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.