The Truth about a M.F.A. in Creative Writing
There are four major reasons people wish to earn a MFA in Creative Writing: to teach creative writing, to become better writers, to work in the publishing industry, and to get published. Having earned my MFA in Creative Writing, I’m sorry to say these are pipe dreams.
What You Don’t Get from a MFA in Creative Writing
1. A Teaching Job
Even though a MFA in Creative Writing is considered the terminal degree in the field, it doesn’t help you get a job teaching creative writing. There are a lot of people with MFAs and not a lot of teaching positions. Plus, there are a handful of PhD programs for creative writing (which if you look at their courses are actually PhDs in literature with an emphasis in creative writing), so I don’t see the MFA remaining the terminal degree for long.
Many creative writing programs offer a pedagogy class and graduate assistantships teaching – to a select few students. If your program is anything like mine, all of the students are battling for the same couple of positions.
As a side note, the college teaching atmosphere is a horrendous place to work. Colleges are businesses focused on making money for their executives and administrators. Professors don’t get paid much. Full-time positions are difficult to find, and adjutants often live in poverty. If you want to teach creative writing, consider looking for community programs or doing so through a writers’ organization.
2. Become Better Writer
A MFA in Creative Writing will make you a better writer; it just might not be at writing what you want to write. MFA programs are all about literary fiction, hybrid writing, and poetry. If that’s your jam, then a MFA might be exactly what you want. However, if you want to master a genre of fiction, nonfiction (other than academic essays), or anything the general population of readers would be interested in reading, look elsewhere.
I had multiple professors and peers tell me writing fantasy stories wasn’t literature or worth writing. Some even refused to comment on pieces I brought for workshop.
3. A Job in Publishing
MFA programs are not publishing programs. They don’t have courses on editing, marketing, or anything to do with actually getting your book into the world. In my experience, they also don’t have connections in the publishing industry, so they can’t make introductions to help you get an internship or entry level job. MFAs in no way prepare you for a career as a writer. They are too focused on the art of writing to help their students figure out how to actually make a living after they graduate.
As I said, MFA programs don’t have connections in publishing. They can’t get your piece in front of an agent or publisher unless you hit the jackpot and make a connection with a professor who knows someone and loves your writing. Most professors are lucky to have been published themselves.
In addition, the type of writing students are expected to create during their MFA program isn’t mainstream, “easy” to publish writing. The writing I was forced to study and my peers wrote was the kind only other writers are interested in. If that’s your audience, then maybe a MFA will help you. If not, keep looking.
What You Do Get from a MFA in Creative Writing
A MFA in Creative Writing isn’t entirely useless or bad. It’s simply not what most people want it to be. It does have some upsides and can be beneficial as long as you know what you are getting yourself into.
1. Time to Write
One of the best reasons to get a MFA in Creative Writing is the time to write and focus on your writing. MFAs are not cheap, and spending that kind of money is often the motivation people need to devote their time and energy to their writing. You will spend two to three years studying, improving, and mastering your craft.
Most MFAs require a thesis that is essentially a ready-to-publish novel, collection, or series of prose, poetry, and/or hybrid writing. If you have a hard time finishing a longer work or motivating yourself to start one, a MFA will force you to do so. Many of my classmates wanted to write longer pieces but were afraid to try and fail. The thesis taught them they were more than capable of succeeding in creating longer works.
2. A Community of Writers
When you earn a MFA in Creative Writing, you are surrounded by other writers. These are people who, for the most part, will support your writing ambitions, act as accountability partners, discuss the nuances of the craft, and embark on the writing journey with you. You will learn just as much from them as from your professors and assignments.
A community of writers gives you the opportunity to collaborate on a project, form a critique group, and discuss writing techniques in your favorite books. They are a support network of people who understand your struggles as a writer. This is invaluable. Whether you earn a MFA or not, you need to find a writing community.
3. Broader Expertise
Many writers have a niche they prefer to write in and, to an extent, read in. A MFA will force you out of your comfort zone and teach you how to appreciate other styles and techniques. My program was an experimental one, so I played with form in a way I never would have otherwise.
Writing and reading outside your genre will make you a better writer because it will give you more tools to use. If you want to learn how to build suspense, read a thriller. If you want to learn how to master setting, read science fiction or fantasy. If you want to learn how to be more precise and succinct with your word choice, read poetry. Every genre or category of writing is a master of one or more specific techniques and affects. You will be challenged to write outside your comfort zone during your MFA. Do not shirk this. Use it to grow as a writer.
An Editor’s Thoughts on a MFA in Creative Writing
MFAs in Creative Writing are overrated. People think they are a big deal because they are a graduate degree, but they don’t do what most graduate degrees do. They don’t help you get a job. They don’t help you break into the industry, and they don’t teach you the skills you need to be successful. They are more of an artist in residency program, where you have the opportunity to focus on your writing and explore the craft.
If you really want to become a better writer, look into local writers’ organizations, writers’ conferences, and community programs. I learned more about writing fiction at one writers’ conference than I did in my entire MFA program. There are plenty of better, more focused, and less expensive ways to educate yourself on writing.
If you are considering earning a MFA in Creative Writing, you need to ask yourself why and dig deep for the true answer. Do you hope it will help you get a job in academia or publishing? Then you need to look elsewhere. Do you want time to write and to be challenged? Then a MFA might be for you. When I decided to go to graduate school, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Now you do. Be honest with yourself and your goals, so you can choose the path that will best help you Ignite Your Ink.
What programs, books, or communities have helped you become a better writer? Share them in the comments below. For more industry knowledge, writing tips, and ways to educate yourself on writing, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.