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Do You Really NEED an MFA in Creative Wrtiting?

June 5, 2015       Cutting Edge
Do You Really Need an MFA in Creative Writing?
An MFA (Arts Degree) for Business
Creativity Skills is a No-Brainer. 
But for Getting Good at FICTION? 

Pedro Ribeiro Simões
on Flickr:                Writing 
Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

Plenty of successful writers do not have advanced degrees. And plenty of MFA grads never publish a book.

An MFA is now considered the BOMB for creative education.  The equivalent of an MBA in the book of some smart employers who expect to get more creative, adaptive and smarter people to join their workforce.  One MFA that many good people look at is the Masters in Creative Writing.  Storytelling has been proven via research and successful businesses to be the backbone of almost every activity that runs in the corporate world--from explosive start-ups to big business: marketing and advertising rely heavily on storytelling now than just a hardsell pitch, product design now involves knowing the end user's story experience as a measure of usability and desirability.  Work productivity design is enhanced and improved by storytelling skills training.  Even hard data number crunching is best seen through the lens of storytelling.

BUT, if you are gunning for an MFA to become a more successful FICTION writer, there are some reminders that you should consider because the environment of an MFA degree may or may not be your best option for becoming a published and successful fiction writer.


Writer Workshops

MFAs in Creative Writing are focused around writing workshops around a community of seasoned writers, most of whom are weaned on an academically preferred manner of assessing literary worthiness.  Workshops are always productive for writers of any skill level because of the immediate feedback from equally experienced peers in the community.  You'll be motivated to write better stories in an advanced workshop environment.  The question is: do you need a community of peers to sound you off to write better?


You get to read plenty of books and writing in the short time that you are enrolled in an MFA. You learn to read for technique, paying close attention to literary elements such as character arc, subtext, voice.  You become both a better reader AND a smarter writer as you learn the nuances of the craft from a literary and academic perspective.  If you are a genre writer and experience this side of the craft, your writing is changed for the better.  Reading is the first skill that you must master to become a good writer.  Not just reading what you like.

Space and Time to Write

When enrolled in an MFA program, you get all the time to knock yourself out writing, even given assignment deadlines.  In studio creative writing programs, you practice your craft in a workshop environment and get peer assessment as well as advanced writing advice from the professor or handler of the program.  If you are harping about not having any time to write, entering an MFA program may give you exactly that space and time you need to sit down and do your stuff.

Literary Writing

Literary writing is the focus of MOST academic MFA creative writing programs.  Literary writing is very attuned to the nuances of language to convey an intellectual and emotional response from the reader.  The craft of literary writing teaches you the hows of telling a story.  If you are the kind of writer who prefers story telling as your forte like say genre or pulp writers, literary writing in an academic workshop environment might not be your preferred course.  Genre writers are also attuned to the nuances of language to convery story as an end in itself.  But a literary writing course tends to see stories as a mirror of everything else and workshops will reflect this when your professor asks the class:  What does the story mean?  There are writing programs out there like CLARION that offer genre writers an environment that enhances both literary and story telling aspect of your skill set.  Standard academic MFA creative writing programs mostly focus on introspective writing--a story as a reflection of life.  

In the academe, literary fiction is the gold standard and commercial fiction like say a WATTPAD romace is considered the sludge pile.  The academe regards the serious writer as a literary writer, with craft skills to boot and a story that offers insights into life which they coin as POETICS (your inspiration and method). The learning experience of an academic degree in creative writing allows the writer a better handle on his skill than just social media rankings as a gauge for success or craftsmanship.

Better at Craft?

An academic setting revolving around peer workshops, teaches you skills that you need as a writer: editing better, revising and improving a first draft, and you learn more about your craft as you learn more about language.  You get time to yourself exclusively for honing your skills.  But if you expect to come out of an MFA program as a better writer-storyteller with your own unique writing voice, you might reconsider putting time into the course.  MFAs do not GUARANTEE that you come out a better skilled writer.  You learn more about craft, true. 

But you have to put the time in yourself writing and writing and writing to GET GOOD. Many successful fiction writers have never enrolled in an MFA.  Some incredibly gifted writers like China Mieville have an MA and a doctorate but NOT in creative writing, although China teaches a writing course in Warrick University as well as short courses sponsored by the British Council in India and elsewhere.

