Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Is that MFA worth the time and trouble?


MFAs! Getcher MFAs here!

Every now and then I like to rail about the MFA industry and how, in many respects, it’s a self-perpetuating racket. I’m surprised Trump hasn’t established his own program, to be honest. Now I come to find, via this article in The Atlantic, that computer algorithms can’t tell the difference between writing produced by MFA grads compared with non-MFA scribblers. That means that there’s no qualitative reason to get the degree.

There might be other reasons, though.

I’ve always perceived that the real draw of a good MFA program, say, at Iowa, Stanford, Irvine, or Columbia, was the presence of teachers and mentors who could help you. Not just help you learn to write but, really, to sponsor you, to introduce you to powerful mavens in the publishing business, and to get you a book contract. Nobody would think it’s a given, obviously, but come on — that’s the hope of many if not most applicants. “Toby Wolff helped me get my fabulous agent, who then landed a spectacular two-book deal with FS&G.”

The stuff dreams are made of.

But if you do the math, you realize that not everyone who gets an MFA is going to sail through the heavily gate-kept portals of modern publishing. Something like 4000 students earn the degree every year, and I’d be willing to bet that the Big Five publishers don’t pump out 4000 debut novels annually. There’s only so much Toby can do for you.

So if there’s no qualitative reason to get an MFA and no certain quantitative one either (a book contract with a nice advance), then why are wannabe writers still flocking to them? Why isn’t the School of Life sufficient accreditation for a talented novelist?

Business, man. Marketing. The universities are selling prestige.

The perception exists — and has for quite a while now — that you have no shot at all without the degree. If you’re serious, you need the MFA. It’s a badge of quality.

I often recall, though, something Kurt Vonnegut said in one of his letters, from the period when he was teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I’m paraphrasing, but he said that of all the students he’d encountered coming through the program, only one or two had much talent to speak of. He worked with at least one closely (a young lady), but she didn’t wind up having a dazzling career.

Nowadays, sure, there’s lots of MFA success stories. That’s because most literary successes (i.e., writers of literary fiction) have an MFA. But someone should do an analysis of success among all MFA holders and let us know what the odds are.

Pretty steep, I’m guessing.

15 comments on “Is that MFA worth the time and trouble?

  1. LionAroundWriting
    March 14, 2016

    The thing is, writing never used to be a qualification, you either wrote and were good or you weren’t. I doubt a degree could fix that. But if someone is determined and good already, a degree might elevate their work to another level.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 14, 2016

      Possibly. Maybe it’s a matter of learning to harness raw talent and put it to more-controlled use.

  2. ericjbaker
    March 14, 2016

    I think great writers are born. The rest of us just hammer (I was going to say “hack”) away at it, hoping for the right time-place-idea alignment to occur.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 14, 2016

      “Hack” away’s a good metaphor. As in hacking one’s own leg off with a dull saw. Sometimes it feels like that!

  3. cinthiaritchie
    March 14, 2016

    I have an MFA, luckily I was on scholarships/fellowships and it only cost me the price of one class. But did it help my writing? Yes, and no. It helped prompt me to write, each and every day. It pushed me to reading books, stories and poems I wouldn’t have otherwise read. And it put me in contact with people who definitely helped my career. Mostly, though, it gave me the confidence to consider myself a “real” writer.

    And yet. Yet …. the writing was very formula-driven, the basic short-story-for-literary-magazines type. There was also a huge backlash against any genre that wasn’t literary: No horror or romance or women’s writing or sci-fi. Such pieces simply weren’t acceptable. And there was almost no (no!) talk of the reality of the publishing industry or how one might actually make money from one’s writing.

    I was lucky enough to do an internship on a magazine and then transition over to journalism, where I was able to support my son through college. But as I said, I was one of the lucky ones. Most in my grad classes are no longer seriously writing. It just isn’t financially viable.

    I was also lucky enough to study under Jo-Ann Mapson, the only instructor in the program who spelled out exactly what we’d need to do in order to publish. I followed her advice to the T. It was an enormous help. I can’t thank her enough.

    But the actual degree, is it worth it? Well, yes and no, depending upon what one desires.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 14, 2016

      Fascinating story, Cinthia! I’d like to hear from other MFA holders who either did or didn’t use their degree to forge a career. Where’d you get yours, by the way?

