The debate about whether you need an MFA in creative writing has raged on for many years. This has brought to the fore the many misconceptions about MFA programs. This article is an attempt to analyze what an MFA program can and cannot do for a writer.
In recent years, MFA programs have become so competitive because many writers see them as gateways to building successful writing careers. Research shows that in the U.S alone, there are over 350 creative writing programs at the MFA. And each year, an estimate of over 20,000 people apply to be admitted into MFA programs.
But some literary greats have continued to debate whether an MFA is a prerequisite for a successful career in writing.
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Many writers want an MFA based on myths that surround the program. One of such myths is that an MFA is the key to a successful career. While the program has served as a catapult for some successful writers, many others with the degree have failed to take off. You need much more than an MFA to carve out a niche for yourself in your creative writing career.
To discover whether an MFA would help your writing career, you should learn the pros and the cons, as well as the myths that surround it.
Pros of Getting an MFA in Creative Writing.
- An MFA helps writers grow in their craft.
Writers must understand that learning is an endless process. When getting an MFA, learning is basically what you would be doing. You would learn in order to harness your inborn craft. It is an opportunity to learn to write better than you already do. During this program, you might learn the importance of controlling your narrative in addition to knowing how to follow the rules of writing structure in order to create stories that would captivate readers.
In 2020, Sheri Fresonke Harper, who has an MFA in creative writing, took to Quora to share her personal story. This may help you understand better:
Although Sheri shares a personal story, it is one that many people would undoubtedly relate to. She attested that the entire process was a personal journey. It is yours too.
There is always a great advantage in expanding your knowledge. It makes you more exposed, more aware and better in any field. Sheri attested to growing in her craft and not just in that, but beyond. Opening her mind and taking her time to get an MFA helped her to be more in touch with psychology. An MFA could help you connect to something novel.
- It connects a writer with a community of writers:
The beauty of creativity is sharing that creativeness with people who understand. While taking a writing program, you meet people who understand your skill and share similar experiences with you. These experiences may be writer’s block, story setting, narrative style, genre, niche.
Most times, your knowledge may bloom from discussions with your pairs, who have been through similar situations like you have and although they might not have a manual on how to overcome certain blocks, their experiences might inspire you on how to go about yours.
3. It makes a writer more open to Criticism:
Creatives receive criticisms all the time. Most times, you may feel your work or that what you have written is perfect. But then, criticisms can shatter that perception and make us wonder why our perfect work is unworthy to someone. Again, some writers can question the sanity of someone who criticized their written content.
An MFA program helps a writer grow a thick skin for criticism. The lecturers would have you correcting written work time and time again. Your ideas or writing standard may not align with theirs and this may lead to a lot of criticism on their path.
David Levi Strauss, a teacher of MFA program in Art Criticism & Writing (now called Art Writing) at the School of Visual Arts in New York, once said that:
“Every year for the past ten years, the first thing I ask my students to do is to look at a work of art and then account for their experience of it in writing—directly and honestly. The second thing I ask them to do is to respond to the question, What is criticism? Every year, their answers have been substantive and surprising.”
Why do you think he asks them what criticism is?
He asked them this because he wanted their minds open to it. Because he knew that the students will encounter criticism of their works throughout the duration of the program.
According to David:
“The writers gathered together here all graduated from the Art Writing program between 2007 and 2016. I would have liked to include responses from everyone who’s graduated (seventy-eight since 2007, soon to be eighty-eight), but this exceeds the capacity of the section. All of these alumni have been out in the world, writing, for a while now, and I was curious to see how their thoughts about criticism have changed. They responded variously, and generously, mostly, and with a good deal of grace under pressure, as the country was splitting apart. It makes me deeply proud of them. And, at this dire point in our political history, it gives me a glimmer of hope.”
This was after these writers had graduated. Their response to what criticism meant showed that they had grown thick skin for it, that they understood it was what being creative is all about.
4. An MFA helps a writer read more:
Many writers are selective in their reading habits. An MFA program forces you to read books you would not consider on a normal day. Reading widely exposes students to various writing styles, which can help you become a better writer.
Many writers do not understand that reading widely is a big part of being a better writer. You read to learn, you read to understand, you read to know more. Where better to improve your reading than in a school? Reading is part of a learning process and it is therefore inevitable during an MFA program.
Carla Norton a novelist and true crime writer who earned her MFA degree from Goddard College shared this on writer’s digest:
- An MFA makes a writer dynamic while discovering their niche:
Although many people can juggle different genres, some writers struggle with settling on what genre is their niche. A writing program might help you uncover that. An MFA does not give you what you want to read or know — it throws in various aspects of writing and helps you understand it.
In truly understanding these various aspects of writing, your mind becomes open to what suits you perfectly and you begin to incline towards your niche. This helps you on your journey to becoming a literary great.
