The Value of an MFA

I recently read, as perhaps many of you did as well, the article called, “How Has the MFA Changed the Contemporary Novel?”, which appeared in the March 6 edition of The Atlantic. The authors say right up front, “We wrote a program to analyze hundreds of works by authors with and without creative writing degrees. The results were disappointing.”

Richard Jean So and Andrew Piper, both language and literature professors, knowledgable in the use of computation to test various cultural assumptions, decided “to examine to what extent writing from MFA graduates differs from writing by non-graduates.” They collected a sample of two hundred novels written by grads of MFA programs published over the last fifteen years. They also collected a similar sample of novels by authors without an MFA degree (for this group they only used novels that had been reviewed by the NYT). Again, to quote the writers of the piece, “Using a variety of tools from the field of computational text analysis, we studied how similar authors were across a range of literary aspects, including diction, style, theme, setting, and even how writers use characters.”

Click on the link and read the article in its entirety for a fuller understanding of the piece. To be clear, I don’t think it was their intention to say that an MFA degree does not give value; rather that the writing of those who are coming out of these programs is not appreciably different from those without an MFA.

I began writing after a career both in librarianship and teaching and wasn’t interested in another graduate degree, since I already had an MA in English and an MLS. Instead, I joined writing organizations; initially, SCBWI and Pikes Peak Writers. I attended their conferences and learned from some of the most talented writers, editors, and agents. In addition, through Pikes Peak Writers, I was able to enter writing contests, winning first place twice and second once. I joined a wonderful critique group (after trying a few others out—it takes time to find the right one), and learned how to write a decent query letter. After three “practice” novels, I landed an agent and got my first contract, for Kissing Shakespeare, a YA time travel romance.

This is all to say, I consider my hard work during those years as my MFA.

My writing interests have evolved–I’m now writing for the adult market—and so have the organizations I belong to. When thinking about an MFA, I wonder if my path to publication might have been shorter if I’d gotten that degree. Or if I would have been exposed to more learned people who could have set me on the right path sooner. Maybe.

But I think you can improve your craft, master the self-discipline it takes to complete a novel, learn to accept—and give—constructive criticism, and, when you’re ready, present yourself and your work to the world without the MFA degree.

What do you think?



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