FAQ: Do I Need an MFA?
A question I see pop up a lot from aspiring writers has to do with creative writing MFA programs, and whether they’re a necessary or even recommended step toward getting published. Someone just asked me this question the other day, and after I rambled at the poor girl for a while I realized that it was a subject on which I have a lot to say.
The short answer? No. You don’t need an MFA to get published. Writers without MFAs get published all the time. I never did an MFA myself, and I guess now I’m soon-to-be-published (ulp). I did attend the six-week Odyssey workshop, which I think is kind of like a crash-course version of an MFA, but that’s another blog post.
That said, I don’t feel entirely comfortable with that short answer. I think it varies from person to person. Some people may really need that structure to narrow their focus on writing and really learn the technical skills to craft a good novel. For them, the answer would be a resounding yes: yes, you do need an MFA. For others instinct seems to suffice, drawn from the books they’ve read–and for them the answer is just as clearly no.
Like so many answers to publishing questions, it depends on the writer. There is no quick and dirty answer. It’s what works for you–it’s what YOU need to do for your own career. At which point, a chorus of aspiring writers wail, “Just give me the straight answer!”
I think the popularity of this question is linked with the popularity of questions like “How many words should my manuscript be?” and “How many months/years/decades should I spend on my first novel?” As writers we’re all so desperate to get our manuscripts in front of agents and editors that it’s so much easier to believe there’s a magic trick to it. Some secret combination of elements that separates the published from the unpublished–it’s easier to think that. And while I think the MFA question is perhaps deeper than those, I think for many it has its root in that same desire–to find the “secret” route to getting published.
If you’re thinking about getting an MFA because you think it’s going to open doors in the publishing industry and get you inside, then I would tell you no, you really don’t need to. But if you’re thinking about it because you want to learn more about writing, and you’re not getting what you feel you need from practice and studying books on your own, then I’d say yes, an MFA might be the right choice for you.
For me, the deciding factor was actually the experience I had in college with my creative writing department. I was criticized for writing fantasy and told I had to write contemporary/literary fiction in class. I did the best I could, writing contemporary stories with a dash of magical realism, and was still graded down. Not for my writing abilities, or my effort, or for improvement, or anything meaningful–just genre and subject matter. Because fantasy isn’t worth what literary fiction is worth, in the eyes of those teachers.
That’s not to say an MFA program would necessarily be like that, but it just turned me, personally, off of studying writing in a formal setting. In college I didn’t even major in creative writing. I ended up in the theater department writing plays, because they were basically like “You are delightfully weird! Come write whatever you like!”
And that, for me, was exactly what I wanted. It was right for me, at that time, in that place, just as not pursuing an MFA afterward was the right thing for me. I can’t say everyone should do what I did–it’s a decision writers have to make for themselves. Which is entirely unhelpful, I know. Sorry about that.
If I knew the secret, believe me, I’d tell you.