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  • [Reality Check] - Life After the MFA: Fantasy or Reality?
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[Reality Check] - Life After the MFA: Fantasy or Reality?
Written by
Zetta Brown
June 2014
Written by
Zetta Brown
June 2014

I earned my undergraduate degree in English with a specialization in creative writing. During that time, I met several other students studying for their MFAs in creative writing. One of these students became a good friend and she now teaches and edits on a freelance basis.

Over the years I've wondered if I should go back to school for an MFA. People often refer to Stephen King's book On Writing and some say his writing improved after earning his degree, but his critics will obviously disagree.

I think of my friend and remember how stressed she would get about all the things she needed to read and all the pages she needed to write. To make a long story short, we both graduated in the end.

But do I really want to go back for an MFA?

Helen W. Mallon offers her perspective on the pros and cons of entering an MFA program. Some of you may have done this, have done this, or are thinking about doing it. Regardless, read her post and you might learn something.

Enjoy! :)


Life After the MFA: Fantasy or Reality?
By Helen W. Mallon

When I arrived at the first residency of my first semester in the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Vermont College, I was at once cocky and scared to death. Privately, I thought that a lucrative contract with a New York publisher would follow, once the 3 magic letters were attached to my name.

When I graduated two years later, I wasn’t thinking about publication. I had too much work to do on the novel that I’d begun prior to starting the program. At graduation, which was wonderfully ritual-packed and a little wacky, I felt inspired, thrilled with all I’d gained, and a lot more humble. I liked the fact that in my workshops, no one was “special,” least of all, me. I did meet my much-revised goal: I’d determined that my final thesis would be a completed novel draft, and it was, in a manner of speaking. But it wasn’t coherent or publishable.

Drawback: I had arrived with about 150 pages of disconnected scenes involving a Philadelphia Quaker family’s glorious dysfunction, and I made huge progress in two years. But I hadn’t realized that none of my advisors would actually have time to read the whole thing. It was up to me to apply what I’d learned to larger structural issues. It was like trying to repair the skeletal structure of an ocean liner that’s already fifty miles offshore.

That’s just me. Some of my classmates had agents lined up by graduation.

Asset: While my first fiction mentor had tried to warn me against an MFA, saying it would kill my writing voice, the tools I gained only strengthened what was there.

Drawback: You have to trust your own voice. A program can help, but confidence can’t be faked.

Asset: An MFA is a fast-track way to learn: 1. what plot is; 2. how point of view works (my first advisor, Nance Van Winkle, informed me, kindly, that I had randomly thrown down most of the available point of view options in my first few scenes, none of it successfully); 3. that “a novel is an engine of desire” whereby character and plot work out their hand-in-glove relationship (the quote is from Douglas Glover, who was never my advisor, but he was nice enough to meet with me); 4. that one can read intelligently, with an apprentice’s hungry eye on how the masters have created their engines; 5. that you can stand in front of a crowd and read your work without passing out (I had a travel cup full of Mike’s Hard Lemonade on the podium at my graduating reading); 6. that the creative process itself resides “in hesitation, in moments of uncertainty”—Keats’s “Negative Capability.” (David Jauss, himself a brilliant writer and teacher, who was my mentor for an entire year.) 

In other words, an MFA program can give a writer everything she needs to know.

Drawback: It costs a lot.

Asset: It isn’t necessary. Now, as a writing coach and leader of creative writing workshops, I’ve watched students figuring out all of the above. Some of what they’ve learned came from me, sure, but in theory, whatever you need to write well can be learned by diligent reading and study.

Asset: In a program, you are accountable. It’s hard NOT to learn, and I didn’t know a single student who missed deadlines. Well, maybe one or two…but taking a semester off is a viable option.

Drawback: If you rely on the program to keep you going as a writer, you won’t be writing a year or two after you finish.

Drawback: Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, is going to be more likely to publish your work if you have “MFA” after your name. If you appear to emphasize possession of the degree as proof of your talent, it will be taken as A Bad Sign.

Asset: In some programs, you’ll encounter people who may help you make contacts that may help you become published. Maybe.

Asset: If you want to teach, an MFA gives you cred. It’s a terminal degree, so college teaching is an option as long as you don’t mind an adjunct’s way of life and paycheck.

Asset/Drawback: There are zillions of MFA programs now extant. There are even more zillions of people with MFAs who are just as hungry to publish as you are.

Asset? Drawback? Publishing has changed radically in the years since my graduation. The “authorpreneur” mentality may have entered into the pedagogy of writing programs since then, and I hope it has. A killer talent who is unable to market himself will have a hard time getting noticed in today’s market.

Asset: This is a big one. When I hit the ground running at Vermont College, I felt as though I’d discovered my home planet after a lifetime of exile. Crazy? We walked around muttering to ourselves! We didn’t compete against one another; we believed in one another. I count former classmates now among my dearest friends.

