll introduce you, the student, just because you're there.  If you're looking to network, then go to local readings. Find out about readings, get on email listserves.  The university, library, or community group in your area likely brings writers and editors to town to talk and you don't even know it. Ask to be included on those email list serves and then, you know, attend readings -- it's one of the best ways to meet writers. And it'll generally cost you the price of their book (to get it signed) and not the few grand it would cost per semester of MFA.

Highly Recommended