Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The MFA Decision

There are lots of ways to immerse a learner in the craft of writing. And every writer should be prepared to be a lifelong learner. But which way is the right way for you?

Question)
I've pretty much ruled out going back for an MFA (I'm in my early 40s with school-age kids, and can't quite justify the cost right now, and I'm not looking to teach any time soon), but I keep wondering if that's the right decision. I wonder how the workshops and teaching in a decent low-residency program compare to the workshops and teaching I've gotten at writers' conferences and online. And of course I wonder if the credential helps open doors. I can't say for sure that my fiction is literary; I think it's halfway between literary and commercial. I'm wondering if any of you went through a similar decision struggle, or if not, why not.

Answer)

Lynne Griffin
Like you, when I came to writing fiction my life circumstances made getting an MFA a challenging proposition. Full time business to run, full time wife, mother and homemaker. It wasn't going to happen. And I already had a masters degree in education. I never toyed with the low residency programs either, though I think they are a fantastic option and know some amazing writers who teach in them. I have taken numerous courses at Grub Street and have benefited from every single one. The means by which craft is learned and then honed is a personal decision. Having written two novels, I can say the learning is ongoing. Each experience teaches new things and reminds me I will never know it all. My advice is to examine the way you learn best and then to fill your writing life with as many different opportunities to learn as you can. And if you do choose to get an MFA, be forewarned. Even when you complete a program, you're learning won't be through.

Amy MacKinnon
I would love to get my MFA. It would please me to no end to devote many, many hours to reading excellent books, parsing it with like minded people, devote time to critiquing their work, having the same done to mine. Wait, I have that already...

So, do I think an MFA opens doors? Maybe Iowa and a few others. Do I believe it makes for a better writer? Maybe, maybe not. I believe the writing is more organic without it, but some people would absolutely benefit from honing their craft. Do I think there's the tendency while enrolled in a MFA program to write to a particular schematic. Yes. Evalaute your goals for the program. If you're doing it with the intent of getting published, you don't need it. If you desire an MFA for the pure joy of wallowing in literature, with the intent to expand your breadth of knowledge, go for it.

Hannah Roveto
Knowing writers who made it with and without an MFA, the bottom line is this: having the stick-to-it-iveness to make the time to learn from others and also to share critical reading support. If you have options like the fabulous Grub Street in Boston for classes -- and will get yourself to them -- and a great writers' group or reader, an MFA is not necessary. A low-residency MFA is a solid middle ground between this Do-It-Yourself version and a formal MFA, requiring you to make the commitment (not unlike how some use a gym membership to force themselves to exercise!) in a way that fits your life. If that is the push and structure you need, I heartily recommend such a program!