Do You Need an MFA to Be a Writer?

This morning WordPress showed me a link to this post: You Don’t Need an MFA to Be a Writer by Roxanna Coldiron. Though I direct a low-residency MFA program, I couldn’t agree more. I liked the post, but there was no way to comment, so I decided to write my response here.

In her post, Coldiron says she received an acceptance to an MFA program 3 years ago, but didn’t go because life and bills got in the way. She was proud of the acceptance, but couldn’t make the commitment at the time. She seems to want to do an MFA because she knows it could help her writing — she’s definitely right, there — but the cost in terms of time and tuition is more than she could handle. Her post was from 2019, so maybe her situation has changed, but I think it’s a place a lot of people are in right now, maybe always.

So my first response is to say she’s right. No one needs an MFA to be a writer, though as she recognizes, being in a writing community, having your work read by professors and peers who are serious about their writing, being exposed to writers you might never hear of if you weren’t in this community, and learning from the writing of your other MFA colleagues can be incredibly rewarding and can take your writing life to new levels. But it’s not a requirement, and everyone should weigh the costs against the benefits. When the time is right, an MFA might be the best choice for you.

There are also many other opportunities for writers that don’t grant a degree, so they don’t charge tuition, though some do have charges for room, board, and instruction. Some also offer financial aid. These opportunities might be prestigious summer workshops that can last a week or more, such as Breadloaf, Sewannee, or other writers’ conferences. Or they may be writer’s retreats or weekend workshops that may be less well-known but that still foster community. You can build a career and form networks through these experiences and never need the academic degree, especially if you don’t plan to teach. But they may not be as sustained or as sustaining as a 2-3 year MFA program, where you will form friendships to last a lifetime.

So my other response is to suggest the low-residency MFA route. Most of the issues that Roxanna Coldiron mentions as impediments to her degree could be overcome or at least made less challenging with the low-res experience. Will there be tuition? Of course, though in a program like ours, students are able to attend part-time and keep their cost of attendance low each semester. One 3-hour class is still about $1,300, so it isn’t free, but it can be manageable. Many of our students take 6 hours per semester and either pay out of pocket or take out enough in loans to handle tuition and books. Most are working full-time and take as many classes as they can afford or as they can juggle with work and other commitments. Going part-time might also help her deal with what she describes as only having “so much energy.” I suspect she has a lot of energy, given her blog and other writing projects, but as she says: “Life happens.” The low-residency MFA is designed to allow students to combine life and school without moving across the country.

Earning an MFA may be more possible than you realize, on other words. I don’t say this to shame anyone for not doing it — everyone needs to decide on the right time and whether an MFA even is the right thing for them to do, and I respect that. But if you’d like an MFA and are worried about how you can make it happen, then the low-residency option may be right for you. And if self-educating, doing your writing on your own, joining writers’ groups, and attending conferences, workshops, and residencies is a better choice for you, then I wish you all the best.

There is no one right path to being a writer. An MFA is not required, but as Coldwater says, it can be an excellent opportunity and a way to improve your writing much more (or much more quickly) than you could on your own.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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