On MFAs

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On MFAs

PenPaperRecently a writer asked me the following question:

After I finished a YA book I particularly loved, I found out that the writer is on faculty at the Vermont College MFA program. It’s a low-res program – ideal for my lifestyle. I’m considering applying and wondered about your perspective on the pros and cons of an MFA…My goals would be to develop as a stronger writer. For me, that means learning how to go deeper with POV and understanding how to vary my sentence structure to improve pace and description.

This is a great question and one I’m sure many writers anxious to break into publishing ponder at one point or another. In my opinion, a writer who considers, enrolls in, or has completed an MFA is off to a good start. I tend to assume they’re willing to work on their craft, accept feedback, and approach their writing as something more serious than a hobby. The writer who posed this question seems to be considering an MFA program for the right reasons. From my side of the desk, when a query comes in and mentions that a writer has completed an MFA, I take note and regard the submission with a higher level of interest.

Of course, it’s not all rainbows and puppy dogs.

Although I didn’t attend an MFA program myself (my graduate degree was an MA in Writing, which basically meant less organization in the courses, less focus on the creative side, and more head-scratching when I try to explain what the heck the degree was all about), I can say from my own experience that a writing program is definitely a mixed bag. Because most of the programs do still use the workshop setup, in many ways you’re at the mercy of the rest of the class. In some cases, this could be terrific, as you’d be paired with other serious writers looking to offer sound advice to improve your work. That’s the ideal scenario. You have to remember, however, that these programs are incredibly competitive–just getting accepted is difficult enough, but once in, everyone is competing over awards, publication in the literary magazine (if there is one), and the attention of the instructors. Even if you’re not in an overly competitive program, stories that get workshopped ad nauseam can sometimes get so caught up in the particulars that they never get to bloom, like a flower that’s being repeatedly covered in new soil, fertilizer, and plant food until it’s just a pile of soggy dirt.

In fact, a former colleague of mine from my days working in grad school practically refused to read anything published by a graduate of an MFA program. He felt these works had a shared pretentiousness about them that stunk of writing groups, self-congratulatory short stories, and purple prose. I once handed him my worn copy of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, assuming he, an avid fan of comic books his whole life, would adore it like I did. He gave it back after reading the first 75 pages, claiming the writing read like, “An overblown MFA thesis.” “But it won the Pulitzer Prize!” I argued. “Bah! The Pullet Surprise? Who cares?” he said. He, a card-carrying curmudgeon, is the exemption, I’m sure.

The faculty for a particular program is important as well. It’s always smart to ask around about the faculty before signing up. Unfortunately, some of the big name writers out there who wind up teaching should stay behind their desks. Just because they write beautifully doesn’t mean they can teach you how to do so, and you want to make sure they’re going to take the program seriously and aren’t just looking to cash a check.

Aside from the above concerns, enrolling in an MFA program is generally a smart idea, as long as you take the following into consideration:

  • You can afford the commitment of time and money
  • You’ve researched the faculty
  • You’re serious about your craft
  • You’re willing to take and dispense criticism without letting your ego get in the way
  • You know that you’re not guaranteed publication upon completion

That last one is very important. I fear many people assume because they’re putting up serious money and time to attend an MFA program, they should be awarded with a book contract once the degree is in hand. Sadly, this is not always the case. For every Trenton Lee Stewart out there, there are plenty of George Fakelastnames who never make it. An MFA program can definitely help you hone your craft, but it’s not the golden ticket in the chocolate bar many wish it was. You still need a great story, commitment, and a few lucky breaks.

If anyone is considering, currently enrolled in, or has finished an MFA program, I’d love to hear your take!

  1. The common complaint about the MFA program is that they produce “cookie cutter” writers. Having gone through a program, I see how this can be a fair, if general, concern. There’s caring about craft and then there’s CARING ABOUT CRAFT, practiced by the turtleneck wearing, cigarette smoking (I mean, as long as we’re generalizing…) SERIOUS writers who always seem to flock together to generate a high school “us against them” mentality aimed at the writers who don’t worship at the shrine of pretention (which, oddly enough, offers homilies in sexual addiction, manic depression, isolation, and other autobiographical subjects to which the SERIOUS writers gravitate toward). So, yes, these SERIOUS writers tend to regurgitate technically sound writing that, astoundingly, all looks and feels the same.

    BUT…

    With the right program–offering nourishing mentors who want to help you write better, not write what interests them–MFA programs can be invaluable. Make no mistake: I know of no MFA program that will help you churn out the next James Patterson bestseller BUT they’ll help you to understand what he does right (while–intentionally or otherwise–highlighting the atrocities to God and man he also commits).

