This may be your ticket to a fully-funded two years of nothing but writing. So grab a steaming cup of tea, and settle in for a few. You’re gonna want to know this.
Last week I talked about how the How Writers Write Fiction course through University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop has got me all pumped to join a writing MFA program.
When we covered whether a Writing MFA program might be right for you, what I didn’t realize is how many readers had no idea what the heck a Writing MFA even is. I’ve gotten quite a few emails from readers asking: Mandy, what the heck is an MFA?!
Oops! I get caught up in my own world. And I have this autistic-like viewpoint where I think that everyone I talk to already knows everything that I know.
Will I ever learn? Meh, who knows. For now, let’s cover what the heck an MFA is and why a writer might want one.
Before you dig in, I should tell you the biggest thing about a Writing MFA that will make you care about Writing MFAs.
Good: some people think the Writing MFA will help writers get published.
Better: lots of MFA programs fully fund their writers, which means you get to write for two years without worrying about anything else.
Intrigued yet? Here are the details.
What Even is an MFA?
Okay, MFA stands for Master of Fine Arts. It’s basically a master’s degree, a post-graduate degree you can get after a bachelor’s. But instead of focusing on theory and term papers like you would in master’s degree coursework, with an MFA degree you actually do the art.
You can get an MFA in painting. You can get an MFA in dance. Or design. Or theater. It’s basically hands-on training for artists. And, yes, you can get an MFA in writing too.
So what’s the difference between an MA—the regular master’s degree—and the MFA?
Mostly, the MA in English Literature will focus on literary criticism. You’ll read iconic works and write essays about what those writers were trying to do or say. You’ll study literary eras like Victorian and Modernism and Post-Modernism. You’ll discuss what each writer’s work said about society at the time it was written.
What you probably won’t learn through an MA is the deeper story mechanics each writer used to pull it off: character development techniques, plot structure forms, approaches to the first draft. And you definitely won’t learn how to use those mechanics yourself or be asked to write a story as you would through an MFA program.
Basically, MFAs are more about your writing and less about everyone else’s. What you learn from iconic literature in an MFA class is always in service to your work. How you can use their techniques in your writing.
Pros of the Writing MFA: Why Get One
Community: Who wouldn’t want to be around other writers who take writing as seriously as you do? I hear from so many readers who feel like their passion for writing is somehow illicit. Their families think writing is stupid or a phase or could never pay the bills. So these writers get nothing but criticism. They end up stuck between feeling guilty when they don’t write and feeling guilty when they do. Who else but another writer would understand what this feels like and help you write through it anyway?
Networking: You know how they say it isn’t what you know but who you know that matters? Yeah, that counts in writing careers too. An MFA program is a concentration of writers and their established networks in the writing field. It’s where you’ll meet up-and-coming writers like yourself. You’ll meet established writers on the teaching staff. And maybe you’ll even meet editors and agents too. These are the people in the writing world who can help you advance your career. And the people you’ll help to advance theirs.
Cost-Free Writing Focus: Many Writing MFA programs fully fund their students. That means free tuition and a stipend to live on while you get to focus purely on writing for 2-3 years. If that doesn’t blow your metaphorical skirt up, I don’t know what will. Sure, you’ll often have to teach classes in exchange for the stipend. And that is work away from your writing. Still, the arrangement is nothing to balk at. When Harper Lee received a year’s worth of free wages, she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. That kind of support for your writing is precious. But it’s only possible if you choose the right program.
Grow and Develop Your Skills as a Writer: Perhaps the most obvious reason to pursue a Writing MFA is for the skills development. You’ll learn writing techniques in a setting built to teach you those skills. You’ll have access to successful authors for feedback. You’ll submit work on a deadline. Get a chance to practice every trick you learn. And then get feedback from a dozen other skilled writers, all focused on your writing alone. There’s no way you won’t develop as a writer in a setting like that.
Credentials: Some say the writing credentials you’ll get through an MFA program can help you get published. I’m not one who is over wowed by credentials. You can earn a grade and never learn a thing. Still, an MFA program can help you develop the skills that can help you get published. And you’ll develop connections with people who may be more inclined to spend time with your work. And that can help you get published.
Cons of the Writing MFA: Why Avoid One
Cost: I don’t know about you, but I’m drowning in student debt (I gave that interview almost a year ago, and it’s sadly still true). A double major in college plus a year of study abroad, and the thought of adding another dollar to my student loans makes me hyperventilate.
That’s why a Writing MFA program that doesn’t offer full financial support wouldn’t work for me. I bet it’s the same for you too.
If you plan to float the cost of a Writing MFA yourself, think long and hard about getting one. The reality is, you can create a community of writers for yourself by starting a blog or joining a writing group. Study storytelling techniques on your own through books, articles, and iconic literature. Make friends with other writers who will share feedback on your work. Blogging is a great way to network with writing industry experts who can advance your career. Contests like Writers of the Future open doors into publishing. And DIYMFA covers all the writing practice and collaboration you usually get with an MFA too.
The Creative Writing MFA is only worth it if it’s worth it.
Style Homogenization: Some MFA grads complain that their MFA programs made them write like everyone else. So do your research and find an MFA program with a solid reputation. One that’s reputed for nurturing each writer’s style.
No Guarantees: Some writers are looking for a guarantee that the MFA program will make them a phenomenal writer or get them published. But no MFA program can make this guarantee. Writing success still comes down to hard work and luck, with or without the MFA degree.
Where to Get an MFA in Writing
You’ve probably guessed by now that the outcome of your MFA in creative writing comes down to where you get one. That leads many a Writing MFA hopeful to look for program rankings. But it turns out those MFA program rankings aren’t all that reliable.
The best resource I’ve found for MFA program quality is this article from The Atlantic. Yes, these particular Writing MFA programs are the most competitive and hardest to get into. But that’s for good reason. For me, if I can’t get into one of these programs, I’ll pursue the benefits of an MFA on my own, without the MFA.
How do you know if the MFA program is a good one? A few good questions to ask yourself as you sift through them:
- Is the program fully funded? Or will you have to mortgage your future in exchange for a questionable experience and a career that statistically doesn’t pay well? Because let’s be honest, we write because we have to. Not because it pays the bills.
- Who are the instructors in this program? What have they published and how successful was their work? Do their most prestigious faculty actually teach classes you can take while in the program? Or are these instructors merely decorative and inaccessible?
- What are the program’s course offerings? Are they well-rounded? Are most of the classes workshop- or theory-based, and does this balance weight in favor of your learning style?
What You Need to Get into a Writing MFA Program
Most Writing MFA program applications require:
- Writing samples
- A statement of purpose
- Letters of recommendation
- Transcripts from previous colleges
- An application fee. Some programs will dismiss this for students who cannot pay.
Each program will have its own requirements, of course. So check them carefully.
Resource Round Up: A Few More Weigh in on the Writing MFA
- Tips for getting into a Writing MFA program from John Griswold of McNeese University
- 27 Writers on Whether or Not to Get Your MFA
- An assessment of America’s top graduate writing programs
- That link again to Writing MFA rankings
Have you thought about pursuing a Writing MFA? Share your thoughts in the comments.