Talk to me about getting an MFA
April 28, 2016 8:53 AM   Subscribe

I'm already a professional writer, and have been for a decade, but I've been slowly trying to shift stakes. I feel like going for an MFA would offer valuable guidance, validation, and permission to try new things. But I also feel like maybe I'd be better off lighting thousands of dollars on fire. MFAs of MeFi, please observe my snowflakes and tell me what to do!

I read back to 2011 and found no "should I get an MFA" questions (which shocked me!) but many "I'm about to start an MFA" or "I just finished an MFA" so I think you guys probably have the expertise to help me out here.

I have a BA in not-English and an MA in English -- I thought I was going to be an academic, lol. I've been writing and editing professionally since leaving grad school in 2005, and over that time I've been slowly and sometimes painfully trying to zero in on the kind of writing that I'm best at/most capable of, going from reporting to opinion to essay. I'm relatively happy writing essays, but there's not as much call for that in the online economy; people still call on me to write reported pieces and opinion, but the former is not my strength and the latter makes me stressed and unhappy. Most of my money comes from editing.

What I would really like to do is add in some fiction, but I have been slowly overcoming a lot of mental blocks about creative work; it was only a couple of years ago that I was able to even articulate that I wanted to write fiction. A year ago I couldn't even have written this question! So in a way I've already come really far, but in another very real way I've only published/been paid for one fiction piece in my adult life.

I know I am pretty good at many aspects of writing, but I also feel that I lack some fundamental fiction techniques -- basically, I think I have talent but need more skill. To build those skills I need guidance (I'm relying on a couple of fiction writer friends, and that's not fair to them); I need to be told "yes, this is an okay thing to do and you are good at it"; and I need a structure where it's all right to fail. (Right now, since I write for money, I have a hard time writing things that won't end up being published.) I'm also extremely ADHD and don't have a ton of writing discipline. All of this seems to point towards an MFA being a good idea.

Things that give me pause:
- I used to be mediocre at essay writing, and then suddenly I was pretty good. It basically happened overnight, and it happened by writing and reading and editing a lot. If I could get over my hangups enough to practice fiction more, that might happen here too? (Although I can't overstate the importance of editing other people's essays in my own development, and I don't have the opportunity to edit other people's fiction.) Basically, it would be foolish to spend a ton of money on something I could do myself if I would just buckle the fuck down.
- I do not want to hang out with a bunch of 22-year-olds. Sorry 22-year-olds.

Things that do not give me pause:
- The fact that there's no money/jobs in fiction writing either. I know! I know. But unfortunately writing and editing are my only skills and I am not really cut out for normal jobs. Getting recognized as a fiction writer might expand the types of editing people will hire me for. At some point I would like to add in teaching at someplace like 826, and this could help there too.

I'm in New York and not going to leave in the next year; I've been peeking at the Hunter and Brooklyn College programs. I will be willing and possibly eager to go somewhere else within the next two years, though also willing to stay in NYC long enough to get a degree done if that's how it shakes out.

Thanks, all!
posted by babelfish to Education (21 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
You're going to be MUCH better off at a well-regarded, well-led writing retreat focused on fiction or a summer programme than getting an MFA.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:13 AM on April 28, 2016 [17 favorites]

I have an MFA in creative writing, and I don't regret it, but I think you would be better served by tapping into the writing scene in NYC. Go to readings at bookstores, at universities. Join writing workshops where participation is free, or minimal cost.

Find some litmags you like, and see if you could volunteer to be a reader for submissions (THERE ARE NEVER ENOUGH PEOPLE TO READ SUBMISSIONS). Attend journal events. Talk to people at those events. People in creative writing are always wishing they had more people willing to read their work and give them feedback. Become that person. Tell them you'd like to learn more about editing fiction, and that you'd love to work on their stuff to get feedback on it.

Find writers you admire, follow them on Twitter, read their stuff, read their stuff about how they write their stuff.

At this point, the idea that an MFA makes you more likely to be hired as an instructor is basically MFA Program brochure material. No one wants anyone who hasn't published extensively at this point.