Drawback: Generally speaking, the MFA culture is white-dominated. Minority students may not find the same warm inclusion that I did.

Warning labels aside, as an experience I highly recommend an MFA program. Vermont College made me tougher, smarter, more capable as a writer and all-around human. Do your homework regarding the available options, count your pennies, and if you can’t make it happen, don’t worry.  It all comes down to hard work anyway.

Helen W. Mallon draws on her Philadelphia Quaker background to explore the tension between tradition and change. Her short stories explore a compassionate response to the pain and grace of the human journey.

 As a writing coach, Helen combines Buddhist principles of mindful listening with technical guidance as she guides clients to do their best work. She works with private clients in person or online, and she conducts workshops in Northwest Philadelphia.

Her book reviews appear regularly in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Fiction Writers Review. Her essays, poems, and short stories have appeared in the Inquirer, Philadelphia Stories Magazine, Apiary Online, Mars Hill Review, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and more.

Website/Blog: http://helenwmallon.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HelenWMallonAuthor?fref=tsp

The Beautiful Name, Helen’s chapbook of stories, is coming out soon from Books to Go Now: http://bit.ly/StoriesHWM

or Amazon: http://bit.ly/HWMAmazon


Got a [REALITY CHECK] about the publishing life to share? If you would like to be a guest on my blog, please friend me on She Writes with a message! :)

©2014. Zetta Brown is an editor and the author of several published short stories and the erotic romance novel Messalina: Devourer of Men. If you like this post, then stop by Zetta’s Desk or Zetta’s House of Random Thoughts.

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  • Kathleen Kaska

    I know many authors who are in, or were in, MFA programs. I admire their drive. Like all methods of learning, there are pros and cons to each one. Thanks for clearly spelling out the prizes and pitfalls. Hang in there!

  • Helen W. Mallon

    Arlo, I agree that MFA students are subsidizing their teachers...all students do.  I'm glad you brought up the point about reading critically--that's an overlooked benefit of a program. thanks for your comments.

  • Arlo Hennings

    I find Suzanne Linn Kamata post hard to believe - 4 novels and over 100 published essays? She should have her own school. I got my MFA in the year 2000. Yes, by current MFA models that makes me a literary dinosaur. We didn't have internet, and all classes happened in a real time classroom. Can U imagine that? I can confirm that touting an MFA degree will probably not get you a cup of coffee. And there was the peculiar question that none of teachers had an MFA! At times, I felt like I was subsidizing the writing careers of the MFA faculty. What the MFA can do if you see a value in it is teach you how to read critically. Does music school make you a musician? Does writing school make you a writer? You'll figure it out.

  • Helen W. Mallon

    Thank you , Lynne.  I appreciate your encouragement very much!  Suzanne and Kaye, it is true--the focus on the quality of the work is paramount, and rubbing shoulders with writers whose voices are very different--it's all gold.  

  • Zetta Brown

    @Lynne Morgan Spreen - Please feel free to tweet and retweet this post. Anyone can read the blog post, but in order to leave a comment, they must join She Writes. That's just the way things are set up, I'm afraid. It makes it possible for those who really want to interact and be a part of She Writes without being overrun by spammers.

  • I was pleasantly surprised to see a balanced answer on this question. It's really informative. I wanted to share it on Twitter, and on a page I manage on Facebook, but if they aren't members of SheWrites, will they be able to access it? Thanks.

  • I'm in the middle of an MFA through the University of British Columbia in Vancouver right now. I've published three novels, a short story collection and over a hundred essays, articles and stories in publications such as Real Simple, Brain, Child, and the Japan Times, so one might think that I don't need an MFA to publish. What I have found, however, is that being in a workshop with writers whose work is wildly different from my own, and from what I would normally read, challenges my critical capabilities and will, I think, make me a better teacher.

  • Kaye Linden

    My MFA is from Whidbey Island Writers. (NILA)  My teachers were writers and awakened epiphanies about my strengths and weaknesses, about the realities of writing as a career and the competition and pressure.  I learned how to say more with fewer words.  Would I do it again? Yes.  I would need to double my acid reflux medication to take care of the "burn."  I'm just wishing someone might offer a PH.D in creative writing.  Online of course.  The traveling from Florida to northwest Washington state sucked up money and energy.  If you can afford it, do it.  Choose wisely.  Kaye Linden  author of short stories and fantasy novels

  • Helen W. Mallon

    Thanks, Catherine! Glad to hear your MFA program introduced you to such an important publishing contact.

  • Catherine Stine

    Getting an MFA was good for me. It helped my confidence level, helped me network, meet peers who I still spend time with, and taught me some skills. Plus, I met my first editor from one of the forums, who published me. Still, everyone has to decide for themselves if it's worth the $ and time. You can definitely meet important contacts and be published without that degree.