I’m certain every serious writer, regardless of age or day job, has at one time or another contemplated getting their Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Why wouldn’t you? It’s so alluring to the serious writer: a 2-3 year commitment to producing work while up against hard deadlines, tough critics, and countless reading assignments. I myself received an MFA in 2014 from St. Mary’s College of California, located in the Bay Area. Now an agent, I can’t deny that my time as a student certainly helped hone and shape my literary taste, style, and knowledge. It not only furthered my career through invaluable teaching and writing experience but also instilled a deeper appreciation for the literary scene and business.
With that said, I can also attest to the fact that the MFA is not for everybody. There are just as many concerning factors to take into consideration before applying or even thinking about applying. My hope here is to provide some insight that can hopefully aid those dedicated writers wondering if the MFA is the next road they should travel down.
First and foremost, writers, especially struggling writers, are not necessarily wealthy people. We work odd jobs, freelance, or plug away at an office desk while surreptitiously revising our novel—ready to pull up that Excel sheet whenever the boss makes the next round around the cubicle. Ah, the life of an artist. And it is perhaps because of this lifestyle that one must truly consider the financial aspect of the MFA.
Full-time tuition ranges between $21,000 and $35,000. You should expect to swallow at least a portion of that amount of money per year through FAFSA or private loans, even if you are granted the coveted scholarship—you cannot forget living expenses, which should be factored around $10,000.
Getting a “full-ride” is not necessarily a goal or hope any future MFA candidate should have. Only a handful of programs—those being the most prestigious, such as The Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Cornell, Michigan, NYU—offer this sort of funding flat-out. And if you are granted such a generous scholarship, expect to teach as being part of a fellowship.
With that said, this is loan money we are talking here—which is really Monopoly money—and you should never let a price tag discourage you from attaining your dream career.
Majority of serious writers out there are in some sort of workshop or writing circle or have a BETA reader on hand. These are usually acquaintances that share a passion or members of a local bookstore group or your Aunt Sally who reads your manuscript in the bathtub. What’s so great about getting your MFA is that you now have access to THE ULTIMATE WORKSHOP.
Not all graduate programs are alike. This means that not all workshops are alike. There are of course horror stories out there—workshops that range from drunken buffoonery to sadist blood baths. I can only really speak to my own workshop at St. Mary’s and then again at The Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. Both were extremely pleasant, albeit tough to please, which is the best combination in my opinion. Constructive criticism is hard to come by, and the MFA facilitates this.
Additionally, many programs invite visiting writers to teach workshop for 1 semester. This allows you to work with well established or maybe even FAMOUS contemporary authors on a first name basis. Pretty cool.
Buyer Beware: the thin-skinned will not have a pleasant time whatsoever in an MFA workshop.
Terrified of reading your work in public? Great, me too. But I did this during my years as an MFA candidate many times over. It allowed me to grow as a writer. Having to stand in front of a crowd of strangers and read your personal art aloud not only forces you to truly revise and consider your work at a micro-sentence level, it trains you to believe—I mean truly believe—in your authorial voice and your talent.
Additionally, most programs offer unique internships. For example, I know numerous colleagues that taught writing to inmates at that infamous San Quinton prison for class credit. Depending on where you live, you can also work for literary magazines, get involved in writer salons, and even host your own literary events. If you have the itch to fully submerse yourself into the literary scene, then an MFA provides that opportunity.
Time is never on our side. Life is a whirlwind. I get it. Maybe sacrificing 2-3 years of your life in order to better what you see as a hobby is not financially or professionally responsible. These are real things to consider.
However, I know plenty of writers who went through the MFA program and today are no longer writers. This is because time, or lack thereof, does not stop for you to write. Think of the process of obtaining an MFA as “stopping time” in a way. Like any other graduate program, the student must put other less-significant priorities on hold while in school. And I can’t see a better excuse for why you have to leave a party or quit a job or relieve yourself of your duties at the church bake sale than: “Sorry, I have to go and write. It’s for school.”