An MFA is expensive, but is it a waste?
Six questions to ask yourself, before you enroll.
I’m weeks away from finishing my Master of Fine Arts degree. That means that it’s kind of late for me to think about whether or not an MFA is a good use of resources like money and time and energy.
And yet, here I am.
First, I think it might be helpful to break down exactly what’s involved in getting an MFA, especially in a low-residency program. Low-residency means that instead of going to class everyday, and maybe doing some teaching as well, I physically go to school for 8 (twelve-hour) days twice a year and then work one-on-one with a mentor from home the rest of the semester.
A traditional MFA program is different, so I’m just going to talk about the low-residency model here.
The basics include:
- That eight-day residency.
- Access to a mentor, who is either a published author or part of the publishing world, maybe as an editor or agent, during the semester. My mentor reads about 20 fresh pages and 20 revised pages of my work once a month, plus essays and a bibiliography.
- A requirement to read widely. I’m expected to read ten books a month during the semester. Since I’m in a program for writing for children, my reading includes children’s books (from picture through young adult) and writing craft books.
On a less concrete note, being in an MFA program gives you an official reason to write and read. The biggest way that helps, in my opinion, is by taking pressure off your work. It makes it very clear that you’re learning, and makes it easier to not worry too much for a while about earning.
Nothing kills creativity faster than crushing it under the expectation that it has to earn you a living. Being in an MFA program sharply deliniates learning-work from earning-work. There might be cross over (there was for me, I sold the book that I wrote my second semester), but if there is I can pretty much promise that it will be at least in part because you stopped worried about selling and just wrote.
So, is an MFA worth it?
I’m satisfied that it was for me. I haven’t loved every minute of this program. I’ve had a couple of mentors who rocked and a couple who didn’t. I’ve had a couple of residencies that were life-changing and a couple that weren’t. But in the end, for me, it was worth the time, money, and energy.
Before I started this thing, I was in a bad place with my writing. I was trapped in this idea that because I’d sold books before, everything I wrote needed to sell. And that wasn’t happening. And even my published books weren’t exactly lighting the world on fire.
My publishing experience to that point wasn’t great.
And I wasn’t writing at all. Not for earning. Not for learning. Not for anything.
I needed the permission and space to write without worrying about being an Author. If that makes sense. And I found that in writing as a student. As a result, I relaxed and wrote a book I’m really proud of, and that will be published early next year.
From a very bottom-line view point, selling my book means that I earned about twice what my MFA cost. So, yeah, from the monetary point-of-view anyway, it’s pretty easy for me to say it was worth it.
The fact is, though, that most people won’t have that experience.
The real question is whether I would feel like it was worth it, if I hadn’t sold a book. I’ll let you know when I’m done, I guess. It’s hard to say now, when I’m still in the thick of it.
For now, if you’re considering starting an MFA program in the fall, here are some questions you can (and should) ask yourself.
Do you want to teach (or at least have the option to)? Teaching is pretty much what having a terminal degree in creative writing will qualify you for, on the get-a-day-job front.
Do you want to be an artist? If your goal is to learn to write on an artistic level, an MFA might help. This isn’t everyone’s goal, though. If you want to pound out a book a month and literary artistry isn’t your focus, you probably need to spend your time, energy, and money somewhere else. (Like pounding out those books.)
Do you need the structure? If a couple of years of required reading and writing will help you build a writing habit that will carry you through into your professional writing career, then an MFA will help.
Do you want access to mentors? You can hire someone outside an MFA program, probably for less. You can read advice from writers like Stephen King, Anne Lamott, and Ray Bradbury for free if you have a library card. You can join writer’s groups for free or a nominal fee. But an MFA is definitely one way to give yourself access to writers and teachers who are actually being paid to give you feedback and help you.
Can you afford it? Is going into debt going to ruin your life when it’s all over? Because you can definitely learn to be a better writer without it. You won’t get the degree, so you might have to adjust your career goals. But there are plenty of successful writers who don’t have advanced degrees.
How is your self-discipline? I hadn’t written a word in more than a year before I started my MFA program. I don’t know that I’d be writing now, if I hadn’t bit the bullet and enrolled. I was on the verge of going ahead and just becoming a classroom teacher when the opportunity came up. If you need the structure and the motivation of knowing you’re paying for this thing to get you writing, then it might be worth it.
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