Five Reasons Not to Get an MFA - Reason #2

2. Reason #2 not to get an MFA: Perspective

I don’t know about you, but I would never tell a friend that I thought her work was crap. Writing is personal and it hurts to hear that. There are enough people in all stages of the writing process that will tell you that your work is crap, your friends are supposed to bolster your confidence. But how many times have you torn apart a book or movie written by someone you didn’t know? It’s easier to be brutally honest with strangers.

Graduate school starts out as a meeting of a group of strangers, but eventually you develop relationships with these people. If you really like someone in the class, you might find yourself wanting to like their writing. Conversely if someone rubs you the wrong way, you might decide that their writing sucks. Granted this can happen in a one-day workshop too, but the nature of school - the cohabitation, the wine and cheese parties, the late night procrastination - leads to an intimacy, both positive and negative, that can be difficult to set aside during a critique. You also might not want to reveal your messiest, darkest or most experimental writing to people you have to see every week for two years.

Additionally, grad school students are a type. They’re responsible (at least responsible enough to submit the application), academically-minded (they’re signing up for more school) and somewhat accomplished (they must have already produced impressive writing samples or they wouldn’t have gotten in). In other words, any old bum off the street can’t get an MFA.

But therein lies the problem. In continuing education classes where all you have to do is pay the fee, any old bum off the street can participate. And that true diversity enables you to glean how the broader reading public will respond to your work. I’ve taken classes with lawyers, housewives, recovering junkies and fine artists. People that would never apply for a Creative Writing MFA, but rather just wanted to write. Sometimes it is their opinions that are the most helpful and their voices that are the most real. And when it comes down to it, students in MFA programs are no more qualified to write or critique a novel than they are.

Instead of going to grad school, I took my writing as far as I could on my own and signed up for a week- or weekend-long class when I got stuck or when I couldn’t improve upon what I had written anymore. I went to workshops in different cities, taught by an array of teachers. I learned something different about my work, and about writing itself, from each one. I loved the anonymity of workshops that lasted only a few days. I loved that the people in them knew nothing about me and had to simply examine my writing for what it was.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about my third reason for not getting an MFA: Cost.


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Comment by Michelle Haimoff on March 2, 2012 at 11:13am

Great info Penny, and thanks Tina! 

Comment by Penny J. Leisch on March 1, 2012 at 5:35pm

There are also a number of workshops taught by well credentialed writers that are not expensive, if that's the type of instruction you seek. In addition, there are universities offering free courses, albeit without the advantage of the interaction. For people who learn easily on their own and who want to move at their own pace, these are valuable options without the sacrifices of time and money that a degree entails.

Comment by Tina Barbour on March 1, 2012 at 1:39pm

Great post! When I was working on my MA in English, I took some writing classes with students in the MFA program. (This was a lonnnnnng time ago!) I found that many of the students were just trying to be different from everyone else, and create "high art." It didn't seem to be enough to tell a good story or to engage the reader. The reader had no place in the room. I don't know if that makes any sense. But you are right--you don't have to have an MFA to write a good book or to critique someone else's.  

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

Thanks Lauren! 

Comment by Michelle Haimoff on February 29, 2012 at 11:24am

Victoria, I love the follow through! Keep it up! I've definitely had the same workshop experiences - I brought something in I thought everyone would love and they hated it, I brought something in I thought everyone would hate and they loved it. In the Reading Group Guide of my book I talk about setting the story six months after September 11th because of all the positive feedback I had gotten about my descriptions of New York City at that time from my workshop group. I'm now very glad I took their advice. Jennifer, I LOVED that spoof from the Oscars. They totally nailed the problem with trying to accomodate the mass market.

Comment by Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons on February 29, 2012 at 9:03am

funny about the committee deal. My favorite part of the Oscars this year was when they did a spoof on focus groups. Christopher Guest and his repertory of actors did it where they saw The Wizard of Oz where feedback was wanted on the movie. Some people didn't like the song, or the fact that it went from black and white to color. "Why did they hire those children for the movie? Aren't there people in breadlines they could've hired?" And they had a problem with Dorothy as well. It was just so funny.

Comment by Victoria Brown on February 29, 2012 at 8:21am

Workshops can be brutal, especially when you've brought in a story you thought was polished. No great art was ever created by a committee (think Damien Hirst dots). Too many conflicting voices can ruin a piece for a writer who's unsure of her own voice or who tries to address every criticism from classmates. But, I've read some stories made truly better after being workshopped. I've also had to put away one of what I thought was one of my strongest pieces I rewrote after a crit.

Told you I was going to follow you through! 

Comment by Michelle Haimoff on February 28, 2012 at 6:14pm

Jennifer, I discuss this in later posts, but I think you need to get your work as polished as possible before doing a workshop (and I generally do only week-long or weekend ones) so that you still have control of your manuscript afterwards. Those critiques can be harsh. Barbara, if it wasn't for run-on sentences there would be no Kerouac. Judging by your life experience, you have some incredible stories to tell... 

Comment by Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons on February 28, 2012 at 2:31pm

I agree with the workshops comment. Sometimes it's just too many people weighing in on something, or they take some thing incredibly trivial and rip it apart. It's incredibly exhausting at times.

Comment by Barbara Amaya on February 28, 2012 at 2:05pm

I guess I'm in the recovering junkie category you experienced in your classes. The first night I went to a meeting of my writers group I later went home and googled run on sentence and for a short while all of my sentences were short and choppy. I took critiques literally and thought everyone knew more than I did because they were better educated. There came a point in my writing when I realized I could trust that what I wrote was true to my experience. And that my voice was all my own. Educated to the hilt or not my writing is unique and all my own. I look forward to reading your next post, I have often pondered this subject. I left school in the 7th grade because I left home at the age of 12.


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