A Big Question for aspiring writers: to get an MFA in Creative Writing or not? A few thoughts:

19Oct09

COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY LIBRARY

My students always want to know if it is worth it to spend all that money to get an MFA. Here are some thoughts which I share with them: When I was at Columbia University’s MFA Program in Fiction, the novelist Russell Banks spoke with our class and said that the MFA could be likened to an old-fashioned apprenticeship, one in which for two years the beginning writer is allowed to work at and develop her craft alongside others doing the same thing–like young sculptors in Bernini’s studio in 17th century Rome. It’s also a chance, Banks said, to buy yourself some time.

I have always loved this way of thinking about the MFA. You’re there to develop and grow your own talents, unimpeded by work and life, to explore your craft. This puts the onus on the writer, where it should be, not the program. Of course, the program you choose is important, but it will not make the writer. A writer writes and this is how the writer gets better. The MFA affords you that time while also surrounding you with other aspiring writers in the same position, colleagues you can share your work and concerns with.

Additionally, you study with writers who are devoting their lives to their work and through them you can be opened up to what inspired them and in turn be inspired yourself.  And know, you do not need to go into debt to get your MFA. There are many programs around the country that have full or partial scholarships, that offer teaching fellowships. It takes some research and of course a stunning application.

The most important thing to consider is if you’re ready. Are you ready to devote yourself to your work? Is this what you really want? Don’t believe the program will turn you into a writer. That is done by you and you alone. I loved Columbia, but there are any number of fine schools. Here are just a few:

Coumbia University’s MFA in Creative Writing

The Writer’s Workshop at The University of Iowa
(My husband, Mark Svenvold, went here for poetry and loved it, was a Teaching Writing Fellow.)

New York University’s MFA Program

Johns Hopkins MFA in Fiction and Poetry

Stanford University’s Stegner Fellowship
(Very difficult to be accepted, perhaps the most competitive and is not an MFA but if you get it, you don’t need an MFA!)

The New School’s MFA Program

The MFA Program at the University of Miami, Coral Gables
(I believe that if you’re accepted, you get a full scholarship.)

This is just the tip of the iceberg. A comprehensive list of MFA programs can be found at Poets and Writers.

Please don’t hesitate to ask me questions. I think about this subject all the time for my Hofstra students. By the way, as soon as Hofstra establishes its MFA program, of course I’d list it here.

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2 Responses to “A Big Question for aspiring writers: to get an MFA in Creative Writing or not? A few thoughts:”

  1. I’ve often wondered about this myself. I can count the number of my fellow writers who are pursuing (or have earned) their MFA on one hand, yet the number of people who self-associate with the term “writer” in my social circle is easily in the high double digits.

    I personally didn’t walk that route, choosing instead to join the Army and then spend a few years in bars chalking up life fodder while filing steno pads and binders.

    I guess my question is, in your opinion, does the MFA help all writers or does it’s usefulness break along the same lines more closely tuned to learning styles?

    • 2 marthamcphee

      Thanks for writing. You make good points. I definitely believe that you don’t need an MFA to be a writer. “Life fodder” is essential no matter what you choose –MFA or not. And if one does choose the MFA route, it’s best to go a little later, just for that reason–not right out of college. But I do believe MFA programs are wonderful for those writers who figure out how to afford them–in one way or another–and if they’re ready to fill the time with the hard work of writing.


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