    But you’re right on the mark: MFAs are not a road to publication. They are for someone who wants to learn craft. Be prepared to receive criticism from people whose opinions you don’t respect. Be prepared to do MORE READING THAN YOU’VE EVER DONE IN YOUR LIFE. Be prepared to morph from writer-who-has-a-breakdown-after-every-workshop to writer-who-has-the-wisdom-to-separate-the-wheat-from-the-chaffe in terms of criticism. If you can get past that and keep your eyes on the prize (a better appreciation of craft), it’s well worth it.

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  2. I’m in my final semester of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA low-residency program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. I can’t speak about any other MFA programs out there, but I will say that this one is not at all the kind of unpleasantly competitive situation you describe. On the contrary, the environment is incredibly supportive, and there’s a strong sense of community among current students, faculty, and alumni. There is a workshop component to the residencies, where students read and critique one another’s work, but in addition, everyone is assigned a faculty advisor each semester who works individually with the student on his or her projects, providing detailed feedback and guidance on creative and critical work.

    I strongly encourage anyone who is considering an MFA program at VCFA or elsewhere to contact the school and ask to be put in touch with current students. Most people are more than willing to talk about their experiences and explain the benefits and challenges. For myself, I have found the MFA experience to be extremely valuable. I was already published when I entered the program, but (like your questioner) wanted to further develop as a writer and explore new ways to make my work as strong as it could be. VCFA has delivered on all counts.

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  3. An MFA can be a wonderful substitute for talent.

    I kid, I kid the MFA’s.

    I wish I’d had more education in writing. Instead I dropped out of high school and worked at Toys R Us using fake ID. I saved my $1.60 an hour and took myself and a cashier named Connie to Europe for three months where I lost the girl and all my stuff and ended up living under a bridge in Frankfurt.

    When I finally did go to college at San Francisco state I majored in bong, chased girls and soon dropped out to work in a long series of jobs in dozens of towns. Law librarian in San Francisco, managed beach rentals in Ocean City, painted houses in Long Beach, waited tables in Orlando, lived on the streets in Austin, wrote a restaurant review column in Portland ME, cleaned toilets and drew editorial cartoons on Cape Cod . . .

    But I’m sure I would have been much better prepared for a life of creating stories for imaginative children had I spent my time with privileged twenty-somethings in a university writing program.

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  4. You are the best! And I love your writing, BTW.

    Also love Quentin’s image of the turtleneck-wearing, unfiltered cig-smoking, goatee-sporting, self-conscious writer of SERIOUS fiction about his misguided youth spent (check all that apply: doing drugs, having sex, gambling) in (select one: New York, LA, Mumbai, Phuket).

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  5. Last year, I was accepted into the University of Michigan MFA program. I was thrilled. But the bias against YA kept me from going. I considered being a closeted YA writer, but eventually decided I could work on my craft, etc. while trying to a.) get an agent and b.) get published.

    I signed with my agent this past October and we’re going out on submission soon.

    I still consider programs like Vermont, but I’m not sure.

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  6. I did a two-year Master of Arts degree in Creative Writing at the University of Calgary and I’m very glad I did.

    It wasn’t hugely expensive, and I received several scholarships and teaching assistant positions to help with expenses. So no debt afterwards.

    Because it was an MA and not an MFA, the writing aspect did not becoming overwhelming and cliquish. I had my one workshop class a week, with 15 students, and otherwise I was doing literary criticism classes. So the focus was very much on my individual manuscript and not on a writing/publishing culture per se. The cookie cutter problem didn’t seem apply to my program at the time (1996-98).

    I was a very green writer going in and definitely earned my critiquing chops and thick skin in the workshop. My classmates were not all in the degree program, so it was a mix of younger students and older professional writers.

    I worked with a fantastic thesis advisor, Aritha van Herk, who had the perfect combination of no-punches-pulled criticism and valuable support (she once called me from a pay phone in Spain to wish me luck on my conference presentation).

    I completed and defended a book-length manuscript of short stories that did get published by a small press .

    Plus the MA degree bumped me up in the salary range when I started working as a technical writer.

    And I made some great friends and contacts.

    So all in all, a good course of action for me. It certainly wasn’t a magic bullet but it got me headed in the right direction.

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  7. I’ve recently applied to two programs. One is bilingual, which would be interesting, since I’m not fluent. The other just sounds like a hell of a lot of fun. Both are very pricey. I’m not looking for the programs to lead me to publication, I only want to make my writing better and get better creds for volunteer work that I want to do. Wish me luck!

