Who Needs An MFA?


In the ongoing guest post series on Daily (W)rite, today we have writer Kelly Gamble holding forth on a topic that really interests me, to tell you the truth–this whole deal about an MFA.

So without further ado I’ll hand this over to Kelly:

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You don’t need an MFA to be a great writer—let’s get that out of the way, as it seems to be the biggest debate point in writer circles these days.  We all know this, we can all name at least twenty ‘great writers’ who had no training, blah, blah, blah. Okay, that’s done.  To MFA or not to MFA is not the question.

I want to talk to those who have decided, for whatever reason, that an MFA is the path they want to pursue and are actively looking into the various programs available.  Where is the first place you go when looking at programs? Their websites, of course, all of which are full of shiny things, and since we are writers, shiny things in general, distract us. They are all wonderful, but try to stay focused.

After you have been captivated by each programs residency locations, dazzled by their impressive list of faculty achievements and generally awed by their reported rankings and awards, you need to sit down and ask yourself a very basic question in order to evaluate which program is really right for you.

Why do you want an MFA?

1. I want to be a better writer: Of course, there is no guarantee that getting a graduate degree will make you a better writer.  There are a number of books you can buy that will help ‘make you a better writer’ so why an MFA?  Two of the most valuable aspects of being in an MFA program are the availability of workshops taught by the impressive faculty that dazzled you above and access to a community of writers, faculty and fellow students, who will be reading and critiquing your work.  What workshops are going to be available during your enrollment? Of course they will all be pertinent to writing, but are there enough offered that will suit your individual needs?  How selective is the program? (I think this is extremely important. Your fellow students will be critiquing your work, it would be nice to know that they have been selected based on their talent.)

2. I would additionally like to learn about literary theory: Some programs offer courses as part of their MFA that delve into literary theory. Is this something that you are wanting to learn more about?  Ask the questions.

3. I want to write fiction and poetry: Do you want to experiment with different types of writing? Screenwriting, plays, non-fiction, children’s fiction? Short stories, essays, a memoir? Or are you more focused on one thing, say writing a novel.  Are there opportunities to work in these other areas?

4.  I want to teach: An MFA is a terminal degree. If teaching is something you are interested in, what courses are offered in pedagogy? Are there opportunities to student teach after a certain number of hours have been awarded? Having coursework and experience when you graduate will be extremely important when you start looking for a teaching position.

5. I want to work in a publishing related field: Believe it or not, not everyone in an MFA program believes that the rest of their life will be spent writing books and waiting for the next book contract.  They are focusing on the ‘day job’ as well, and would like to do something in a related field.  As with the other areas above, inquiring about workshops and courses on publishing is a great idea, but also, add this one to your list of questions: Does the program offer any assistance placing you in an apprenticeship or similar program?

6. I want to publish: Some MFA programs offer access to agents.  This is a wonderful opportunity for you to pitch your work, if you are prepared.  Do you have a pitch? A query? A synopsis? Does the program offer help or training in preparing these valuable bits?

There are several MFA programs out there, and it is important for you to evaluate them based on what YOU want to get out of the program.  Make a list of questions not answered on their websites.  Send emails, make calls, get specific answers.  Talk to other students, past and present.  Then make your list of prospective programs based on your personal goals and submit your best work with your application.

And enjoy the journey….

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Kelly Stone Gamble is a freelance writer and author of Ragtown, a historical novel set during the building of the Hoover Dam.  She will graduate in January with an MFA in Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University.  Stop by her blog at www.kellystonegamble.blogspot.com to say hello, or follow her on twitter @KellySGamble

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26 thoughts on “Who Needs An MFA?

  1. Pingback: About 2 Years too Late…(Countdown to B-Day) | What I Wanted to Say…

  2. Thanks, Jeff. I agree, living life and paying attention as you go makes a huge difference! I happen to love school, and can’t decide now what I want to study next. Rocket science? Who knows. lol

  3. Great article. An MFA can only help. I won’t be going back to school anytime soon, but I think it’s time spent living life and paying attention as I went, that has made the difference for me. Wonderful post as always!

  4. As I said, everyone has their reasons for and against, but I will say, I’ve been writing for well over ten years and the work I did while getting the MFA has made me a much, much stronger writer, and am a pretty good editor of my own work now.

  5. I wish I did have an MFA, but in Theater; my MA is in Educational Theater, and it has not given me the “clout” I’ve needed to land the jobs I should have. Sigh. As to what it would do for writing? I don’t see the point, unless you wanted to work in academia.

  6. I teach high school English with a Political Science degree. I figured my writing MFA would give me a little street cred. Plus, you know, the chicks.

  7. I haven’t landed an agent, Suz. He has my manuscript and has not said yes or no. Exactly, Justin, we all have our reasons, and those who don’t want/need one, that’s okay too! Arlee, of course a degree doesn’t guarantee talent, it’s doesn’t guarantee anything more than you have a degree when you are done. As I said, we all weigh the choices, the pros and cons (including the cost) and make our own decision if we think it’s right for us. Me? I wish I had done it 20 years ago.

  8. Kelly – I really like your reasoning here. Everyone pursuing the MFA degree has so many different reasons for doing so and those who don’t want/need to get an MFA are okay too. I like reading your writing and can’t wait to read your novel.

  9. Degrees can add prestige to ones resume but they don’t guarantee talent. If I could afford to do it and had the time, I might be tempted to go for a MFA more for the brain stimulation and the community than anything else. Education can be an awfully expensive pursuit and the payoff isn’t always there in the end.

    Lee
    A to Z stories starting 12/12 and the official A to Z Badge is now revealed
    Blogging from A to Z

  10. My ultimate goal is to teach, and since this is my second Masters, I’m hoping some school will recognize how dedicated I am to my pursuit of teaching and will hire me. LOL. I haven’t gone through all of this school for nothing–oh, and I do have a completed manuscript, polished, edited and sitting in an agents hands right now, all because of the MFA–so, it was worth it for me.

  11. I want to archive this blog. This is well put and something that everyone should know. I know as an artist, we can take the academic root or as I did since I already have a degree, wanted to take from the best teachers and learn directly. Yet, I wonder if I would have a BFA I would be take more seriously instead of a BA.

  12. Kelly – this is a very well-written and thoughtful piece. I’ve never wanted an MFA – but degrees don’t mean much to me. It was interesting to see all the reasons why someone would want one and all the reasonable questions to ask before pursuing one. Good job! I grant you a Masters of Fine Articulation!

  13. I’ve been called an MF and then an A directly after, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t meant to be a compliment. ;) Always a pleasure to read anything you put out there Ms. Wonderful. :D

  14. I tip my hat to you, Kelly! My undergrad degree is in English with a focus in Creative Writing (my masters degree is in humanities, which also features a strong focus on writing), and I couldn’t agree more with your points. Best wishes to you!

I love comments, and I always visit back. Blogging is all about being a part of a community, and communities are about communication! Tweet me up @damyantig !

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