In Defense of the MFA in Writing
Shakespeare. Edgar Allan Poe. Faulkner. Hemingway. Cormac McCarthy. The list goes on and on. What do these writers all have in common? For starters, they are the antithesis of today’s aspiring MFA student. That is because none of these writers have a degree. Much more a Master of Fine Arts in writing. Actually, the MFA is a fairly recent phenomenon whose inception can be traced back to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop created under Wilbur L. Schramm in 1936. But to be fair, the MFA largely preceded many of these writers. For many aspiring or serious-minded writers today, namely those with literary ambitions, the question arises: is it better to earn an MFA or, is it better to “teach yourself by your own mistakes,” as the great Southern writer, William Faulkner put it (The Paris Review, 1956). To be fair, these writers represent a pinnacle of literary achievement that few of us (if any) will ever achieve in our lives. Still, our intention is not to sloppily put forth anecdotes in place of weighted arguments, or argue whether one needs an academic credential to write. The answer is abundantly clear on that score. Rather, we argue in favor of the MFA for its own merits; taking note, as we do, of the possible repercussions — both financial and otherwise. Today, reputable MFAs offer the academic support, rigor, and critical authority that few aspiring professional writers might achieve, otherwise left to their own questionable autodidactism.
Having literary ambitions is a beautiful thing; it may be likened to a religious calling, for writing, is in effect, a sort of vocation. As with any vocation or calling, the call to literature, however, may be fraught with some grim realities: in this case the MFA’s cost. As much as an advanced degree in writing may intellectually gird an MFA student with the rigor of an institution to support him, he has only to look down to the world below where financial responsibilities, student loans, and job uncertainty lay waiting, eager to meet him after he has distilled lived experience into his novel or book of poetry. These very real considerations represent the aspiring MFA student’s deep pathos. He or she furrows his brow, wanting to follow his or her calling, because, existentially speaking, he or she has a duty to be the best version of him/ herself. And certainly, that does not entail a career as an accountant or taking up the more lucrative path as an engineer (both noble professions, we might add). To be sure, many a sober-minded writer who has contemplated an MFA has altogether foregone his or her application when the question of tuition arises — and reasonably so.
According to an article in The Atlantic, an MFA degree from a top program can net you an average cost around $38,000 a year (“M.F.A.s: An Increasingly Popular…Bad Financial Decision”). Bear in mind that this fact encompasses MFAs of several varieties (like fine and/or visual arts), not just those in writing — which might account for some inflation in the figure. Still, author Bouree Lam’s financial figure loses little by way ethos. Any way you cut it, MFAs in just about any discipline can potentially come with a hefty price tag. Even if you do not attend a so-called top-tier MFA program, you can still expect to pay an average of $6,900 per semester at a public university, and $18,150 a semester at a private university, according to the National Center for Education. With the current status quo of the national debt, where an average student already owes between $27 to 32K in loans in the U.S., pursuing an MFA seems financially untenable, at best a luxury for the starry-eyed burning with a writer’s passion.
“[O]nly two [alumni] have said they are unemployed.” Elena Georgiou, Goddard College
Moreover, to say nothing of employment prospects, post-MFA life addresses yet another anxiety that weighs heavy for many graduates. After all, people want to get the most out of their higher education and become successful with their hard-earned degree. But what exactly is the metric for success following an MFA? Elena Georgiou, director of Goddard College’s low-residency MFA feels that post-MFA success amounts to writers going on to “publish their books or produce their plays… [and] put what they have learned to good use beyond their own work” (Lam, The Atlantic 2014). By the same token, Georgiou also offers another optimistic note for writers coming out of an MFA. In 2014, of the three-hundred-plus alumni to have graduated from Goddard, she cites many have gone on to secure jobs. In that same interview with The Atlantic, she adds that “only two [alumni] have said they are unemployed. Teachers account for most respondents (20%) and about 15% are writers or journalists.” Contrary to popular belief, MFAs in writing are not limited to just teaching in schools or colleges. The point is, MFAs can and do find a livelihood after their MFA. To say the least, they can find satisfying jobs that are non-academic and reasonably well-paying, too. For example, some MFA graduates go on to work in copywriting, where the median salary, according to The Houston Chronicle, is well above the national average, at $62,000 a year. Also worth noting, is that if MFA graduates do go into teaching, they may take advantage of Student Loan Forgiveness through the U.S. Department of Education. To this end, an MFA graduate need not try to stake it among his or her competition for a college job but can take advantage of this program teaching at a high school.