      I was awfully close to applying at one point, but a mentor of mine said it was essentially a teaching degree and if I didn’t really want to teach writing in some godforsaken college in South Dakota I should save my money. I think since then, the MFA isn’t seen so much as a teaching degree but almost as a rite of passage for, yes, literary writers. I also don’t think it’s so easy to land those teaching jobs anymore …

  4. Donald Baker
    March 14, 2016

    I believe I took a four week writing course once in undergrad school. It mainly consisted of writing prompts and exercises. And bringing in your other writings so that the unpublished professor and your fellow unpublished students could tell you what they think. We also discussed a fairly vague text book.
    After that I decided that reading and studying published fiction was more valuable to me.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 15, 2016

      Good point, that most workshop education is based on subjective opinions of teachers and other students. Why trust their take on your work?!

  5. Audrey Driscoll
    March 14, 2016

    There are so many pieces to success (or lack of) in writing! The MFA degree, the agent, talent, hard work (aka “honing the craft”), persistence, knowing the right people, business sense, timing and pure luck. And so many ways of defining success. It makes gambling look simple and easy by comparison.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 15, 2016

      I have a feeling pure luck is a larger factor than we’d like to admit …

      • Donald Baker
        March 15, 2016

        My experience with short fiction is it is largely a numbers game. I also have to keep in mind when submitting to the college sponsored literary magazines that the editors are students, usually unpublished and they are overseen by professors, often unpublished and frustrated.

  6. Woebegone but Hopeful
    March 15, 2016

    UK perspective. A qualification is a good attainment; it shows a determination and a focus. However using my own experience in employment, as a UK civil servant I worked with many folk with degrees in for example, law, architecture, accountancy & history, all of us answering phones and other basic admin work. Suggested conclusion- a qualification does not ensure success in the chosen field.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 15, 2016

      Very true. The degree is almost like a lottery ticket — it may or may not pay off.

  7. 1WriteWay
    March 22, 2016

    I like Cinthia’s comment for so many reasons. I still toy with the idea of getting an MFA because I am one of the most undisciplined writers I know. Only when I have a deadline (imposed by someone else, not me) do I get serious and sit down and write. (I’m always writing in my head but since that’s with invisible ink …. ). For someone like me, perhaps most particularly someone around my age, pursuing an MFA has less to do (if anything) with prestige and/or a fast-track to publication; it has mostly to do with production, producing work (of any kind), reading lots and discussing much. The few creative writing workshops I took when I was working on my MA were very helpful, even when I disagreed with the professor or other students. I was learning and forming my sense of what worked and what didn’t and especially learning that writing can be/is very very very subjective. Yes, there’s good writing and there’s bad, but not all good writing is written the same way. What I enjoyed the most during my time in the MA program was the exposure to other writers, both published and unpublished, who inspired me. That I didn’t make more of the experience, that at this late stage in my life, I feel like I want to give it another go, is just my own fault. To be kind to myself, I think I was just not ready to make more of it. I really admire Cinthia for sticking to it and making it work for her (emphasis on the “for her.”). That’s what any grad program should be about. That said, it is disillusioning when a school becomes a degree mill, regardless of whether we’re talking about MFAs or PhDs. I’m probably lucky I took those courses 25 years ago and not today. Back then, my university didn’t even have an MFA program (just MA in Creative Writing), and pretty much all the students I knew as serious writers had no illusions about becoming famous, becoming the next Harper Lee or Walker Percy. They expected to have to work for a living but most of them saw teaching as an extension of their writing, something they could do with their students (or about their students). Many have published but not enough to be self-supported. And I don’t know that any of them really expected anything different. They just wanted to write and they would do whatever they needed to keep writing. Maybe that’s the big difference: many students who enter MFA programs want to be published; they might not really want to write.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 22, 2016

      Thanks for this amazingly thoughtful comment, Marie! Much more thoughtful than my post. In fact, you should cut and paste your comment and put it on your own blog.

      I do think there’s value in a structured, disciplined program that compels a writer to write — and read. Also, to read what’s assigned rather than whatever floats your boat. It takes a strong commitment to do that, and the MFA program helps writers get into that groove. I’m a little jaded at this point, so I see things through a certain lens that accentuates the profit side of all this, though I do understand that students get something important for their money. There’s a real personal-growth component, even if it doesn’t result in a book contract.

      One striking thing to me is that the MFA is clearly geared toward literary fiction, yet that’s just about the least popular genre in publishing. Why are so many writers flocking to MFA programs when it’s painfully clear they’re not going to have an easy time of it getting their work out into the world? Or are MFAs starting to morph into other genres to given these kids a fighting chance? I don’t know … I’d hate to think you go to Iowa or Columbia to learn how to write like Stephen King!

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This entry was posted on March 14, 2016 by in Writing and tagged , , , .
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