Can an MFA program make you a better writer?

(Note: Is it “an” MFA program or “a” MFA program? Verbally, I would say “an” because of the pronunciation of the letter “M” as “em”, which starts with a vowel, but “M” is actually not a vowel, so it should probably technically be “a” MFA program. Thoughts?)

Today at Paper Cuts, there was an item about MFA programs, whether they’re rankable and how one would go about doing that and bracketing them like March Madness and stuff. Basically, the rankings are determined by the perception of the program’s prestige by other MFA programs, which…actually tells you almost nothing. What would be an actual indicator is if you could quantify “best” by pointing to how many successful writers have been churned out by a certain program. Well, apparently the math on such a venture is sort of fuzzy, and completely indeterminate! Like you’re surprised. Because “successful” is defined by Paper Cuts, a New York Times blog, as “having hit the New York Times bestseller list”, which is not really the sort of success most MFA graduates display. As far as I know, no MFA program claims to turn you into the next Nora Roberts or John Grisham…they want to discover raw talent and then turn that person into the next Hemingway or Flannery O’Connor. But literary writers don’t make the Times bestseller list very often. Probably the best way to do this would be to investigate how many graduates of MFA programs win major prizes and awards (Nobel, Pushcart, Pultizer, Story, Orange, NBA, Printz, etc.) and how many are regularly published by prestigious magazines.

But here’s the important question: can an MFA program make you a better writer?

Short answer: I don’t think so. Or at least I don’t think an (“a”? ARGH!) MFA program can make you a better writer any more than, say, WRITING can.

Long answer: I didn’t attend an (whatevs, I’m owning it) MFA program, but I did get a MA that allowed me to take creative writing classes and write a creative thesis, which ended up being about the first 60 pgs. or so of AUT. I had been working on Draft 2 of AUT for about a year and a half before I took my first fiction writing class at the University of Chicago and what I handed in as my first workshop piece (the first chapter of AUT, more or less) is so different from what is now the opening chapter–and it’s the same scene, just COMPLETELY rewritten. Needless to say, the input of my instructor (who became my thesis adviser) helped enormously. Nic was very encouraging of the project, but he held my writing to a higher standard than I did and taught me to refine it, not to mention pushed me to make difficult but essential changes that helped mold the novel. The version of AUT I turned in at the end of the year was AT LEAST 50% better than the version I started with in January, but, and I think this is important, the version of AUT I’m going to send to Joanna next week is AT LEAST 50% better than the version I turned in for my thesis.

Workshopping, at least in my opinion, is worthless unless you trust and respect the participants, which is, in my experience, wholly impossible in a university environment. There were maybe two or three students in each of my writing classes last year that gave me consistently good, helpful feedback in a constructive way, and two of these people were friends of mine already. The one person who really made a difference that year was my adviser, and to a different extent my preceptor (sort of a camp counselor, but for mind-bending philosophy courses and soul-crushing theses), Jon. And the best thing Nic did for me was tell me I had some talent and a pretty good idea and all the tools, so stop being lazy and get to work. Sometimes, you need to hear shit like that. But if you can’t find an adviser that you’re compatible with, or who gets your work, or who you can learn from, AND the workshops are worthless (they almost always are, I’m fairly adamant about this), well then you’ll get virtually nothing out of an MFA program.

People like them because they give you the opportunity to focus on your writing without being bogged down in such mundanities as, you know, having a day job, but if you need two years of school to write well then you have big problems. Because let’s say you produce something good and sellable (not a guarantee) in those two years, you probably won’t be able to live completely off your writing and you’ll have to get a day job to support yourself/your family and then what will you do? You’ve never done that before, how can you cope, how can you live a normal life and write? By enrolling in an MFA, you’re just delaying the inevitable in this regard.

The other thing is that MFA programs are not meant to teach you anything that you can apply outside the publishing industry. They don’t set you up with a failsafe career, like law school or, to an extent, MBA programs or Ph.D. programs. I don’t regret my MA program for a couple of reasons: 1.) I didn’t pay for it, my parents did, which is an incredibly gross UMCW thing to say, but it’s true, 2.) it wasn’t an MFA program, so I took plenty of non-writing classes, many of which have enriched my writing and expanded my literary horizons with regards to what I read and how I read it, and 3.) I was able to get a university-subsidized internship at a literary agency, where I learned A LOT about the industry and got hooked up with my current job in New York. But getting your master’s in anything without having to in order to qualify for a job (an MFA certainly falls into that category, as does my MA) is a real risk and you need to square with spending $50,000-$150,000 that you may never be able to recoup.

I guess whether or not an MFA program is worth it depends on what you think you need to learn, whether or not you learn it, and how much good work you come out of the program with. But a lot of times what happens (at least, in my estimation; see any volume of Best New American Voices for an example of this) is MFA students all end up emerging from a program in any given year with pretty similar work. All good stories, but stylistically sort of “meh.” I once read a volume of Best New American Voices (I think it was 2006) where, I kid you not, all but one of the stories was in the first person and they were not very different from each other. In essence, what I mean to point out here is that MFA programs can actually hurt you by making you, though perhaps technically a better writer, also just exactly like everybody else. And creativity and individuality are the cornerstones of good writers (and good books). So…I personally thing you can get a similar sort of education just from reading and writing your little heart out, but some people think it’s important to have a mentor, some kind of published writer to “teach them the craft” or something. I can’t argue with that thinking–having a “real” writer who you respect and admire have a vested interest in your writing can be freeing, but it can also be terrifying if all you want to do is impress that writer.

You don’t need an MFA to be published. You certainly don’t need one to be a good writer. All you need to be a good writer is patience, tenacity, and a library card. Okay, and probs access to a computer.

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5 Responses

  1. Hi Anna,

    I came via here Allison’s blog, where I was so impressed with your comments I wanted to see your blog. And it was well worth the trip!

    I really enjoyed your article, especially as I’ve often contemplated doing an MFA program as a means to improve my writing. I am heartened to hear your conclusions….they actually seem to mesh with the impression I got from reading Ann Patchett describe her MFA experience.

    I would be interested to read more about what you believe made that extra 50% improvement in your writing after you left the academic environment…was it simply reading good books and writing everyday?

    I am currently revising a book that I’d put away for four years, and have been posting it chapter by chapter on my blog (the impetus for the blog) and I can see an improvement between now and then…but I wouldn’t know what to attribute it to other than maturity, since I hadn’t written in the interim…perhaps it was the reading I’d done…

    Anyway…I would like to hear more about what has worked for you in improving your writing. And thank you for writing a terrific post!

    -suz

  2. An MFA. According to Grammar Girl’s podcast, if it sounds like it has a vowel in front of it, it needs to be an ‘an’. 🙂 … I’m such a nerd…

  3. Good to know! I like it better like that myself, it sounds right.

  4. […] You decide. Character Manifestos Can an MFA program make you a better writer? Stuff I’ve Learned Part 1 That extra […]

  5. […] Anna Jarzab also evaluated the usefulness of a creative writing degree; confirming many of my own suspicions: “I once read a volume of Best New American Voices (I think it was 2006) where, I kid you not, all but one of the stories was in the first person and they were not very different from each other. In essence, what I mean to point out here is that MFA programs can actually hurt you by making you, though perhaps technically a better writer, also just exactly like everybody else. And creativity and individuality are the cornerstones of good writers (and good books). So…I personally thing you can get a similar sort of education just from reading and writing your little heart out…” […]

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