Should you get an MFA?

colouredglass

I have my MFA. I’m glad I have it (for reasons I list below). But the biggest thing I want you to know right away is that an MFA is not really necessary for good writing. It’s useful if you want to get a job teaching creative writing in an MFA program. But that’s not what I’m going to talk about here.

I want to be transparent about the money piece first, because it’s worth looking at if you’re considering dipping into your savings or taking out a loan for tuition.

MFA programs are expensive, and unlike a law degree, this investment in your education is not necessarily going to put you in a larger income bracket after you graduate. I paid more than $18,000 for my degree. Even after two years of collecting royalties from the sale of This Cake, I still haven’t made back the cost of my tuition.

What I invested in, though – what was necessary for me – was mentorship.

I was able to work directly and deeply with my mentor through my MFA program. But I’d worked with her twice already before enrolling at the university – at a one-day workshop, and at a short-term residency at the Banff Wired Writing Program.

The point: I wasn’t going into an MFA hoping to find a good relationship with a teacher. I found a teacher I liked working with first, and then I followed her to the writing program.

This is how I want you to think about your MFA: instead of considering the prestige of a particular institution, think about becoming a mentee.


Other than mentorship, here are some things I got out my degree:

  • I participated in workshops in other genres – screenwriting, poetry, translation. This helped me understand my work in new ways.

  • I met exceptional teachers.

  • I met a number of talented writers and created meaningful friendships.

  • I had a thesis deadline. I wrote the first draft of a book manuscript in three years.


All good stuff. But had I not been able to work with my mentor while there, were these things crucial to my writing? Were they impossible to find elsewhere?

No.

Sometimes you can find good mentorship in an MFA. Not always, though. So before you enroll in any program, take time to experiment with a variety of writing courses and workshops. Go to conferences, festivals, and residencies. Make the time to meet and work with different writers.

It may take a while before you find someone who gets what you are doing. Be patient. You want to work with someone who sees the potential in your writing and articulates it to you in a way that makes you feel excited, understood, and challenged.

You want to work with someone who gives you books to read by authors she thinks may influence you in helpful ways. Then see if an “aha” happens when you read them. You want a mentor who is a friend to your writing first, and a friend to you second.

Now, if you find a writer you love who teaches in an MFA program, it could be worth studying with him there. But you might also find a writer who works privately, or who is the writer-in-residence at your local library, or elsewhere.

A mentorship is built on connection: it relies on language, trust, passion, and risk. Don’t assume that a university is the best way to find that kind of connection: it might be there, but if it is, the connection exists separately from the institution itself.

Writing programs are good because they give deadlines and instruction. But to really move forward in your work, my advice is to find a mentor.

And you don’t need an MFA for that.

I hope this helps you with your decision. If something resonated for you here, please let me know in the comments below. And if you already have an MFA and have advice about programs, mentors, or anything else, I would love it if you shared your thoughts here for other readers.

xo,

Sarah” width=

In the Spotlight: Kristyn Dunnion
In the Spotlight: Soraya Peerbaye

10 comments

Hi Sarah, Thanks for a really interesting post. There was also an article in the Globe this weekend about the increase in enrollment in writing courses in recent years. You mentioned that some authors work privately. There is an author whose work I deeply admire and I would love to work with her. I know she teaches in an MFA program but I can't find any informtion about her willingness to work with people outside of her institution. Should I simply approach her and ask? I'd want and expect to pay her, of course, but what amount is even appropriate? These questions are always on my mind!
Read more
Read less
  Cancel
Strange but one hundred percent true: I just opened my computer to write you a note and ask if you'd share your thoughts on MFAs. Then this was in my inbox. I'm in your current SSM intensive and am appreciating the chance to receive feedback from Frances. Sharing work is new for me, and I'd like to do more. Like Rachelle above, I'm curious about how you approach and persuade people to become mentors. I've had lots of mentors in other aspects of my life, particularly academic, and I absolutely understand what you say about these figures being the crucial thing--whether or not they come from inside the institution. Another thing I was hoping you might write about (sometime) is how you balanced writing and other work as you were getting SSM going. Many thanks for all you share!
Read more
Read less
  Cancel
Stephen D. Forman

