What an MFA Program Will and Won’t Do for You

This is a guest post by Katheryn Rivas

If you love to write, and have given over much of your life to it already, you’ve probably wondered (perhaps idly, perhaps seriously), “what if I went back to school for a degree in creative writing?”

Even as the self-publishing boom has created a generation of DIY authors, the likelihood of a bestselling or critically acclaimed author having official “credentials” in the form of a creative writing graduate degree is higher than ever before (in fact, such a pursuit was completely unheard of even 70 years ago).

This is a fascinating paradox. Perhaps the egalitarian tide, having unleashed a spammy wave of amateurism, is making readers and publishers cling even harder to any sign of supposed legitimacy.

So, you’ve put together a decent portfolio and scraped together some money for application fees. But now you’re hesitating.

Is there any reason to invest two or three years in an MFA? Or is it a meaningless certificate, like the Scarecrow’s placebo diploma at the end of The Wizard of Oz?

The good news is, there are reasons to do it. The bad news is, it may take a while to sort out what you’ve really gained.

Here are some pointers from someone who’s come through the other side:

You WILL: be immersed in a society of people who really, really care about the written word. You won’t be stuck in an intellectually dead atmosphere or have to think about TPS reports (or whatever) all day. Instead, you’ll be agonizing over equally complicated but soul-enriching stuff, like what did Keats mean when he talked about “negative capability”?

You WON’T: make any real money for those two or three years.

You WILL: be broken down and have severe crises of faith. Colleagues and teachers will probably do their best to be polite, but occasionally your work will be torn apart, and you will sometimes even doubt the very existence of your own talent.

You WON’T: regret these breakdowns in the long run. Would you rather experience the pain of criticism and high standards, or write crap forever without anyone bothering to tell you?

You WILL: have access to big-league opportunities. Journal submissions, contests, retreats, fellowships, teaching jobs and more will pass through your field of vision. If you’re a hustler, and you’ve got good material to send around already, you can really rack some up.

You WON’T: have the time or money necessarily to pursue all of these things. Some amount of teaching and taking classes will be required in addition to pursuing your own writing (which you won’t be quite as confident in as you were as a blissfully ignorant amateur). Pick carefully which rabbit trails you choose to run down.

You WILL: get attention from some seriously brilliant and possibly famous writers. Develop close relationships with faculty mentors. They can show you the way. They’re generally the best thing about a good program (with your colleagues a close second, because jealousy and other emotions unavoidably complicate those workshop relationships).

You WON’T: be handed a career on the way out. Unlike medical school or law school, this is not a program that basically leads to one obvious job. You won’t exactly find yourself right back where you started, but you’ll still have to make your own path.

Do you have an MFA? Are you considering one? What’s your opinion on the subject?

About the Author: Katheryn RivasĀ in an education writer that is interested in researching the opportunities an online university can provide for students. She encourages your comments at katherynrivas87@gmail.com.

Photo courtesy of Vancouver Film School

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