Equally important to consider, is at the time of this writing, there are over sixty fully-funded programs in the nation. For example, the Universities of Houston, Mississippi at Oxford, and Purdue all offer full-funding. This sometimes entails teaching fellowships during the time of the study, and sometimes not. Granted that these types of programs draw stiff competition, but the point is that it is possible to further your education without drawing in more debt if you can prove your mettle. As elitist as this sounds, it makes sense that only some of the best writers gain access to these coveted programs. But this is not to say that that is the underlying hallmark of a fine writer or his success will be predicated upon admission to a fully-funded program. Ironically, not only did William Faulkner not have a high school diploma, he only briefly attended the University of Mississippi at Oxford (today, fully-funded program!). What you will.
But to be sure, not applying to a fully-funded MFA in writing would be a missed opportunity, much like glossing over applications for scholarships, grants, and fellowships would be to an applicant’s detriment. Also, should one wish to answer his or her calling to an MFA, one need not necessarily disrupt his or her career or family life. This is because like Goddard College mentioned above, there are low-residency MFA programs. Although these are often not fully-funded, they are especially suited for those who are working while furthering their education. One could also argue that in some ways, these are more advantageous, as fully-funded programs tend to offer modest living stipends anyway.
At the end of the day, to call an MFA an investment may not be the most accurate assessment. What does that mean as it applies to rigorous writing practice under the supervision of an established writer, your professor? To be honest, an MFA probably will not make you wealthy. And the odds of writing and selling a best-selling novel are not in your favor. After all, best-sellers are more in the domain of popular fiction — which is a pursuit antithetical to serious, literary writing, I would argue. If you choose to pursue an MFA, chances are it is because you want to hone your craft as a writer. It is because you want to be the best possible version of yourself in your writer’s soul. And although it is not necessary to get an MFA to write, which we have longed established, there is another thought that arises. That the MFA experience provides a fecund ground for writers to learn from more experienced and established writers who have proved their mettle; writers whose work reflects what James Joyce called felt experience. It is no coincidence that artists tend to drink deeply from, and refine their craft in the company of other artists. If this were not the case, there would be no artistic movements or cultural meccas like Paris, for instance, which in the nineteenth century provided a fertile breeding ground for painters and such movements as Impressionism.
In my gut, I cannot trust that autodidactism will necessarily equate to artistic improvements.
In a day where it is touted that just about anybody can learn anything online, the temptation to think that reading a glut of literature and articles, or that a general autodidacticism will lead to improvements in one’s craft, is just somehow not authentic. Let us face it, we are not William Faulkner — nor should we aim to be in our unique writer’s journey. In my gut, I cannot trust that autodidactism will necessarily equate to artistic improvements. No artform, even however solitary as writing, exists in a vacuum. Even the un- or non-schooled writer will get criticism from his editor. Again, in my gut, I cannot trust that autodidacticism will necessarily yield sufficient or expedient self-criticism necessary to make progress in my work — at least not at the beginning of my career. MFAs offers the opportunity to truly master one’s craft and shed years away of aimlessness. I believe they have the potential to pierce the comfortable veil of self-deception that often lulls us — lest we give up on a project if we truly (and soberly) knew how really lousy it is.
Make no mistake, getting an MFA is no more necessary than memorizing or reading Shakespeare. Rather, it can offer essential direction towards professionalism — not to mention yield meaningful fellowship with other serious-minded writers. All things being equal, we have addressed the possible repercussions, financial and otherwise, that need to be addressed when one considers pursuing an MFA. In light of these considerations, we have shed light on the facts that yes, pursuing an MFA need not be as plagued with impediments as we or others make it out to be. For so long as we are not crushed by mountains of debt, and can pursue whatever is True, Good, or Beautiful — I say, long live the MFA!
Now, tread wisely pursuing the weighty matter of your writer’s soul.
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Note: This article is also published non-pseudonymously here via LinkedIn.
“Digest of Education Statistics, 2007.” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department of Education, nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d07/tables/dt07_323.asp.
Lam, Bourree. “M.F.A.s: An Increasingly Popular, Increasingly Bad Financial Decision.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 19 Dec. 2014, www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/12/mfas-an-increasingly-popular-increasingly-bad-financial-decision/383706/.
Stein, Jean. “William Faulkner, The Art of Fiction №12.” The Paris Review, 31 Oct. 2017, www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4954/william-faulkner-the-art-of-fiction-no-12-william-faulkner.
The MFA Years offers a fantastic list of fully-funded programs across the country, including links and deadlines.
EdSmart’s list is not as extensive as the one above, but still worth checking out.
The Center for Fiction is a worthwhile resource for writers who are not just merely looking at grad school choices.
Poets & Writers provides an extensive database of programs including low-residency and fully-funded programs around the country that you will definitely want to bookmark.