Teaching Career

Graduating with an MFA degree will allow you to teach at a university or in any writing program.  Or move on to a doctorate (Ph.D.).  If you are gunning for a career in the academe, an MFA opens the door to you.  Writing professions that are not as commercially lucrative such as poetry have a place in an academic setting.  Plenty of young kids since the late 90s are looking at writing as a career and creative writing degree programs have had explosive demand in enrollment in all schools.  The coming ASEAN integration will heighten the demand for region based creative writers who can use more than one language.  A career in teaching creative writing is now one cool and highly respected profession among teaching professionals.  Anyone who can inspire kids to hone their craft and become successful writers will have a good tenure in any university setting, here in our country or working overseas.

The Minus

Get Better Your Own Way?

By Kartikay Sahay via Flickr Creative Commons

Writer workshops are NOT an exclusive learning experience found only in university.  On writing communities online, there are plenty of writer workshops offered by peers.  You do not need to enroll if you aren't looking to teach in the academe, or want to learn the intricacies of language to convey story or mirror insights about life.  Successful publishers sometimes offer public writing workshops as a means for finding talent for their books like Precious Hearts Romance, and you might want to sign up for these instead of enrolling in an MFA.  Who knows, your kind of writing might already be 'with it' for the kind of publication you wish to be published.

Bad Influence on Your Writing?

MFA programs may be a worse learning experience if you are the kind of writer whom isn't attuned to: What does the story mean?

Genre writers often are focused on storytelling as their craft rather than insights and allegories.  If you are a romance writer, a mystery writer or a science fiction or horror writer, an MFA might be not be the focus of your craft because your writing is based on building suspense or world-building rather than an exacting word choice for a resonant and insightful reading of a story.  Choose an MFA program suited to your goals. Who are the writers teaching the course?  Some writer workshops might work better than an MFA.

CLARION Science Fiction workshops have a rotating handpicked staff every year which often includes very successful and established genre writers like George R.R. Martin and Neil Gaiman.  If you enroll in a writing program with a teacher you find boring or old school, the learning experience might be way below your expectations.  An MFA program will not make you a bad writer.  You will learn something new but it might not be what your need for the kind of writing work you want.  Better learn and work with a mentor from an area of writing you are interested in.

Is the Cost Worth It?

Getting Masters credits at a university will cost you a tidy sum. In the Philippines, this may range from P2500 per unit or more as of this writing.  In western schools, the cost runs from $7000-$15,000 a semester (or more depending on the school). An overseas degree, if you are from the Philippines will cost anywhere from $30,000-$100,000. Look at the cost before you enroll.  Is it worth it for you to invest that much for both the time, the lessons to be learned, and is the payoff from getting an MFA what you expect it to be?  Thailand and Singaporean creative writing classes are also gaining popularity in the region as well as English language Hong-Kong satellites of western universities.

An MFA Does not Make a Book Deal nor a Sure Job

If you are gunning for a book deal or looking to get published armed with an MFA, you might want to rethink your strategy.  Times spent writing might give you a better shot.  An MFA does not guarantee a teaching job, but it offer you the possibility of a teaching career if you are accepted by a school. Although MFAs are hot right now as prospective employers look favorably at creative people with an MFA degree, there is no guarantee you'll get hired.  You need to pass skill qualifications screening and interviews and writing exams and more.  You go through the same recruitment process as everyone else.  Don't quit your day job just for an MFA if you think it will be your lifesaver.

Do You Want it Bad Enough?

Not diving into an MFA is also a preference because you can get good on your own and get published just by sitting down and doing the work like rockstar novelist Neil Gaiman advises.  Join a writers group among social media groups. Meet regularly to share your work.  Even WATTPAD, the social media story sharing app provides the best access to fellow readers and writers for sharing stories, as well as a preview to publishers looking for the next BIG THING among unpublished authors.  If you don't get any work done, there will be nothing to publish.  Make good art like Neil says.  Many writers are successful even without a creative writing degree as WATTPAD authors who've been signed to local book deals can attest.  There are self-publishing routes too for the bolder fiction writer, your resources might be well spent publishing your work instead of paying for an MFA and expecting a book deal. 

Is an MFA worth the cost and trouble?  Do you really get anything out of it?  If you feel the MFA degree is exactly what you need, go for it. It might be the best decision you've made for a writing or teaching career.  Don't let caveats bear down on you.  You'd rather commit and learn from the experience than regret in hindsight when you don't have the time and resources anymore to grab an MFA.  For all the good that it is worth.   Writers armed with a creative writing degree can get good work opportunities.  

In the end, an MFA in Creative Writing may still be the best time and money spent for any investment that helps you get better at craft and giving you teaching qualifications at the same time.


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