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  8. I graduated last May with my MA in English (with a concentration in creative writing) from the University of Hawaii-Manoa. Although I write fantasy, I never found out of my professors to be so biased against genre stories. (Actually, the few that didn’t care for fantasy were the two sci fi professors I had for literature classes, not workshops, and I still talked one of them into being on my thesis committee.) I was also very lucky to be surrounded by other creative writers in my year, half of whom read and wrote fantasy, and I was able to convince two other professors unfamiliar with the genre to read my urban fantasy thesis.

    Overall, despite a faculty that didn’t really read in the genre, they were still open to it, encouraging of my writing, and gave me feedback that made my novel stronger.

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  9. I’ve heard very good things about the Vermont program. Firstly, many of the students are already published, so it’s not about jumping through that hoop to get that gold coin. Secondly, it’s all about children’s/YA literature, which I think is in some ways a lot more diverse than Serious Adult Literary. I mean, they don’t make you wear turtlenecks, for one.

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  10. I went to USC for a Master’s in Professional Writing, where I studied with Janet Fitch, Irvin Kershner, Syd Field, and Sid Stebel (whom Ray Bradbury called the greatest writing teacher ever). I had the sort of experience one hopes for.

    It is also the sort of experience that is the exception, sadly.

    USC was the only program I applied to. Why? Because, so far as I could tell, most of them were of the sort your friend fears, which produce that cookie-cutter prose. I’ll agree to using a word like pretension, but I think it springs from an insecurity on the writers’ part; many are insecure about their place/standing, and this insecurity makes them attempt to prove to the world that they’re “real” writers. But it’s not just writers in MFA programs; Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby suffers precisely this symptom in many places.

    In an ideal world, one graduates a writing program not with talent or a publication contract but rather with confidence concerning craft. If college is the place to learn the rules of grammar and language, graduate-level creative writing programs are the place to learn the confidence and mastery of personal technique necessary to break those rules.

    Also, I’ll agree with your friend concerning Chabon, who it strikes me is still trying to write the formal education of UCI’s MFA out of his system. Mainly by cutting back to his genre roots.

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  11. There is a weird reverse snobbery going on in this post’s comments stream that I cannot disagree with strongly enough.

    Yes, bland writing comes out of MFA programs, and weaker writers influence one another in these programs and create a certain flavor of writing that is less interesting than just about anything. And, since these programs do teach writers craft, they are often able to get their work published. Yup, bland, bad writing happens. Pretension happens, too.

    But it happens outside of those programs just as much as within. And pretension is a requirement for actually tackling something bigger than your own experience, for having the gall to sit down and believe that what you’re going to write is worth reading. It kind of goes with the territory.

    For many genre writers—in f&sf, in children’s books, in other less-lauded kinds of writing—so-called literary novels are undeserving. And these genre writers bear a grudge. Who likes these things? they wonder, and they complain about Lorrie Morre or Michael Chabon or F. Scott Fitzgerald or whomever, trusting that they are not alone.

    Well, you won’t find a sympathetic ear here. These books may not be your cup of tea, but they are eminently worthwhile whether you can recognize that or not. Literary novels at their best capture the nuances of real life and experience. Chabon is a great writer (despite my not really loving his last few novels). Fitzgerald is a great writer and Gatsby a great book. Lorrie Moore’s stories are hilarious and full of real ache.

    But I’m not going to elevate those writers over great genre writers. Stephen King is a great writer (despite my not entirely loving all of his books). As is Samuel R. Delany (despite my not loving his later work). As is Ursula K. Le Guin (despite finding some of her books pretentious). And so on.

    And, for the record, I got my MA from Hollins University’s writing program. Where I won the short story award. For a bunch of doubtlessly pretentious (but since published) short stories.

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  12. I went to an MFA program straight out of college. There was definitely the stereotypical infighting, pretension, and often worthless workshop critique. Still, I found having two years to focus on nothing but writing well worth it. I had 3 rules for myself and I give the same advice to everyone who asks me about MFAs:

    1. Don’t pay. There are lots of good programs that give full tuition scholarships and/or paid teaching assistantships. I’d rather get a job at Starbucks (they give health insurance) than go into debt to write.

    2. Keep your head down. Ignore the pettiness. Don’t get caught up in personality wars and social obligations. That’s not what you’re there for. Write.

