Five Reasons Not to Get an MFA - Reason #1

You’re ready to take your writing to the next level and you’re thinking about getting an MFA. Great! Whether or not you decide to apply, it’s a good sign that you’re open to the time, discipline and cost of committing yourself to your writing for the next two years. The question is, should you go the grad school route? As someone who did not get an MFA but has a novel coming out this week, I offer five reasons why I think you’re better off without one.  

1. Reason #1 not to get an MFA: Privacy

Virginia Woolf once famously said, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” If anything, this advice seems to encourage enrolling in a graduate school program, and a traditional one at that (not a low-residency alternative). In a physical room of her own a woman can bunker down and write in solitude, away from her friends, family and even spouse. But I interpret “a room of her own” a little differently. To me, the room is figurative. Even more than physical space, a woman needs privacy in order to write fiction. Mental privacy.

The problem with enrolling in an MFA program is that it’s a public statement about how you’re spending your time. It invites questions like: “What are you working on?” “What is it about?” and “How far along are you?” Grad school is basically your job and, if you’ve ever been in the outside world, you know that you are always expected to be able to talk about your job.

But those types of discussions can feel emotionally invasive. Even if you enjoy discussing your writing, you may not know exactly what your story is about yet or how far along in the process you are. Making statements about a creative project prematurely might limit the way you approach it. If you’ve repeatedly described what your book is about, it might be difficult to rework it or to scrap the whole thing entirely. You may feel a responsibility to deliver on a story you’ve implicitly promised instead of the story brewing in your mind.  

Also, you might psych yourself out. Talking about this big, impressive thing that you’re going to pull off can, ironically, shake your confidence. Personally I get superstitious about these things (I don’t like talking about anything until it’s done done), but there’s still good reason not to count your chickens before they’ve hatched. If the book doesn’t work out, the only person that needs to know that is you. You can take failure in stride, but trying and failing with an audience might be more difficult to recover from.

I’m not suggesting that you don’t tell anybody about your creative work, I just think that you should put yourself in a position where you can choose who to talk about it with. This project might not be what you want to discuss during the next holiday dinner. And the holiday dinner after that. And the holiday dinner after that. This project might be something that needs to stay in your head until it’s ready to come out. A private journey that even you don’t fully understand yet. A room of your own is great, but a private space without an address is even better.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about my second reason for not getting an MFA: Perspective.

My book THESE DAYS ARE OURS is available tomorrow! Tweet about it with me with #tdao or find me on Facebook. Do you live in NY or LA? Come to one of the book events

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Comment by Virginia Llorca on March 1, 2012 at 4:40pm

Gee, I wish I wasn't always in such a hurry, but I want to be sure that somewhere along the line here someone mentions that a good reason to not have an MFA is so you can't be the butt of all the jokes about having an MFA.  My former bff has a son with an MFA selling Real Estate and I make more money with my little Kindle Press deals. 

Comment by Michelle Haimoff on March 1, 2012 at 11:10am

Susan, except for the horrible agent thing, what a great experience! So impressive that you wrote TWO novels while you were there. I know that some MFAs try to help their students with the cost. It's definitely worth looking into while researching an MFA. 

Comment by Susan Helene Gottfried on March 1, 2012 at 5:13am

An MFA is a Master of Fine Arts degree. In this case, the degree is in the field of creative writing. And no, they really don't cost $50k unless you want them to. My program, one of the country's top three at the time (I haven't looked at the rankings lately), had one option: they covered your tuition and paid you a stipend  and you taught 3 classes per academic year (September to May, roughly speaking). There were other options for summer money. 

It was an invaluable experience. My program was what's known as a studio program, meaning I was required to take workshop each semester I was there and ONE class in techniques. Anything else we took was up to us, so we took a lot of independent studies and spent the time playing ice hockey. And writing. I wrote two complete novels, both of which I shopped and one which landed my first (ultimately horrible) agent, while I was there. 

Comment by maggie brooke on March 1, 2012 at 1:59am

scuse me ignorance, but - what's an mfa and do they really cost $50,000?

Comment by Michelle Haimoff on February 28, 2012 at 12:45pm

Thanks Trace!

Comment by Carrie Ann Lahain on February 28, 2012 at 12:17pm

Kerina, you've brought up a great point, this constant spewing of every detail of one's current activities. It's as if a person must take advantage of EVERY chance to put herself and her work out there or she will might miss a shot at her one big break through. But real life--especially for writers--isn't like that. If people really knew the work that goes into even a relatively short piece of writing...and it becomes a draining battle between creation and promotion. 

Comment by Michelle Haimoff on February 28, 2012 at 12:12pm

Kerina, I'm so with you. I need to ruminate on my writing, privately, sometimes for years, until I can figure it out. 

Comment by Kerina Pharr on February 28, 2012 at 12:08pm

This is really great, Michelle, and addresses some issues about privacy that I've struggled with when I'm working on my own writing. It feels like we're living in the age of over-exposure where everyone is rushing to talk about their work or life in every venue possible: blogs, facebook, twitter, reality television. I really think there is something to be said for meditating on your intentions and steep in your own creativity

Comment by Michelle Haimoff on February 28, 2012 at 12:02pm

Christina, you make a good point that the experience (classes/workshop) matter as much as, if not more than, the degree. Catherine, that's another MFA vs. no MFA consideration, in an MFA program you have to read a lot of other people's work too. 

Comment by Catherine Evans Latta on February 28, 2012 at 11:46am

In my night time cobbled up MFA, there was no degree involved, just two years of night classes with some amazing people, it was indeed the experience that mattered.  I was lucky to have a fantastic resource 15 minutes from my home.  


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