Do not endanger your well-being with debt and exposure to 22-year olds. I cannot comprehend how much time I spent reading/commenting on 22 year old dude masturbatory fantasies during the course of my program. One of them who made us read the most repulsive explorations of his psychosexual hangups commented on a friend's work with this gem: "This story took a dump". She paid for the privilege! I know a lot of people in creative writing programs, or who have degrees from them, and I think you are in a position where joining the scene and getting to know people in the field rather than enrolling in a program would be much more beneficial for you.

I also feel that I lack some fundamental fiction techniques -- basically, I think I have talent but need more skill. To build those skills I need guidance (I'm relying on a couple of fiction writer friends, and that's not fair to them); I need to be told "yes, this is an okay thing to do and you are good at it"; and I need a structure where it's all right to fail.

There is no guarantee that you will get those skills in a program, no matter how much you pay.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 9:13 AM on April 28, 2016 [26 favorites]

An MFA from Brooklyn College (where I got my undergraduate English degree) will run you a bit over fifteen grand which isn't an astronomical amount of money considering what NYU et. al. charge but also you get what you pay for at Brooklyn College.
posted by griphus at 9:14 AM on April 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't have an MFA. I have a BA and an MA in English. My impression is that a highly rated MFA program can be good at putting you into contact with people who might be able to help you out. I would consider that worth something.

However, I'm currently in two writing groups with people I met at workshops who live near me. We were able to decide in advance that we respected each other's work, so no masturbatory fantasies by 22-year-olds (though we do have a 25-year-old who is great). We meet about once a month, bring work, and go over it. The help and encouragement from these people have been invaluable, and I've also learned a lot from helping them with their work. Most of us had spent at least some time in writing workshops previously, and I think that helped.

If someone dropped a million dollars in my lap, I would probably get an MFA, but I wouldn't go into debt for one. And if I could go back in time, I would probably do an MFA instead of the straight English MA I did - but only if I could get into a top-notch program.
posted by FencingGal at 9:37 AM on April 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

Getting another degree is never the answer to the question, "What will help me bridge the gap between what I like to do and what makes money."

If you want to be more creative, start working with others in writing workshops, and write, write, write. Check out The Artist's Way, for some ideas about tapping your creativity.

Very few writers make a living writing. Some write advertising copy, or marketing, and stuff like that. It's not going to touch your soul, but it puts money in the bank so that you can write in your off-hours.

I wouldn't go into debt for another advanced degree in a field that pretty much guarantees that there won't be enough money to pay for it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:44 AM on April 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have an MFA and, like fiendish, I don't regret it in the least. In fact, it was one of the best decisions I ever made, even though I paid for it (mine was a low-residency program). FencingGal's right--I found connections with friends and mentors I'd never have come across otherwise, and the low-res structure meant I had to integrate writing into my life rather than spend two or three years just focusing on my writing.

But. By the time I entered the MFA, I'd been writing fiction for seven years or so; there was a lot I knew (or thought I knew) about the craft that came from reading (fiction and some how-to books), writing (not every day, sadly), and finding more experienced brains to pick. I don't think I'd have gotten into an MFA if I didn't know the fundamentals (but I've heard not all programs are strict about admissions). If you're in NYC, there's no shortage of opportunities to link up with like-minded, experienced writers.

If you want to chat more, feel free to Memail me.
posted by xenization at 9:45 AM on April 28, 2016

nthing what a fiendish thingy said so much, although those dudes are often older than 22, and some of them have earned a lot of prestige and press for those masturbatory fantasies.

MFA programs are good for connecting with people and getting feedback, but you don't have to spend craploads of money to get that elsewhere. Apply instead for something like MacDowell or retreat(s), as others have said.

What an MFA program might add (depending on where you go): T.A. positions. If you want to teach creative writing, then getting an MFA or a PhD in Creative Writing makes more sense.
posted by theefixedstars at 9:47 AM on April 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I'm also in the camp of starting slow and doing a summer retreat or finding a good non-credit class. It can be hard to find other people to consistently workshop with outside of a classroom setting but good non-credit classes can give you valuable structure and feedback, plus access to other people's work. And you are usually looking at hundreds, not thousands, of dollars for these, which means you can try a couple and see how it goes.
posted by pie_seven at 9:49 AM on April 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm in an MFA program. Do not go into debt for an MFA program. Go to one that will pay your tuition and a living stipend or do not go at all.

You will get skills by reading and then writing and then writing some more.

You will get guidance from joining a writer's group that is full of fiction writers you respect and admire.