    3. Don’t get swayed by star power. You don’t have to go to Iowa or New York to write. In fact, the lesser known programs often have a higher ratio of teachers who actually *teach* and students who aren’t concerned about head shots and “packaging”. I went to Indiana, my sister went to Idaho. Both highly unappealing locations (sorry Indiana & Idaho!) but those locations made #1 and #2 possible.

    MFAs are not for everybody, but if you can (and want to) follow those 3 rules, I say go for it. It’s a couple free years to focus on your craft. And you might just learn a lot, make some valuable friends, and be a better writer for it.

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  13. Michael:

    I always enjoy it when snobs are shocked at reverse snobbery. Most streets (outside of New York) go both ways.

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    • Michael: You are implying that I am a snob. Those are fighting words. Let me remove my monocle and raise my fists up, you masher!

      Josephine: Perfectly said. The best programs will kick in most if not all of your tuition via some mix of aid.

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  14. I wasn’t meaning to offend (I’m not sure I did; there were several comments before mine) and apologize if I did. I was merely offering my take (as requested).

    My comment might have skewed to your friend’s side; that wasn’t my intention. So far as Gatsby, I’m teaching it now, and rather love it. More for social commentary than writing, perhaps, but I certainly think it’s valuable. Most books tend to be, for someone.

    Chabon? Sure, lots of people like him. Like you note, not everyone’s cup of tea, but some of us prefer gin and tonics anyway.

    I think the important thing is that not every program is good for every writer, but they certainly can be valuable. Depends on the writer and the program. I fear some who dislike them (or their experiences therein) didn’t find the right programs for them.

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  15. I’m in my final semester of an MFA program at Hamline University in St. Paul. It’s a low-residency program, focused on writing for children and young adults. The experience has profoundly changed my approach to writing, and I came in relatively seasoned, after making a living through various kinds of writing and having sold three books. The program has helped me go deeper into various aspects of craft, and develop my own process for creating art through words. The faculty are accomplished teachers as well as wonderful writers. Rather than pretentious, competitive and promoting of mediocrity, I’ve found the community to be a supportive environment that encourages students to take risks with their writing.

    After reading through the comments here, my experience is most like the commenter from the Vermont program, which is also low-res, and focused on children and YA. I wonder if there’s something to be learned from the philosophies/structure of such programs that might benefit more standard programs?

    Please note, this comment is not to laud children’s/YA literature over adult literature. I’m merely observing on the differences between the two experiences that seem reflected in the comments. Though I must confess to wearing a turtleneck while I was at school–but hey, it was January, in Minnesota, and I loved every minute of it.

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  16. Good information but I got caught up on “George Fakelastname” . . . wondering about his ethnicity in particular. Greek, I think. Or maybe Polynesian.

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  17. I’m in the Idaho program right now (woo, shout out from Josephine) and I freaking love it. But MFAs are not for everyone, and they’re definitely not a prerequisite to being a serious, literary writer (or any other kind). I agree that it’s kind of a silly thing to pay for if you’re not filthy rich, but it’s soooo much fun and it’s basically awesome to spend ALL your time thinking about writing and talking to other writers.

    I know that I’ve learned a ton since getting here — simply being forced to turn in writing assignments regularly is a big part of that, and also being required to read constantly. As for workshops — you get out of them what you put into them. It’s a truism that you learn at least as much from critiquing other people’s stuff as from getting your own writing critted.

    MFAs are good from a networking standpoint too. No, that alone probably won’t get you published, but it might help you get some blurbs if you do manage to sell a book.

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  18. Honestly, the worst query letters I receive are often from MFA students. The letters tend to be 90% about the writer and 10% about the book, when it should always be the other way around for fiction.

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  19. Like Will, I hope I didn’t offend or fall prey to reverse snobbery. I have read literary novels that I’ve enjoyed, and I tried to go into my program without preconceptions (such as the stereotypes of grad programs forming students into cookie-cutter writers). I was happy to find people who enjoyed my work even if they weren’t as familiar with my favored genre, but I had no intention to claim literary fiction was somehow ‘less’ than genre.

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  20. I received my MFA/CW in 2007. I enjoyed my program and chose it solely because it afforded me the opportunity to have my work stomped into the ground by one of my lit heroes (Sarah Schulman).

    I didn’t go expecting to do anything but have two years of dedicated craft development and the privilege of paying someone else to crack the whip.

    As this post illustrates much of the utility of an MFA depends on the reasons for going. If you think yourself somehow better than folks without the degree you’re gonna have a hard time fitting in with your coworkers at Starbucks, who probably have Ph.D.

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