I am a product of a creative writing MFA program. Before that, I was a product of an undergraduate creative writing program. And before that, I was a product of playwriting workshops, screenwriting fellowships, and film set production dating back to sophomore year of high school. All this training amounts to over ten years of dedicated, creative education. What each of these eras have in common is the focus on the practical application of my craft.
The Master of Fine Arts degree is a modern invention from the University of Iowa in 1936. It has since spread across the country to take many forms, but they all revolve around the workshop.
You’ve probably heard the arguments that writing programs churn out homogenous widgets that don’t hold meaning to anyone. “Literary for the sake of literary,” I’ve heard it called. For a brief time, I was caught up in that feeling, too. Now, I have no interest in that type of writing. Literary, yes. Literary for the sake of literary, no.
To reconcile my university lessons with my personal choices as a professional, it helps to understand the ideas behind my professors’ teachings.
I recently found a book that caught my interest: The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl, which is summarized in a New Yorker article. The analytical part of my brain loves understanding, in depth, how things work, before I return to my overarching interest in practical application.
What drew me to my MFA program was how the director said that the purpose of this particular degree was to create professional, working writers, not future creative writing professors. The degree grants me the option of teaching writing at the university level, but all other things being equal, an author who has zero formal education and still publishes great fiction would have the same opportunity.
So, what does that mean? It all comes down to words on the page.
I enjoyed my MFA experience because I learned a considerable amount from the workshop process. Never before had I been surrounded by so many people who respected the art and craft of literature. Based on the comments of our peers, we learn to take risks, teach ourselves, and see what works and what doesn’t.
From time to time—oddly enough when I’m thinking about writing instead of actually creating pages—I look into taking a few more classes to recreate the experience I had while in grad school, to use the students as sounding boards to my work. However, I stop myself. I’ve reached the point where my career is best served by producing material rather than going back to school. The benefit of learning on my own is creating a curriculum that revolves around my current project, which leads to more pages.
So, is an MFA worth it? For those interested in an MFA, or any advanced education, seriously consider your goals before enrolling.
If the purpose is to shorten your apprenticeship, a degree program might be a good track. Consider your time in school as the perfect opportunity to develop your work habits for your post-grad life. Even if you don’t apply, think of now as the time to find your own discipline.
Never enroll in graduate school without clear goals or without a desire to teach yourself. It’s definitely true about master’s level courses that you get out of them what you put in. In the end, you just have to write.