All of the psychological stuff - the 'permission to fail,' the 'confidence' the 'belief that you're a real writer,' 'the writing discipline' - you'll get that by working on yourself and developing self-insight and going to therapy if you need to. You will absolutely NOT get it from a writing program. Writing programs will mess with your head, make you compare yourself to others, expose you to super useless criticism that will make you doubt everything you ever learned, and give you endless free time to fuck around and indulge in your incipient narcissism/self-doubt/ADHD-organizational-disaster tendencies. You should not start a writing program of any kind (including a funded one) until you've got most of that psychological/organizational/disciplinary stuff (which we all start out with - man, no judgment!) basically under control.

A piece of advice I used to give to people was that if they were absolutely set on paying $$$ for an MFA program, they should instead take out a bunch of credit cards, quit their jobs, and spend two years doing nothing but reading, writing, and going to lots of readings and other literary events. It'd be way less stressful and you'd still probably wind up saving money.

The more realistic advice I'd give now is to tell yourself that you're not going to do an MFA until you can get into one of the top 5 programs. Give yourself three years to whip yourself into shape: read all the writing manuals, take every writer you can track down out to dinner, crank out as many stories as you can, read up on every single application trick you can find. At the end of it, you may very well end up at a top program, with funding...but you also may find that you've learned enough that you don't actually feel like you need the degree.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 9:57 AM on April 28, 2016 [10 favorites]

Write fanfiction.

I'm serious.

I've been writing fanfiction for (oh jeez) fifteen years now and the difference between when I started and where I am now is unbelievable.

The nice thing about fanfic is that it's low stakes, somebody's already done a lot of the heavy lifting, and you get to experiment to your heart's content. AND it's free.
posted by Tamanna at 10:01 AM on April 28, 2016 [6 favorites]

I have a friend who got an MFA. From Columbia, no less. She is a working writer. She also thinks that going into debt for an MFA is a terrible idea, and that you'd be much better off taking that money and getting life experiences instead. A lot of people in her program went straight from undergrad to their MFA and had no idea about what they were writing because they hadn't experienced much outside of their particular bubble.

You have life experience, and a master's already, but honestly, I think you'd still be better off applying for writing retreats, reading and learning to critique other people's work, and continuing to write regularly and consistently.

Also, depending on what you want to write (Commercial fiction? Literature? What genre?), I would also consider traveling, reading lots of books (read regularly anyway), and immersing myself in experiences that would help you learn how to write the kind of book you want to write. Learn to research, and befriend librarians, too, in addition to other writers.
posted by PearlRose at 10:16 AM on April 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Do you know about the Sackett Street writing classes in NYC? They are billed as an alternative to an MFA, since they follow MFA modes of critique and are taught by graduates of well-regarded programs. I've taken two workshops with them and they were very good. They also host lectures and other community-building events.
posted by xo at 11:46 AM on April 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have an MFA. Only go if you get into a program that fully funds you.
posted by thursdaystoo at 12:18 PM on April 28, 2016

Speaking as a graduate of an MFA program, I think there are three purposes to attend a MFA writing program:
  1. to improve your writing,
  2. to build connections with other writers and within the industry, or
  3. to attain a credential necessary to get a teaching job.
However, the only one of those goals that requires attending an MFA program is #3.

Attending an MFA program is likely the most expensive approach to #1 and #2, and not necessarily more effective than alternate approaches to improving your craft and networking.

Since you are in New York CIty, I would recommend seeking out and availing yourself of the rich and thriving writing and literary community there first before you shell out hard-earned dollars for an MFA program. Attend readings and introduce yourself to people there. Build your literary network. Seek out a local writer's group to exchange work & critiques. Look into reputable writing classes at places like the NYPL, the 92nd Street Y, the aforementioned Sackett Street workshop, all of which can give you a comparable experience (around craft at least) without the same expense and commitment as an MFA program.
posted by gritter at 12:27 PM on April 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

All of the psychological stuff - the 'permission to fail,' the 'confidence' the 'belief that you're a real writer,' 'the writing discipline' - you'll get that by working on yourself and developing self-insight and going to therapy if you need to. You will absolutely NOT get it from a writing program. Writing programs will mess with your head, make you compare yourself to others, expose you to super useless criticism that will make you doubt everything you ever learned, and give you endless free time to fuck around and indulge in your incipient narcissism/self-doubt/ADHD-organizational-disaster tendencies. You should not start a writing program of any kind (including a funded one) until you've got most of that psychological/organizational/disciplinary stuff (which we all start out with - man, no judgment!) basically under control.

