When to Get Your MFA. Or Not.

995 miles from Iowa to New York doesn't really describe the distance.

This came in via email last night from a reader, and I was actually writing a post to address this.

Q: I am debating applying to MFA programs but am not sure how worthwhile they are.  What made you decide to get your MFA?  I’ve heard some complain that MFA’s didn’t improve their writing while other writers said they wanted the degree purely so they could teach.  The programs are expensive and time-consuming, and I’m not even sure I want to teach, yet I would like to improve my writing and build a network.  Would I be able to do this on my own by taking workshops in the city and reading more?

A: I think a good place to begin is with this quote from The Morning News, in a discussion between Robert Birnbaum and Tobias Wolff. This is Tobias Wolff speaking here:

Sometimes someone will ask me, “Should I go to a writing program?” And I invariably tell them that they should not go into a writing program until they have gone out and worked for at least two years, and probably three or four would be better, and keep writing as they’re working. If they can do that, and their writing is getting better, then they should consider going to a writing program because it could be helpful.

In college, I had two writing teachers with opposing views of the MFA: Annie Dillard urged me to go right away, and Kit Reed said don’t go, in fact never go, get a job, preferably a magazine job, and just write.

I tried Kit’s advice first, which appealed to the loner contrarian I was back then. And so in the time between when I graduated college and when I applied, I moved to San Francisco, took a job in a bookstore and got a cheap apartment with two friends. I found an internship at Out/Look, the journal of LGBT studies and culture, and helped organize Out/Write, the first national LGBT writers conference in San Francisco. I published my first short story, “Memorials”, in the prize anthology for the Holt, Rinehart & Winston student literature prize and it was nearly included in a textbook–the textbook editor signed the story up and then cut it for space at the last minute. The editor of Out/Look gave me a chance to write a cover-story for the magazine after the writer dropped out–she knew I knew about the topic, the activist group Queer Nation–and I ran with the opportunity. That led to my first free-lance writing work. And at every chance I got, I went to cafes with my friend Choire to write. A travel article I published in Outweek brought me to the attention of David Groff, an editor then at Crown, who invited me to have lunch with him in New York to see if I had a novel.

My point in telling you all of this is that while I was not in an MFA program, I found and entered a community of writers, I tried to publish, I took work that put me in touch with working writers and had career opportunities, such as that lunch at Crown, that many young writers today believe only come from being in a MFA program for those now-mythical ‘connections’.

After two years, I moved to New York, taking another cheap apartment with another friend, and continuing my work as a bookseller, which, in New York, was terrifying–as in the pay, which meant questions like “Do I take the subway to work or do I save the money for a bagel for lunch?” My boyfriend of the time, also a writer, was very seriously sending away for MFA brochures. I was skeptical of the idea but thinking about it–I increasingly resented the time I spent at my day job.

I sat down and set parameters:

  1. I wasn’t going to take out loans to do this. A writer’s life with high overhead of any kind is a curse, and New York was like that already. So I established the goal of getting a fellowship.
  2. Failing getting a fellowship, I was resolved either to wait and apply again, or to go to state schools, with low tuition costs.
  3. Going through the boyfriend’s brochures, I looked to see which schools had graduated the most professors–the credentials of the faculty, in other words. At the time, I noted three rose to the top: University of Iowa, University of MA, Amherst, and University of AZ, Tucson.

I decided to test the waters and apply just to those three schools. In October, I wrote to Annie Dillard and Kit Reed for letters of recommendation. This elicited a postcard from Annie: “Of course you’ll get in and I’m thrilled you’re applying, but am concerned you’re applying to just three schools! Apply to at least 9, which most do.”

My boyfriend was applying to 9 schools. This struck me as too much work, as I was unsure of the reputations of the other schools back then (I know considerably more now). I don’t recommend this small a sample, but in any case, by March, the happy result was that I was accepted at two of the three schools, Amherst and Iowa, with fellowship offers. Arizona turned me down. This was crushing to me, because I’d made it my first choice, despite the desire to study with Marilynne Robinson at Iowa.

Worse, in what seemed like an act of fate, my boyfriend of the time was accepted at Arizona and U Mass but rejected at Iowa.

By then, I was also an assistant editor at a little start-up magazine called OUT Magazine. The University of Massachusetts Amherst had offered me a tuition waiver plus a fellowship, and John Edgar Wideman had blown my mind by writing me a note, saying he liked my work. The boyfriend and I rented a car, drove up to Amherst and had lunch with Mr. Wideman, where we learned a hiring freeze due to the bad economy was going to mean faculty shortages within the program [again, note—all of this information dates from over a decade ago—U Mass has since recovered]. Connie Brothers, the assistant director of the University of Iowa’s program, then called me at work, offering double what U Mass had offered. My whole office freaked out, as did I. And then Connie said something I still think about.