An MFA in creative writing helps you acquire the skills needed to understand various forms of writing. In your creative writing career, you will be exposed to different forms of writing. A novel writer needs to know how to write a query letter. An article writer needs to understand how to write for a blog or a journal. An MFA helps a writer to be dynamic and every writer needs that.
6. Writers’ Workshops:
A writers’ workshop is an instructional program created to gradually build a person’s independent writing skills. It focuses on the writer. Each workshop is organized to provide a gradual release of instruction, moving writers from a class writing exercise to independent writing.
During an MFA program, a lot of writing workshops would take place and this would help broaden your mind. It would also make you more open to learning, because a writers’ workshop focuses on nurturing a writer.
In 2020, Simbiat Haroun shared her experience at The Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing Workshop and how it helped her grow as a writer. Every writer needs this growth and where better to experience amazing workshops than during an MfA program.
Cons/ Myths about getting an MFA in Creative Writing
- An MFA does not guarantee that you get published as a writer:
Image source: Jane Friedman
Many writers think getting an MFA in creative writing is a ticket to getting published. It is not true. An MFA only helps you become a better writer, it does not guarantee that publishing houses would choose your work.
An MFA program is not an easy ticket to being the published author you desire to be. As a matter of fact, many authors get published without taking an MFA in creative writing. The program is for learning, not a publishing company. Many MFA programs in creative writing have no affiliation with publishing companies.
More so, facing rejections does not in any way determine the credibility of your craft. You must remember that your story might not align with the goal of the publisher or editor. Be open to rejections as a writer — just the same way you are open to criticism.
2. MFA does not determine your success as a writer:
Whether or not you become published, an MFA is not what guarantees how far you go or how successful you would be in this field. Do not take a program in creative writing if your aim is to be a successful writer.
Take the program because you want to grow as a writer, for yourself, not because you think it is a determinant for success. Most times no one cares if you had to learn how to write, what they care about is the output and how graciously your literary work captivates them.
3. An MFA is Expensive:
One important question to ask when considering getting an MFA in creative writing is “how much does an MFA in creative writing cost?”
A con of aiming to get an MFA as a creative writer is that the program is costly. Research shows that the average fee of getting an MFA in creative writing in the USA is $13,800 a year at Public Universities; $36,300 at Private Universities.
According to Bhavya Rawal, a study abroad expert, the cost for getting a masters in fine arts in Canada ranges between 5,000 to 13,000 USD. However, acquiring a student loan might help you actualize your dream of getting an MFA.
4.Making a community does not mean it lasts forever:
Most times in life we encounter beautiful people and things and we hold great hope that it is everlasting. An MFA in a creative writing program would introduce you to people, but this does not mean that these connections would last forever especially after graduation. It also does not mean that your success rate might be the same.
When connecting with people, have an open mind of independence, especially when it comes to your craft. Connecting with people who share the same creative style as you is a good thing, but your success comes from your confidence in yourself. You should hold on to that more than anything else.
5. A masters of fine art program does not give you access to literary agents:
Another myth about MFA programs is that it guarantees you access to literary agents. Just like the statement about getting published, an MFA does not guarantee that you would get a literary agent.
You would get access to great teachers, great critics and willing peers to help you get through, but not literary agents. The program is for those who want to learn, it gives no promise of helping you get a literary agent.
6. It might affect your writing:
One criticism of MFA programs is that it stifles originality and creativity. During the process of learning and gathering novel ideas and knowledge, the mind becomes affected. There might be a clash between your voice and that of the person whom you are learning from. Now how you take this is up to you. Leave your mind open but not weak to be unable to know what your style and voice is.
Source: Quote Tab by Chimamanda Adichie
Remember that learning is the acquisition of knowledge through study or experience. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you must rid yourself of your self nurtured voice. Always hold on to who you are. Hold on to the fact that every story needs to be told, including yours.
A creative writer doesn’t necessarily need an MFA. It does not do what you expect. It doesn’t help you get a job. It doesn’t help you get published, and it doesn’t teach you how to be a successful writer. It just gives you an opportunity to focus and grow in writing.
Acquiring an MFA, however, helps one grow and evolve in that field. And connects one to like minds. Be dedicated to your writing and inasmuch as an MFA teaches writing, have your own DIY plan and strategy. In the end do what works for you.
If you do consider applying for an MFA program, you would need a guide on How To Wow The Admission Committees Of Fully-Funded MFA Programs With Your Personal Statement. A good SOP is an opportunity to stamp your suitability and show that you deserve to be accepted.
I hope that this article was of great help to you and I hope you make the right choice. Good luck!
About the Author
Chiziterem Chijioke is a creative writer, editor and a student of mass communication. She has worked as a volunteer and is a member of Fresh Writers Community and currently works as an editor for Creative Writing News. She has authored four works, some of which have been published on Pabpub. She is purpose driven and passionate about writing.