I feel like whenever I log on to the internet these days, or pick up a writing magazine, all I see are people complaining about MFA programs and how they are worthless and a complete waste of money when you can learn everything you do in one, not only for free, but in the comfort of your own home by yourself. Naturally, I have a lot of feelings about this, and as someone who has graduated from one (Seton Hill University’s MFA Program forWriting Popular Fiction), worked as an assistant to another (Carlow University’sMFA Program for Creative Writing), and is currently teaching in yet another one (Western Connecticut State University’s MFA Program for Professional andCreative Writing), I think I’m entitled to my opinion here…just as all of you are entitled to yours.
There’s no denying that if you want to be a writer that you (1) have to write and (2) have to read. And yes! You can do that in the comfort of your own home. I myself read about 100 books a year and write at least four times a week (if not every day), and hell, I’ve been doing all of that to some extent since I was eight years old. Do I have to pay a shit ton of money to do any of that? No, but I guess that also depends on your book buying habits and how close you are to a library.
Now what I didn’t have access to was countless resources and mentors and critique partners and networking. Sure, some of you may be blessed and be way more intelligent and extroverted than I was/am, but when I graduated from undergrad, I had no idea half of this industry existed—and I’m talking about the conferences that I attend each year, the organizations that I have memberships with, the computer software that I use, some of my favorite authors, etc. I virtually knew nothing other than I liked horror, read a fair amount of it, and published with a ton of magazines that didn’t pay me and thought that giving me exposure was good enough.
News flash—it’s not.
Get paid for your work.
So yeah, I needed guidance and I needed an MFA program to show me the ropes of publishing and introduce me to a world that I eventually became savvy in, but more than that, I wanted the attention and the hand-holding and the community because I didn’t have the confidence to write a manuscript by myself. I wanted someone standing over me with a red pen smacking me when I did stupid shit, critiquing me when I made the same tedious mistakes, and I wanted to be in an environment of other like-minded people who had the same goals as me and wanted to learn about the industry.
If I didn’t go to Seton Hill, I wouldn’t know how to evaluate a contract. I wouldn’t know how to seed out shady people who make promises to me about my writing and don’t deliver. I wouldn’t know how to find an agent, properly use a comma, write a query letter, pitch my novel, build a website, create an author platform, teach a workshop, or have met half the people I know, love, and work with now.
And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of what Seton Hill did for me, but regardless, wanting and learning all of that doesn’t make me pretentious. It also doesn’t make me a stupid. I got my MFA because I wanted to make myself a better writer and that was the best way for me to do it. My career goals and aspirations were worth the loans to me if I was going to be taught how to hold my own in this field, and I also wanted a terminal degree that would allow me follow my dream of becoming a professor, and you know what, all of those things happened…and more.
Seton Hill changed my life.
- Will I be in debt forever? No (laughs painfully), but yeah it will take a while to pay off.
- Was it worth it? I would sell my soul to the Devil himself to do it all over again. Shit, if they started a PhD program or fronted another certificate tomorrow, I’d be there waiting in Maura first thing in the morning.
The fact of the matter is, everyone learns differently. What worked for me may not be your cup of tea and that’s fine, but it doesn’t mean my way is wrong, just like it doesn’t mean your way is right. Maybe you can do it on your own, and if so, I tip my hat to you, but I couldn’t, and I shouldn’t get ridiculed or attacked for paying for my education. I spent 2.5 years writing, studying, working three jobs, and not sleeping for me to take that lightly or not personally. So no, you don’t need an MFA to be a writer. What you do is need is the passion, drive, and commitment to learn and do whatever it takes to make you the best writer (and forever reader) you can be, and yeah, for some people, that means going to an MFA program to hone their art.
The point is that the degree itself doesn’t matter unless you’re trying to get a job as a professor. What does matter is if you learned how to write in the program and if you did something with the tools that you were given. If you did, then your money was well spent and to some respect, you can’t put a price on that.