You Don’t Need an MFA to Be a Writer

image of a typewriter

image credit: College of New Rochelle

I’ve been reading a number of articles and blog posts recently about whether writers should get an MFA. Sarah Werner even covered it on the latest episode of the Write Now podcast. Must be back-to-school fever.

I’m in the camp that believes the only education you need to be a writer is a degree from “The School of Life”.

Irony alert: I have an (undergraduate) degree in English with a concentration in Creative Writing.

Before we go any further, let me say I’m a proponent of education, both formal and self-driven. I believe a high school diploma and undergraduate courses in English can provide a strong foundation and wider exposure to both classic and modern literature. I’m extremely grateful for the wonderful teachers and professors I had throughout my education who gave me feedback, tough critiques, and encouragement.

With that said, do y’all REALLY need a Masters in this? Probably not.

Here’s a few reasons why –

  • Cost: MFA’s can be expensive. Like, up to $100,000. That’s a lot of debt for no guarantee of a successful career in a brutally competitive field. For that kind of money you’d be better off buying a laptop and a nice van to live out of while you travel the country as a starving artist. Being miserably indebted makes life tough, and a tougher life often leads to less writing time as you try to pay your bills.

 

  • Voice: There is no factual evidence that MFA programs nurture authors to cultivate a unique voice. In fact, there has been a lot of criticism lately that they’ve begun to actually homogenize writers. Don’t take my word for it. Go read this great (but oh so lengthy) article by The Atlantic. They’re one of the hoity-est of hoity toity liberal magazines, so I trust them to criticize Masters programs.

 

  • Burn Out: I read somewhere that there’s “no one more bitter than a grad school drop-out.” Intensive writing and workshops can be great, but you run the risk of burning yourself out. Even in low-residency programs. Plus, if you’re the type of person who doesn’t handle rejection well, I’d have to guess it stings more to receive rejection letters if they pile up next to a $75,000 piece of paper that claims it made you great.

 

  • The Unwashed Low-Brow Masses of The American Readership: Let me take a moment to pick on the country I love so dearly. Americans don’t read much anymore. Google it. There are numerous studies citing how few books we are reading these days, and when we do, it’s NOT literary fiction. Balk all you want, but MFA holders often hold certain views and a level of pretension. They also die a little inside every time something like Fifty Shades of Grey lights up the best seller charts. It’s why forum threads discussing “literature versus genre fiction” are always such nasty things. TL;DR – Writing literary fiction is a tough road to an audience.

Before you think I’m just slamming MFA’s because I’m poor or bad at standardized tests, let me say I think there IS a reason to get one. If you intend to have a career in academia and teach others how to write, read critically, and critique then you should absolutely have a Masters degree (MFA, or MA). From there, by all means write as many dissertations and chapbooks as you please.

However, if you’re like most “aspiring authors” or even published authors that I’ve met in my travels, you probably write some type of genre fiction or you’re writing “Lit Fic” with the intention of selling it to a mass market. In either case, I don’t think you should ever be concerned or discouraged if you don’t have an MFA, because you don’t need one to accomplish those goals.

You just need paper, ink, and a whole lot of time and determination.

 

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “You Don’t Need an MFA to Be a Writer

  1. Rebecca Moon Ruark says:

    As someone with an MFA, I felt a little guilty “liking” this post. You make some great points though. Having gone through a program, my main recommendation for those interested: see if you can get a teaching assistantship or work on the program’s journal, for instance, so that the program pays you; that way, you’re also getting “real-world” training. For me, I needed the large block of time entirely devoted to writing. I admit I also needed to have my hand held, guiding me through the craft of fiction-writing. Some people can read and read and learn all they need to from great literature; I’m not that writer–but I do think there are many like that out there!

    Liked by 1 person

    • B.L. Daniels says:

      Thanks so much for commenting Rebecca.

      I had a discussion with an author friend last night about this very subject, and he mentioned “a lot of people get paid to earn an MFA.” Not much, but at least a stipend through assistantship programs. It’s such a fascinating topic for me, because from that Atlantic article you can see how these programs proliferated from the 1970’s to today. I was extremely lucky to study under the authors/professors that I did, but it seems like today’s modern publishing landscape (especially with the rise of Amazon and self-publishing) is sort of putting “literature in a corner”. I feel like an unfortunate defensive response to that is sometimes programs defend themselves as training the future gatekeepers of the art form.

      Any debate aside, they are a great way to encourage intensive study and critique, and I wish I had the means to devote that kind of dedicated time to my writing. I followed your blog. The posts (and photography in them) are great!

      Like

  2. tokyocowboy says:

    I agree with this. Although it would clearly help with publishers and the like, it seems counter-intuitive as a person paying so much into their career will have higher expectations.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s