Hi Sarah, This does resonate with me, and I'd like to share my experience from an inter-disciplinary perspective, if you will. Although I'm predominantly writing nowadays (and am fondly enrolled in SSM), back in college my first love was classical [music] composition. Immediately after graduation I studied with a mentor who influenced me greatly, and to whom I remain indebted. As with all mentors, his advice spilled over from strictly notes & rests to life in general. So I asked him, "Should I return to school and apply for my Master's or even my PhD?" As you typed above, his advice ran along the lines of, "It's useful if you want to get a job teaching..." only he was more emphatic than that. "Do you know what it's like coming home at the end of a day grading tests? Can you imagine the LAST thing I want to see? Music." He explained how such a life could potentially burn me out on the thing I should love; and though immersed in it, leave me little time for it. Instead, he recommended, enjoy the luxury of my good-paying career, and the freedom to compose and write at will. Put myself in "the driver's seat" and compose for the love of it, when and where I wish, on my own terms. Never fall out of love with it. I took his advice, throwing away all the brochures and applications to graduate school in music. What a very different life I've had! No doubt an argument could be made for either path; I harbor no regrets. I continued (and continue) to compose music, and to write. It's an intensely personal choice, and I cannot dispute any of the bullet points cited in Sarah's article. I hope my story has added some value to the discussion. Best regards, Stephen D. Forman
Read more
Read less
  Cancel
Lynn Corrigan

Thanks Sarah for a clear, useful post about the MFA for writers. Poets & Writers Sept/Oct issue was "The MFA Issue"(public library). Though the programs it discusses are in the United States, it raises other issues to think through when making the decision. Think you are right, the core is finding a writing mentor that works for you.
Read more
Read less
  Cancel
Sarah Selecky

Hi Rachelle, Thanks for letting me know about the Globe article! Here's the link: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/writers-graduating-by-the-bushel-but-can-they-find-readers/article4625110/?cmpid=rss1 It's an interesting piece, and has a notable focus on UBC (where I studied). Your Qs about how to ask a mentor are great, and duly noted. I will write about this and put together something in my next newsletter that will help, I hope!
Read more
Read less
  Cancel
Sarah Selecky

Wow, Hilary - I love when that happens. Thanks for your thoughts here! I have lots to say about writing/work balance and I'd love to write about that here. Will do. Thank you!
Read more
Read less
  Cancel
Sarah Selecky

Oh, Stephen - that's such a useful point to add to this discussion. There is a serious risk of burnout for writing teachers (and all teachers, I believe, especially those working in creative fields). When you work for a university, there are - yes - papers to grade at the end of the day. I love teaching writing, but I can't imagine how I'd feel *grading* story drafts. And what that would do to my own desire to write...
Read more
Read less
  Cancel
Sarah Selecky

Thank you, Lynn! This seems to be a timely topic indeed. Do you know if Poets & Writers has an online version of that story, so I can link to it here? I'd love to read it.
Read more
Read less
  Cancel
Thanks for this article. I wish I'd read something like this - or at least gotten advice like this before going and doing my MA in Dance. Anyone in any artistic discipline could really benefit from hearing your thoughts. There seems to be such a movement for people in dance and the visual arts (my fields) to do an MA/MFA and now even PhDs, without any sobering thoughts on the WHY. Then ending up deeply in debt, struggling to get by, and not able to practice their art much because of the need to pay off the loan for their education. I have friends and colleagues who have done those degrees (as well as myself) thinking it would be helpful, not realizing that oftentimes it came from a longing to be surrounded by mentors and peers with similar passions. Things that could be found in healthier cheaper ways than in the university environment. Sigh! Thanks for your thoughts.
Read more
Read less
  Cancel
Would you give similar suggestions for someone considering a BFA? I'm just starting to explore programs and am unsure as to what to use as my guide?
Read more
Read less
  Cancel

Leave a comment