To MFA or Not to MFA: One Crime Writer’s Opinion

western-state-colorado-university-gunnison-colorado-janice-rae-parizaIn keeping up with my fellow writers via social media and their blogs, I’ve been noticing a lot of people weighing in recently on a discussion that has always held plenty of contention among authors. That discussion revolves, of course, around the dreaded, coveted, downplayed, and occasionally praised, Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing (MFA).

Full disclosure: I have an MFA. That said, this isn’t going to be a post about why that makes me better or worse than the next writer, and I’m not going to try to sell you on an MFA, or blame you if you think MFAs are snotty and unnecessary. I get it all around, really, I do.

But I have a unique perspective on the subject I’d like to share, given the unique nature of my specific MFA, which is in Popular Genre Writing and Commercial Fiction. I studied in a low-residency program in a town that I lived in any way at the time, Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, Colorado. I also went to undergrad at Western. I have my issues with the university as a whole that I won’t go into here, but I did really love my graduate school experience at the academic level.

That experience, as well as the experiences of others I’ve had conversations or read about on their blogs, has led me to believe that the answer to whether it makes sense to get an MFA or not is as simple as it is complex: it depends on the MFA, and it depends on the writer.

More disclosure: I was not a genre writer when I joined a genre-based program. Far from it. The reasons I joined were myriad, but among them was a sense that I needed to focus more on story craft, rather than just focusing on being emotionally engaging or writing tight prose (though I learned tons about tight prose too, shout out to Michaela Roessner Herman). I needed to understand market and business as well, if I was to move forward and build a career.

I was at a point where I felt ready for the first time to be serious about my writing. My wife was finishing up undergad at Western anyway, and an experience I had with Western’s graduate faculty at the Writing the Rockies writing conference the summer before I started made me believe they had the tools to coach me where I needed to go. So I applied and got in last minute, the first student ever in the program to start in the fall semester (after the first summer session had already ended) and still go on to graduate (I made up that first summer the next summer, which was heavy lifting, but worth it).

Joining the program was a great decision, as it turned out. I know the MFA detractors aren’t going to want to hear this, but IT CHANGED ME AS A WRITER FROM TOP TO BOTTOM. It made me better at everything I already did well, and it developed not only a strong skillset where I was lacking, but it also gave me an incredible professional understanding of market and genre, and how to write and sell for a multitude of both.

And that didn’t end when I graduated. In the six months since I finished,  I believe my writing improved more than it did in the entirety of the program, which I think  my instructors would admit was substantial. The skills are building other skills these days. I feel like a trained professional working in my chosen field whenever I write now, and it’s a great feeling…

A feeling that you don’t have to go to graduate school to get. That’s probably not what you expected to hear from me after that last paragraph. Sorry to confuse. The truth is, that path has worked well for me, but it’s probably not for everyone. The program I chose was more affordable than most, and it was the right fit for me as a writer. It also came along at a time when I was ready to be serious, which is perhaps the most important factor involved.

What I’ll say is this: writers who don’t want or have the resources to get an MFA can make most of the same progress by both studying technique and practicing what they study. But more importantly, having a sense of guided study. This could mean going to conferences and forging relationships with writers who are older and more experienced, or it could mean getting involved in writing groups and organizations.

But the important thing is that you seek out feedback and direction on how you can go about shaping up your technique and work. Also, you have to WRITE. A LOT.  And read. A LOT. If you’re a writer you need to study other people’s writing, both from a craft and market perspective.

And also from a reader’s perspective. I read a book or two a week, and while I have a situation more conducive to that than most, if you have time to watch television, you have time to read, and not only is it more entertaining (again, my opinion), but you’re also studying craft every time you sit down and do it, and exercising your creative mind by imagining the author’s world in the process.

Anyway, back to the MFA. I’ve heard people assert that MFAs are all about connections, and you’re just paying for connections when you join a program. While I find such statements a bit ad hominem in the first place, they’re often misguided for reasons that the speaker may not have considered. I can’t speak for all MFAs, but I can tell you that from my experience there was, indeed, an added benefit of connections, though probably not the type you’re thinking.

The valuable connections I made in graduate school were to my professors, and even more so to my classmates. My cohort was this incredible ball of talented,  compassionate human beings, each of whom came from a totally different background and wrote for a different genre than the others, for the most part.

I learned more than you could imagine from them, and they are absolutely some of my best friends on earth today. Every time one of them has a success I feel like I’ve had a success, because I feel invested in their writing and careers, and vice versa. They understand how difficult this process is, how far each of us has come, and how important acceptance and community can be to a struggling writer. After the first two-week on-campus intensive together, they felt like family. I feel protective over them, and invested in their lives as well as their careers.

So was my MFA worth it for the connections? How much money would you beg, borrow, and steal for connections like that? Each writer (hell, each person) has to decide that for themselves, and there’s no guarantee that your needs and timing and cohort will fall into line like mine did. I’ve heard nightmare MFA stories of alienation and contempt as well, so my experience isn’t everyone’s. Being in a genre-based, story craft-focused program seemed to shield me from such experiences, for the most part.

I’m just now starting to pay my loans back, too, so my value assessment will no doubt shift over time as a result of that.  But for me it was 100% worth it.

Of course, no one wants to hire me to teach using my degree either, but that would be a far bigger bummer if it weren’t for the travesty of adjunct labor at the university level right now anyway. Truth is that doesn’t feel like a sustainable career path to me at current pay rates. I’ve become a pretty good editor, however, and I’ve used the skills I’ve learned to strike out on my own in substantial ways.

At the end of the day, this is all just one writer’s unique experience, but my advice to those considering an MFA would be to do their homework, assess their feelings, needs, and strengths, and investigate each program’s unique potential for human connection and professional training.

It can be worth it in spades, if you find the right program. But it can also be a nightmare if you’re not ready for it or pick the wrong program. I’ll leave those of you who decide to pursue an MFA with this last bit of advice: if a prospective program does not train you to manage a career as a professional writer after graduation, my opinion is they’re shafting you of half the educational value, and not worth the money. Peace!



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