I’ve previously written about the benefits of creative writing MFA programs. Today, I’m here to tell you that earning an MFA is unnecessary if you want to be a writer.
I know. The thesis seems obvious. Shakespeare, Dickens, and Homer didn’t earn one. Neither did Stephen King. And if anyone thinks he’s not a quality example in this case, you haven’t read “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”.
The MFA debate
The Master of Fine Arts degree is a modern invention from the University of Iowa in 1936; so people were writing just fine before then. Lately, however, I’ve seen a flurry of articles trying to reignite the debate that graduate creative writing programs are a waste of time and detrimental to modern literature—the most recent rebuttal being Salon.com’s “Why Critics of MFA Programs Have It Wrong.”
The accusation is standard: the only results are homogeneous “workshop stories” with quality prose that no one wants to read. To add insult to injury, these MFA students and professors champion this style of writing.
Having graduated from such a program, believe me when I tell you that, yes, mediocre fiction emerges from writing departments, and the ones who find it to be the height of literature are pompous asses. But the last time I checked, crappy writing also originates from outside academia, and you don’t need a degree to be a jerk. The possession or lack of a diploma seems to be coincidental here.
The venom people use to defend the pro or con argument amazes me, and I’m here to ask, “Honestly…who cares?”
Why you don’t need an MFA
The value of the MFA seems to be disproportionately antagonized when it simply is an advanced degree with the same intention as any other. You don’t need an MBA to go into business, yet many people pursue one to improve their business skills. You don’t even need a college degree to have a career. Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard after he founded Facebook, and he’s done all right for himself.
But will you become a better thinker by going to college? Of course. A better businessman after completing an MBA? I sure hope so. A better writer with an MFA? Short answer: yes. Your prose will improve, but the inspiration and discretion to create compelling narratives remains an individual talent, one developed over time and often on your own. A creative writing program cannot tell you what to write any more than business school can give you a knack for entrepreneurship. The real education starts with your first project after graduation.
So with all the fuss begrudging the institution where people who love to read and write spend good money so they can have time to read and write, I have this to say:
Ignore the MFA haters; they have their own issues.
Ignore the MFA students and professors who love love love stories where nothing happens. They’re boring.
Ignore MFA rankings. Pick the program that’s right for you.
Ignore MFA programs completely if you’ve decided that’s not your path. Go ahead and write.
Ignore all the downer/”realist” writers who say you can’t make it. For that matter…
Ignore statistics in general. We all know how difficult it is to publish a book, and how much more unlikely it is to make a living as a full-time writer. But guess what? I grew up in LA where filmmaking is common employment. I always understood that getting paid to write was a legitimate career aspiration. So what bearing do statistics have on your chance of joining the club?
The error that the MFA debate commits is one of generalization. The so-called “workshop story” exists, but that doesn’t mean all workshop stories are “workshop stories.” Writers, MFA-adorned or otherwise, are as diverse as the tales they tell, and readers’ interests are just as varied. That’s the beauty of literature as a whole: it’s a reflection of the myriad possibilities in life. Each person only gets better by writing until they discover what makes their stories unique.
So however you learn your craft, be sure to write your story.