The Pros of MFA Programs

Photo Credit:  Ed Yourdon  via Compfight  Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Ed Yourdon via Compfight Creative Commons

A few weeks ago I posted a compilation of all the reasons why not to get an MFA and why MFAs are in the minds of some critics “ruining American fiction.” I based my review on a number of recent articles in Salon, Slate, The Atlantic and many blog posts from former MFA students.

This post focuses on why one should get an MFA. Some of these reasons are drawn from the same articles that I utilized in the previous post. Others sources are new and are listed at the bottom. Below are the top four reasons to get an MFA:

1)   You will learn about craft in an MFA program.

Despite the critiques of the naysayers, who claim that MFAs cannot make mediocre writers into geniuses and result in a lot of well-written boring books, few people dispute that writers can actually develop good   technique through MFA programs. Laura Miller in her Salon article observes: “McGurl is correct when he claims that the level of craft in the average, traditionally published work of fiction is higher now than it was in, say, 1950”. This is echoed by Anelise Chen:

"one of the faults of MFA Programs is that it has helped teach technique so well and made so many good writers that we simply can't read them all. It's not that the Program has made us worst writers, it's that it's made us so good it's impossible to tell who is bad anymore.”

The bottom line is, as Suzanne Pitner and Rocky Cole observe, that MFA programs force you to write. They have deadlines and assignments and, generally speaking, the more writing you do, the better a writer you  become. Moreover, Arielle Greenberg observes in A (Slightly Qualified) Defense of MFA Programs that despite the many well-founded critiques of the workshopping technique, in the hands of skilled facilitators using traditional or new methods, workshops can advance your writing.

2)   MFA programs allow you to make connections with other  writers – some of whom are published, accomplished, and potentially famous, and others who are writers at the same level as you.

Greenberg observes that MFA programs can be where you can find your writing community and your long-term best friends. They can help you feel like a writer and become part of an intellectual culture and  community of writers. Pitner notes many of these writers will be talented and this can inspire your own writing. Cole further observes that MFA programs are also where you make contacts for future work.   

3)   MFA programs allow you to focus on your writing.

Who has time to focus on their writing? MFAs can buy you that time in a way. Amy White observes:

“Between work obligations and family commitments, many  writers cannot find the time to write. An MFA program offers writers  just that -- time. Students spend two years immersed in the world of  writing -- of creating, critiquing, and reading. In short, they live the lives of writers.”

4)   Many famous and up and coming writers have MFAs.

MFA programs have produced many literary stars including Michael Chabon, John Cheever, Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, and Ann Patchett. Chen points out that 16 out of the New Yorkers’ 2010 20 under 40 list of writers who according to the New Yorker capture the inventiveness  and the vitality of contemporary American fiction” have MFAs. This seems impressive, and to the naysayers, Miller observes that it is completely  unrealistic to expect all MFAs to be literary stars.

In addition to the reasons listed above, there are six other perhaps more minor reasons:

1)   Some agents have links to MFA programs and will watch them for potential talent.
New York agent Gail Hochman of Brandt & Hochman quoted in Edward J. Delaney's article in The Atlantic commented: "we look favorably on anyone who has an M.F.A.,  simply because it shows they’re serious about their writing.”

2)   MFA programs can allow you to find yourself in other ways. Greenberg provides examples of all the things she did while completing an MFA and how it expanded her outlook as a person and as an artist.

3)   MFAs teach you what and how to read and expose you to the work of other writers.

4)   An MFA could allow you to get a tenure track position teaching at a university or college. Because it is a ‘terminal’ degree, you do not need a higher degree to become a tenured professor.

5)   Your ability to give considered feedback on the work of others will improve.

6)   The MFA style has become our culture of writing anyway and  if you write seriously, you will already be steeped in it, so all of  the downsides of doing an MFA outlined in my previous post apply, so you might as well reap the benefits. Chad Harbach observes:

“the workshop as a form has bled downward into the colleges, so that a writer could easily have taken a lifetime's worth of workshops  as an undergraduate, a la Jonathan Safran Foer. And even if the writer has somehow never heard of an MFA program or set foot on a college campus, it doesn't matter, because if she's read any American fiction of  the past 60 years, or met someone who did, she's imbibed the general idea and aesthetic. We are all MFAs now.”

In the end it is not an easy decision. Neil Gaiman observes:

"the awful truth is that no editor, picking up a manuscript, is going to check your qualifications before reading page 1, and no qualifications will keep her reading past page 2 if she isn't enjoying it and interested in what happens next. (On the other hand, to the  extent that college makes you write, get stuff into print, read outside your comfort zone, and meet people you might not otherwise meet, I think it's great. But it's not any kind of prerequisite.)”

Amy White notes that there are many benefits from an MFA. However, if you are disciplined, you can do many of these things, the writing, the reading, the workshopping and the networking without the cost of an MFA. It is just hard for most of us to be that disciplined.