Hayden's Ferry Review


Ask the Archives: MFA programs

As an undergraduate student of creative writing, I have started a search involving everything about MFA programs, because it seems like the obvious next step. There is a lot to know about what different programs are offering and there is a lot of preparation before anyone can even get into one of the schools. Though many of you have learned the "do's" and "don'ts" of obtaining an MFA degree, I know that many people, like myself, are worried about making avoidable mistakes and maybe even deciding to get a masters without knowing if it's necessary. In fact, despite the ever-present cloud of MFA hovering over English majors like myself, I have absolutely no clue why I should go to school for another few years...just to spend my time workshopping instead of finding a job. And if I did decide to join an MFA program, what are my chances of getting accepted and where do I go?? Have you realized how many programs are offered for the hungry writer, promising chances of sustenance? The web, for once, was not a place of solace for the simple question: what is an MFA program? But through many a day spent trudging through statistics and words of advice and also obtaining a copy of The Creative Writing MFA Handbook, I have developed something that is hard to find: a simple fact or fiction about what an MFA program is and what it can do for you. Below this guide are a few commentaries from past interviewees in HFR, to give a little perspective on this issue. Let me take a moment first to thank Tom Kealey for relieving my search by recently publishing his guide to creative writing programs.

FICTION: The MFA is a terminal degree.
FACT: Not anymore! Several schools such as the University of Southern California and the University of Wisconsin offer PHD programs for those who want to distinguish themselves from the all-too-common MFA or MA degree. The work-load is much more strenuous, though of course, but if you love school and can't get enough of dedicating your life to writing, check these schools and others out!

FICTION: Having an MFA will get me published.
FACT: If only it were that easy. :/ Unfortunately, having a Masters does not guarantee anything in the world of money, but by sticking with the program for however many years, you can make alliances with fellow writers and perhaps even some higher-ups who just may possibly love your work. Anything can happen. This is also a great time to talk with other aspiring writers about where to publish and what publishers are looking for.

FICTION: You need to have a degree in order to be a good writer.
FACT: Au contraire, although many people's writings improve significantly with the benefits of a creative writing program, not everyone needs to go. In a MFA program, or any others, you spend a lot of time in workshops and being committed to the atmosphere of writing. So instead of putting that novel off because of work or family, you actually need to write and you are being forced to sit down and just do it. A lot of people find this push critical and therefore appreciate their experience in the MFA program, but not everyone will enjoy this. Since these programs don't guarantee you the sole career of writer, those who don't gain anything from workshops or being immersed with others bursting with ideas, would do better by staying far away from these programs and learning to set a time to write on their own day-to-day basis. It's also thousands of dollars cheaper!

FICTION: So now after going broke attending an undergraduate school, you're going to be owing your soul and body to the MFA programs once your huge bill puts you into debt.
FACT: Yes, it is very, very expensive. But as Kealey says, "about 20 percent of programs fund all or most of their students. Another 40 percent fund some of their students, and the remaining 40 percent fund only a few or none of their students" (12). So even if you don't wish to be in debt by more schooling, but still wish to attend a top school, it's possible. In fact, one school, Cornell University, accepts very few students each year, but their bills are paid by assistantships and internships. Here at ASU, all incoming students are also funded. And FYI, tuition can be anywhere from a couple thousand to thirty thousand depending on the school, so when looking for a school, check out their funding. If top ten schools can pay for you to be there, other schools should give you the same opportunity!

Now, some thoughts from HFR's archives...
Vivian Gornick, 1993: "In the M.F.A. program here, which I'm sure is true for almost every one of them, you have a division, I think it's fair to say, between writers like myself who are old-fashioned readers of literature and speak in the large-what are the issues, who's speaking, why-and pull writing apart from that point of view, always asking these large questions. And then there are people who have developed craft, not theory, which comes very close to being practiced somewhat like theory in that it's a highly reduced and specific skill that's being taught to students. I presume that's what students are here for, but I couldn't ever teach or think that way about literature." and later... "But the M.F.A. programs, like television, don't really develop taste. They give the public what it wants and memoir writing is a piece of understanding in contemporary literature that is growing very, very slowly."

Rick Moody, 1998: "I think that many American graduate writing programs are warehouses really. They don't teach much (because the workshop is a faculty form) and they don't prepare the degree candidates for the life afterwards." and later talking about low-residency M.F.A. programs..."It remains to be seen what the effect of these courses of study will be, but I think they represent, theoretically, an interesting departure from business as usual. I think my low-residency students get a lot more attention from me than I ever got from my workshop instructors when I was in graduate school."

Michael Cunningham, 2003: "I think they succeed, all of them to one extent or another, for the simplest and most basic of reasons: because they are the only places young, unpublished writers are taken seriously in this country. The only places where what you're doing, as an ambitious but unknown writer, is treated as a matter of utmost importance. Everywhere else, you're treated as a hack, poseur, fraud, or slacker."

Still have questions? Check out this blog. It is dedicated to everything MFA and very helpful.

For more information, feel free to send us questions. We are chalk full of resources and answers to help you on understanding the MFA and we are always thrilled to receive opinions from our reader's personal experiences in the program.