“Before you say yes,” she said, “do you like your job?”

“I do,” I said.

“Well, think about it before you say yes, because we’re just going to have to get you another one once you get out of here.”

[This is one of two parts. For part two, click here. For more of my posts on the MFA in writing, check out the MFA FAQs and 4 Things You Didn’t Know About the MFA in Writing. ]



    1. Thanks. I should add, the way I did this was a less than ideal way to do this! But the real advice comes in part 2. I did want people to see, though, that you could succeed with a flawed process.

      1. Well, I think it’s always interesting to see how writers arrive at where they are now, and how they take different pathways to get there. The MFA path is especially interesting to me — I agonized for about a year before I decided to apply for one, and I’m not always sure I did it the “right” way either. I’ve actually been thinking about this stuff a lot all day because I’ve been writing a personal statement trying to justify my graduate studies for a fellowship application. So it’s nice to hear your own background. I’ll be interested to see your advice too. Although if you tell me I shouldn’t have put myself into debt for this, I’m going to ignore it because it’s already too late! Haha.

  1. Thank you for answering my question! Like Karissa, I am intrigued and look forward to the 2nd half!

    For me, it has been a few years since undergrad and since then I have worked, traveled, taken workshops, and completed some short stories (unfortunately, none of which have been published). However, I sometimes struggle with finding other writers willing to critique my work and think the quality of my workshops may not be anywhere near the quality of some MFA programs. While I strongly feel that one of the fundamentals of writing is to simply do it, and keep doing it, I do think the guidance and feedback of experienced authors could significantly improve my work.

    However, this leads me to another question, but I think I will wait to ask you until after I read the rest of your answer!

  2. Ok, you didn’t warn me that this was one in a two part series 🙂

    Now I’ve simply got to know the rest of the story.

    Off to do turkey stuff I guess… bah turkeydom.

  3. Food for thought, thank you Alexander! Something that may be answered in part two, but I’ve always been curious about MFA’s and genre’s-being that my own writing goes from what I guess would be called surrrealism/magic realism to outright fantasy (whole new world built) and are MFA’s favorable to that style of writing? I had a good reception from a New School open house, and recently heard about Stonecoast’s Popular Fiction program. And of course there’s the Clarion workshops.

  4. Did you find it useful to have a self-imposed requirement of receiving a fellowship? I have a similar condition for myself, but I can’t decide whether it’s smart or unrealistic.

    1. I did, actually. It made everything much simpler. I don’t think it’s unrealistic. I do think it made me work very hard, and be very careful with all of my materials, and that this helped me.

  5. I think that the advice to work for a few years is the best. I had a career (public health) and a partner with tenure at MU, so I just applied to the two MFA programs within driving distance (Wash U and Iowa), so I could totally relate to you on that score. I ended up at Iowa and was thrilled, grateful, delighted and all the rest to have an opportunity to write a lot and faculty and classmates who took me seriously as a writer. It totally elevated my game. However, if I had teaching creative writing as a goal, I think I might choose a PhD program with a creative writing emphasis instead.

  6. This is a really smart (preliminary) meditation on writing programs as choices for beginning writers.

    Much good can happen through the encounter between hopeful young writers and their mentor/teachers.

    Having founded and run the Adelphi MFA program for five years, I have seen two kinds of students thrive in our program.

    1) those who need a situation that will make their life clear and comfortable (x courses, y workshops, tuition remission, scholarships, teaching gigs, resume workshops etc.) and 2) those who are willing to take all sorts of wild but exciting chances and therefore learn by experience and from mentors.

    Very different temperaments (the world of writing contains very different teachers and students) will reveal different genius. The most important thing is to dedicate yourself to doing the work. And to finding the people who understand just how complex, formal, and multi-variable creative writing is. May many Annie Dillards bloom… Every pot on its own bottom, as poet Bill Matthews use to say.

  7. I really enjoyed your 3-part post here. Let’s hope visual artists out there stumble on this post, too, before they venture into MFA-land! …

    I’m a former Iowa undergrad (Iowa native) now in NY–I hope you loved IC as much as I did! And congrats on teaching next year at the workshop–how exciting! Tell me, do the writers still all congregate at the Foxhead?

    I look forward to popping onto your blog in the future! Take care!

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