The MFA Debate: Would You Get One If You Had All the Money in the World?

Gary Almeter: When one of us wins the Powerball, would we rather get an MFA in creative writing or spend a year at the location of our choosing reveling in life experiences and independently fine-tuning our craft?

Daniel Ford: For me, it's the latter all day, every day. I have doubts on how important an MFA is, other than to look cool on a book jacket or take a class with a checked out VIP author, but I have no doubts whatever about how life experiences can fundamentally change and improve your writing. I wouldn't be the writer I am without living in New York City for more than a decade, despite the fact that my bank account would make some celibate monks weep. Every conversation, every interaction is a story waiting to happen. Sure, the classroom might make you more technically sound and marginally increase your chances of getting published, but will it replace that banter you have with a newfound friend over a coffee or a beer? Probably not. I'd travel the world, and then spend a couple of months holed up in a cabin writing about it. I'd also hire Pezza (for less than minimum wage, who are we kidding) to serve me coffee all day.

Gary: I think I would write more confidently with an MFA. I think a command over those techniques Daniel refers to would increase my confidence exponentially. I'm not ashamed to say that I have no idea what a lot of stuff even means. Like modernism—I have no idea what that means. There's lots of things like that—literary devices that I don't even know I don't know because I don't know them—that I think would serve any writer well if they were in his or her arsenal. Banter over a beer is great but will it help you if you are writing The Martian? And as Daniel readily concedes, the three letters do help in augmenting credibility, establishing connections, and, ultimately, getting published. And you could still hire Pezza to serve you coffee.     

Daniel: I think writers intrinsically know literary devices because writers also have to be voracious readers. You learn a lot of the lessons you might be taught in an MFA program simply by reading widely (This means reading work both inside and outside your comfort zone).

I should point out that Andy Weir doesn't have an MFA, he's just a genius. He started out as a programmer. And maybe The Martian wouldn't be as good if he tried to cram in some literary device some wannabe author brainwashed him into thinking he needed. Even the good novels that come out of MFA-ers feel a little overstuffed or stilted. Almost like they are trying too hard to justify the money they spent on the degree.

I think a key to writing with confidence is peer editing, which could be a strength of an MFA program. However, some of our favorite authors have told us that they have a handful of beta readers they trust with their work, and that seems to work just fine as well.

There are great writers with MFAs, no doubt, however, I just think that spending that kind of money on something that you can get from your own individual hustling is silly.

Lisa Carroll: Speaking as a middle/high school English teacher, I have to agree with Daniel. You write better when you read and when you listen and when you speak. I tell my students that writing is talking “on paper.” Your voice should come through your work. Working on your own voice by traveling—talking, experiencing life in another place, figuring out what story you have to tell—what could be better than that? I learned more about myself living in Ireland for a summer, drinking Guinness and chatting with the locals, than I did from any class, undergrad or grad.

And writing with confidence just comes with writing. Most people can't identify more than half a dozen literary devices by name but knowing them doesn't make one a proficient or skilled user of the device. You know what you like when you read it—when the cadence of the sentence sounds like music, when the picture created in your mind's eye is so vivid you feel like you've been there, when the dialogue makes you feel all the feelings. This doesn't come from some professor telling you what anagnorisis means and how to use it in a sentence; it comes from all the self-discovery you find as you grow as a person and in your craft. I used to have my middle school students write their life story because it's something they had experienced and could "tell" through writing (Daniel shared his on Hardball Heart if you want to read middle school Daniel's view on life) and the more you experience, the more you have to tell.

So I say just write. Find your voice. Find yourself.

Unless you have a gazillion dollars and no college loans to pay and you've already traveled the world so many times that it's mundane, then, hey, go get your MFA.

And if it's me who wins big in PowerBall, I hereby vow that I will pay your rent for a year in the place of your choice. You have it in writing.

Daniel: Pretty sure I got an “A” on that project mainly because I wrote 100,000 more words than everyone else.

