As many people will tell you, you don’t need an MFA to be a good writer. Many writers, even since the MFA became ubiquitous, have proven that point (not to mention the greats that somehow managed it before MFAs existed). So why bother (or pay for) getting a degree?
The traditional wisdom used to be that since the MFA is a terminal degree, if you had one, it meant you could always teach at the college level. But that hasn’t been a given for quite awhile. For one reason, the reality always has been that to teach you needed an MFA and significant publications to be considered for a teaching gig. And AWP continues to maintain that significant publication ought to be considered the equivalent of an MFA (though I don’t know that I buy that argument entirely—there is something about learning about academic discourse and research that happens in an MFA or PhD program that you don’t get from writing on your own—but that’s a discussion for another time).
So if an MFA in writing isn’t necessary to be a writer and may not be a guarantee of becoming one (no MFA program I know of is brash enough to claim that it will be), what does a writer gain from entering a program besides 3 letters after her or his name? That’s a question that’s been on my mind a lot as I read applications from prospective students for our new low-residency MFA program: not only “what can they expect,” but also “what do we owe them.” I’ve seen some very good writing samples in recent weeks, some of which could be published as is. What might they gain from our program?
One way to think about the value of a creative writing degree is in terms of breadth. We all do some things well, but exposure to other writers, both the writers teaching in the program and the other student writers, can present you with new possibilities you might not have considered before. Responding to other writers whose style differs from yours can push you to think differently about your own writing, not necessarily to adopt the other writer’s style, but to try something in that direction.
And of course the readings in forms and literature classes can also expose writers to new possibilities that might extend the range of writing you do, whether that is new subject matter or a new genre — in our program we encourage students to work in more than one genre and students will be exposed to other genres in the mixed-genre residency workshops. So a students sense of the range of possibilities open to them ought to be broadened by the time they’re done.
Besides learning about more kinds of writing, an MFA program should help you become more intentional and thoughtful about the kind of writing you are most familiar with. Someone with good instincts still becomes a better writer the more he or she is conscious of the craft decisions to be made. Discussions in workshops and reading in forms classes should complicate and clarify our understanding of forms we work in. The goal is to dig deeper and get more out of the story or poem idea that might be ‘good enough’ to be published, but could be better or more rewarding (for the reader and for the writer). Ultimately, the experience of writing a thesis will present the student with the opportunity to explore a subject extensively, both in the creative writing portion and the research component. A thesis involves a defense, and the the creative thesis should still involve a reading list of other creative work in the same vein, as well as theory about the genre or genres represented in the thesis. Defending the thesis based on the tradition out of which it emerges requires a deep understanding.
Either of these qualities (breadth or depth) are ones you could learn on your own through extensive reading or by cultivating a writing community that challenges you to push further and explore more options. But it can be hard to find that community or to broaden your reading habits on your own. An academic program should have these features (extensive reading and a diverse community) built in.
Another thing that most MFA students hope to get out of their experience (and that therefore ought to be provided as much as possible) is an entry into the writing life: specifically, networking and advice on how to become published. Though no program should promise publication — much depends on the talent and drive of the writer, after all — any MFA should be conscientious about providing its students with the information and tools they need to be successful writers, and these tools include advice and information on the publishing industry. Recently the argument has been made that no one can know what will happen to publishing in the near future. Changes in the industry are happening at a rapid pace: the publishing houses that have been dominant may or may not survive and the way that they do business may change radically. Still that is no reason to throw up our hands and say we can’t prepare students for the future.
When I was in graduate school, I would have laughed if someone had told me I would someday be teaching online. In fact, at that point, the world wide web as we know it did not yet exist. AOL was starting, there was Gopher and ftp, but html was only beginning to catch on. And yet, the graduate education that I received allowed me to adapt to a changing instructional environment, and in a similar way, the skills that we teach our students now about the publishing world as we know it today, will help them navigate the publishing world of tomorrow. And as we bring in speakers to talk about the current state of publishing, or as we help students and former students begin to get their feet in those doors, we will also learn more about how things are changing. I may not be able to predict what the world will be like in five to ten years, but I can give students the skills and the confidence to be able to navigate those changes successfully.
Besides practical knowledge of the publishing world, though, students in an MFA program should gain practical knowledge of other writing-related careers, whether that is within publishing as publicists, agents, editors, etc. or in other fields such as technical writing, public relations, writing for the web, etc. These forms of writing shouldn’t be presented as a fall0back position in case you fail to ‘make it’ in the literary world, but rather as ways to combine literary writing with earning a living. We hope to accomplish this through internships, courses on new media, and seminars during full residencies that focus on publishing and other writing-related careers.
An MFA program, in other words, may not be able to guarantee a teaching career or a career as best-selling writer to all of its students (when was that ever the case?), but it should see one of its responsibilities to its students as giving them the knowledge and skills they will need to earn a living, as well as the knowledge of craft they will need to produce great literature. Too often these are presented as an either/or option, when in fact students and programs should demand both.