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 could attend the AWP Conference at a reduced rate.
- 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?
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.