"I learned more about myself living in Ireland for a summer, drinking Guinness and chatting with the locals, than I did from any class."

That reminds me that we need to start a Dublin office ASAP.

Listen, any degree is intrinsically valuable. At St. John's, I was taught by a slew of crusty, ink-stained newspaper dinosaurs, but that doesn't lessen my journalism degree. It was less about "writing for a newspaper" and more about caring about the language, meeting a deadline, and drinking Wild Turkey (sadly, that professor is no longer with us). Would I be the same writer without those lessons? Of course not. But I also learned a hell of a lot from getting lost in the city, traveling around on every subway line in New York, being poor, being super poor, and listening to pieces of conversations from every kind of New Yorker you can imagine. Learning to be a writer is a balancing act, and, of course, you want to be able to wield every tool you have to be good at it. If you're convinced that an MFA program is the absolutely right path for you, by all means, go for it. It's just not the one I would choose. Then again, I'm still a thesis away from a master's degree in history, so I shouldn't be lecturing anyone!

Alex Tzelnic: As a philosophy major I feel uniquely qualified to weigh in on a discussion about potentially useless degrees. I spend a good chunk of my twenties traveling the world (Asia mostly), and now as a 31-year-old athletics director (glorified gym teacher), I have often thought about an MFA. Truthfully, I kind of wish I had the guts to go for it, but always, right as I'm on the cusp of potentially thinking about starting to begin the application process, I conveniently decide that I am happy in my current job, it gives the the time to write, and that putting all my eggs in the literary basket is a surefire path to resenting what to me is a very fulfilling creative outlet. That being said, I deeply admire people that have the courage to say, writing is my craft, and that's what I will do. One of my great fears is that I'll one day regret for not jumping headfirst into that basket. But class was never fun for me (except, I suppose, as a gym teacher). The best thing I ever did in college was spend a semester in India meditating, smoking hash, and checking off every other stereotype of the spiritual wanderer. As a writer, I am at my most prolific when traveling, and if I won the Powerball, there's no doubt I'd be back on the road.

Dave Pezza: Fine. I'll be that guy again. Sigh. I had to put down my falafel to type this. MFAs are the opposite of useless. And I think we all know that, which is why we all have very convenient and masterfully thought-out reasons why we don't think we need or want them. Decent MFA programs are like good album producers: if you have the talent and work ethic they can help you create and promote something that people will want to buy. That makes them extremely valuable. But this comes at a price: an obvious one and a subtle one.  

A former professor and good friend of mine gave me this advice when I was applying to MFA programs, "Don't pay for your MFA." And I, like the stubborn ass that I am, took out a hefty loan to attend the UNH MFA program. A week into that program, I dropped out and got all but $50 dollars of my money back (the bastards at UNH wouldn't refund my commuter parking permit). I left because that particular program was not worth my time and my money at that point in my life. Had I money to throw around, would I have stayed in the program? Maybe. I'm enjoying seeing my brand new niece more than listening to post-feminist complaints about women's portrayal in contemporary fiction at the moment.

If you are capable of paying that price though, are you willing to pay the more subtle price: molding your writing style into the acceptable and marketable MFA style. For example, I recently started reading Phil Klay's Redeployment. I read the first paragraph of the first story and knew he had an MFA. I personally loathe MFA-styled fiction. It's glitzy and over wrought, fiction's version of "Gotcha!" journalism. However, I have no doubt that Klay's MFA tone in Redeployment is one of the primary reason why it won the National Book Award, along with it technically being classified as war literature written by a veteran. I have yet to find a story in that collection I can say I unequivocally enjoyed. Yet Klay is basking in the spotlight and no doubt getting book offers left and write. He could 100% abandon that manufactured MFA style with his new publication, but he probably wouldn't have had that opportunity without one.

The right MFA degree is a huge opportunity at a huge cost. But it's not about the size; it's how you use it.

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