This has to pop up on the writing boards once a month.
“I’m applying to M.F.A. programs!”
“Should I get a B.A. in Creative Writing?”
“Do writing classes help you become a successful writer?
“Will my college professor be excited to read my 400,000 word space opera that used to be Dr. Who slash fic?”
The truth is, people have some strong opinions about academia and creative writing. Very strong. Like, think of the strongest coffee you ever drank now leave it in the coffee pot all day and add a few tablespoons of instant coffee, let it simmer for another few hours then make it into a coffee reduction sauce. Wait for it to get nice and thick. Now drink it. Or put it on your pancakes.
Anyway, strong opinions.
I have an MFA, so I’ll do my best to answer some of these questions. Just please remember that you’re going to get some responses all over the place, ranging from, “Cool, go for it,” to “Don’t bother. Why do you need an MFA?”
Here’s my experience.
I worked freelance as a writer for years and realized I had no craft, just raw intuition that wasn’t evolving. I got my B.A. in literature/creative writing, then moved right into an M.F.A. (fiction). Here’s the thing, the academic route worked for me. I thrived under those conditions. Others will not. Others will get all of that information without paying for a degree. Others will be amazingly successful without stepping into a college. Ever. Forever-ever. The big question is: which one are you? If you’re certain that the M.F.A. is your way, then read on…..
Most traditional programs are not genre-friendly. If it’s on the top 50 list on Poets&Writers, it’s probably a traditional program that hates genre with the intensity of a thousand suns. It burns us, precious. BURRNNNSSSSSS. What does this mean for you? Well, I chose to step away from genre to learn craft at the literary (raw) level. No bells and whistles, no genre conventions. It worked for me. It was the best gift I ever gave myself as a writer. But that’s my way. We’re back to the, “What is YOUR way?” thing again.
If lit-fic’s not what you’re looking for, then you’ll probably need something like a low-res program. There are some great ones out there that focus on genre and commercial fiction.
Here’s the difference in my mind:
1. Traditional programs will have funding opportunities. (Not ALL, but most). That means you’ll become a GTA, teach comp. and lit courses to freshmen who haven’t read a book in their life and who don’t know where “those thingies around dialogue” go. You’ll teach 2-3 courses a semester. You’ll get your tuition covered. You’ll probably get health insurance too. And you’ll get a monthly stipend. (Mine was $1800/month). It means you’re more strapped for time. Yes, your writing does suffer, and you might not have much of a social life. But you won’t be 100k in debt by the end of it all. I also had a LOT of internship opportunities (non-paid), but I worked for a lit-mag, did some typesetting, taught at a jail, and so forth. Looks great on the resume.
2. Low-Res programs probably have no funding opportunities. You pay for it out of pocket or you get a loan. You don’t have to teach so you can focus on writing and school work. You come out with a nice, hefty loan that will take you 20 years to pay off, but hey, people do it. AND, from what I’ve seen of low-res programs, many of them focus on the business side of things. They WANT you to get published. They help you meet agents and publishers. The more successful you are, the better the school looks.
One question to ask yourself might be: What do I want to do with my MFA? If you say, “I want to learn about creative writing,” then honestly? You can learn all of that by reading threads on net-forums such as Absolute Write. I’m not exaggerating. Some online forums rock and you get to know other people who rock and the epic awesomeness makes you cry inside because it’s just THAT GOOD. There is a downside, though. Wherever you find the “perfect forum,” you will usually stumble upon its opposite: suck-board, hate-board, critique-make-you-cry-or-pee-your-pants board. Be careful. Some writers are dicks and when they fail, they want you to fail, too.
Having said all of the above, I (personally) needed academic structure to grow as fast/much as I did. Reading books and emulating helped, but I needed better one-on-one instruction. Just something to think about.
If you want to teach creative writing, then the best suggestion I can offer is to finish a book BEFORE YOU go into the program, turn that in (piece by piece) to workshop, and get it query-ready over the course of the M.F.A.. Why? Because it doesn’t matter how much teaching experience you have. It doesn’t matter if you have a Ph.D. in “Creative Writing.” What matters the most is that you are PUBLISHED. Not self-published, not vanity published, not published through Donny down the street who makes guerilla book orders. By a publishing house. One that has books in Barnes and Noble. And, it probably can’t be genre, though I’d love to hear a success story from someone who got a full-time (creative writing) teaching position after having published a werewolf series.
If you don’t have a publication before you start applying to teach creative writing, chances are, you’ll be teaching adjunct at a university or community college. Once in a while, you might get a lit course or a creative writing course, but for the most part, you’ll be teaching English Comp.. And probably dying a little bit inside an hour at a time. Don’t get me wrong, comp. professors are badass, but a creative writing instructor trying to find fulfillment and meaningful andragogy teaching composition is like telling a tiger to go forth and be a vegetarian. We’re just not built that way;..
There are other jobs out there for M.F.A.-holders. Pals of mine are working at creative firms, magazines, publishing houses. But, they all had internships as editors and typesetters at the traditional universities.
Here’s another big question: Does a degree add value? As in make you more publishable? Or look good on a query? The answer is a big, fat, hairy NO to both.
Having a B.A. in English and an M.F.A. here (fiction) I know that it made me a better writer, but that was my own personal experience. Others will have different experiences. The question is, can you learn the material on your own and through reading fiction/craft books/threads on a cool-ass writing forum and writing your bum off? Or, do you think you’ll do better with the academic structure/rigor?
You may not know the answer right now. But don’t let one or two bad experiences in the classroom jade you forever. I see this a lot on writing forums. “I had a shitty creative writing teacher. They just didn’t GET ME. I hate schools and I AM NEVER COMING BACK!”
The first creative writing class I took was awful. The teacher was drunk half the time and seemed to be a failed writer who was taking his inadequacy out on the students. I dropped the course. If I had taken that one experience and said, “Wow, academics is not for me,” I wouldn’t have gotten all the amazing instruction that came after. I tried the class again with another instructor, loved it, and kept going from there.
I thrived in my program, even won a fellowship and averaged two publications per year (short stories). But in my heart I’ll always be a genre writer and I can take all of that knowledge and use it for the power of geekdom. I feel like it’s served me well.