I can't favorite pretentious illiterate's comment hard enough. Until you get the creative anxiety sorted out, it's just one more way to procrastinate and look for validation you don't need.

Pick up The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield. Read through that a few times before you decide a writing program is the answer.
posted by culfinglin at 12:33 PM on April 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Only do it if they pay you. I did one year on my dime at a school that cost me as much as goddamn dental school would have. Then I worked a year in glorious Pittsburgh (the only reason I don't regret the decision). Then got into one that paid--I paid off all my credit cards and lingering debt from undergraduate school, and then had two years to write and not worry about anything, other than my terrifying but also wonderfully slack T.A. I remember the beauty, the lushness, and the depth of the sleep I got. I remember my teachers, whom I loved. I met lovely people, and I remember some of their lovely stories. I wrote nothing myself, but I wrote very little before, either, so would hesitate to blame the school. I stopped reading fiction for five years or so after it because I was so sick of the stuff. I became incapable of being in writers' groups--that's been a definite plus. Paying off the loans for the year I had to pay for myself kept me from buying a house at the height of the bubble when everybody was screaming that I had to buy or be "priced out." I'd've bought, and I'd be penniless now if I had, so I think the debt I incurred from the year I had to pay for is the single largest benefit I experienced from getting that degree. The next biggest is that the degree allows me to teach community college English: my favorite job since theater popcorn girl.

I still don't write anything. I subscribed to Poets and Writers on a whim and the first issue came last month. I cracked it open and saw a name I recognized, and it was like the fumes of all the failures past overcame me and I closed it and shrank away.
posted by Don Pepino at 1:17 PM on April 28, 2016 [7 favorites]

I only know about writing commercial genre fiction, so this may not apply if you're talking about literary fiction.

I don't have an MFA, and from my standpoint, I probably wouldn't get one unless it was "we just won the lottery, what can we spend money on?" That's because I don't think I need a program like that, and I'm guessing you don't either. (Whether or not you want a program like that is another question and one only you can answer, but I definitely do not think your fiction writing success, no matter how you define "success," is predicated on getting an MFA.)

When I finished my first novel, I reached out to another genre author I knew and said "What next?" She said, "Come with me to my writer's group." It was great.

There are a lot of genre fiction writer's groups out there, ranging from the national, highly organized groups like RWA and SFWA to local critique groups that are just like-minded writers meeting and helping each other out. That'd be the first place I'd suggest you look.

Also, I've had a lot of success reaching out to people with shared connections (friends of friends, fellow alums of my undergrad, etc.) who are successful fiction authors. Offering to buy them coffee and pick their brain seems to work really well.

Honestly, though, my number one piece of advice? Just write. Just sit down and start writing fiction. It doesn't matter where you start. It doesn't matter if you finish. It doesn't matter if you end up with a short story or a 180,000-word behemoth of a novel (coughcough). It doesn't matter if it's brilliant or awful. It doesn't matter if it's your own complex universe or you're writing in a fanfiction world, as Tamanna says. Just open up a Word document or a text editor or whatever, set a timer for 25 minutes, and write. Do it again every day or almost every day.

You're coming from a place where someone has already paid you for fiction, even if it's just one piece. That's more than many people start with, including me. You also clearly have writing chops if you've been getting paid for opinion pieces and essays. Don't doubt yourself. Writing fiction is different from writing non-fiction, sure, but not substantially so. Those fiction skills you're talking about? You get them by writing. And reading fiction in your preferred genre. And writing some more. I think a lot of people get hung up on "Can I write a novel/short story/etc.? I don't know if I can do this..." You don't have to know before you start. Just start. See where it goes. If you decide you can't stand it, no worries at all - great experiment, good expansion of your writing experiences and comfort zone, go back to non-fiction all the richer for the experience.

There's no right way to write fiction. Some people are plotters with meticulous outlines. Some people are pantsers who figure things out as they go along. Some people write pristine first drafts, others verbally vomit on the page and need about ten rounds of edits to get it in shape. This can be hard coming from somewhere like journalism where there is a right way to structure a story. This can also be hard coming from the role of an editor. You'll need to figure out a way to turn off your internal editor during your writing time, just temporarily so you can get words on the page. I've heard of some people saying they actually have a dialogue with their internal editor that goes something along the lines of "Thank you so much for all the help you give me in making me a better writer, and I'm planning to come back to you in a bit when I get some rough words on the page, and I'll appreciate your help then too. I just need to write without editing at this moment, and I'm looking forward to hanging out with you again when this 25 minutes is up." Or maybe for you, it's writing fiction in a different place/to different music/in a different piece of software, etc., than you edit or write non-fiction so you can start training yourself in a Pavlovian fashion. There are tons of mental tricks you can use, and a lot of them are probably covered in writer's groups/books about writing/blogs about writing/podcasts about writing/your friends who write fiction.

I heard someone say once that it's not really worth reading books on writing fiction until you've written a few manuscripts. Everyone's different, of course, but largely, I've found I want less input on my craft, not more. That's not because writing in a bubble is good, but because, as someone with an editor brain myself, I can get really caught up in the question of whether I'm doing it right. I'd rather hammer out my first draft however it goes and then get advice on shaping and polishing that specific piece. So for me, I wouldn't want to do an MFA program where, as others have said, I'm just getting advice from other authors on what works for them, which not only may not work for me but may actively hinder my progress in getting words on the page.

At the end of the day, it's all about the words on the page.

Memail me if you want to talk more, or want to send me a draft of something to look over, or want to beta read some of my fiction so you can see the process, etc.

Good luck!
posted by bananacabana at 11:22 AM on April 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

(Argh, switching from writer-mode to editor-mode: I should have said "or want to beta read some of my fiction so you can see my process." There's no such thing as the process. And what I really meant was "or want to beta read some of my fiction so you can see it in a rougher draft if you think that would help you, since you say that editing essays helped you figure out writing essays but that you don't have the opportunity to edit fiction." Sorry!)
posted by bananacabana at 11:32 AM on April 29, 2016

Published writer of long form fiction here, got an MFA in poetry from a program where I was supposed to be able to take fiction workshops but then I learned that you couldn't if you wanted to write genre fiction or YA, which I did. I got myself an agent (two, even) and wrote all of my books in a self-taught sort of way and from what I can tell, my fiction cohort didn't get a ton of help in professionalization. The idea of MFA-style workshopping a novel makes my skin crawl, frankly, and I've been in plenty of crit groups.

You can read books like Self Editing for Fiction Writers and Story and On Writing and teach yourself craft. You can learn how to get an agent and submit short stories via the internet. You can find yourself betas and critique groups without paying for an MFA. What kind of "recognition" are you looking for? Publication? That's not guaranteed.

The common MFA advice floating around on the internet right now is not to go into debt for an MFA, and that's true for most programs, with exceptions. The exceptions are: 1. If you're wealthy and can afford it, NYC-area programs, particularly Columbia, really do seem to feed into NYC publishing in a way other MFA programs don't and I've met lots of agents, editors, and hired writers who have come out of NYC schools. and 2. Specific, genre-focused distance programs, like Hollins and VCFA for children's writing. But you have to have the money and you need to really, really know your goals.

An MFA doesn't make you a writer or a professional writer. I enjoyed the time spent drinking and schmoozing in my MFA program, but I don't think it has much to do with my successes or failures subsequent to enrolling.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:35 PM on April 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Thanks all! I'm not especially surprised that "don't bother" was the prevailing opinion; I'm slightly surprised, and honestly somewhat relieved, that it was so unanimous. A few of you had suggestions I had never considered -- thank you a fiendish thingy for the suggestion to read lit mag slush! If anyone happens to know of writers' groups in Brooklyn (I mainly write genre-tinged stuff that's probably best described as slipstream, some straight SF) do please mail me; "put together a group of people at the same level as you and with the same goals" is the best advice I'd gotten previously, but although I knew a few I couldn't get any of them to commit.
posted by babelfish at 4:55 PM on April 30, 2016

Also, if you're still reading. Writing Excuses is a FANTASTIC podcast that has helped up my writing game like nothing else. I'd spend money on supporting their Patreon, and going on their retreats, over an MFA any day of the week.
posted by Tamanna at 11:31 AM on May 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

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