I'm often asked, do you need an MFA to be a writer? Of course you don’t; to be a writer, you need to write. That’s misleadingly simple. I like to answer the question with a list (naturally) that also includes some questions to ponder and some unsolicited advice. So, here goes:
What to think about when you think about a graduate program in writing:
--I had some amazing teachers that saved me a lot of time by showing me a path through the thicket of writing. Not all of those teachers were in my MFA workshops, so there are excellent teachers everywhere. But, yes, teachers really can teach you quite a bit!
--While many graduate programs have “famous” writers you revere and admire on the faculty, being a “famous” writer doesn’t automatically make one a good teacher. So when you’re considering plunking down the $$ to go to a graduate program, do your homework and check out the faculty.
--Doing your homework means:
A) Reading the work by the core faculty. If everyone on the faculty is writing in a traditional style and your writing is more experimental, it probably isn’t a good match.
B) Speaking to students who are in the program or who recently graduated. This is how you can find out about the teaching. Facebook can be a good resource for finding students, or you can ask the program director for some students to chat with.
C) Show up, if you can. Go to a reading sponsored by the program and get a feel for the place: is the atmosphere friendly and welcoming? Do the faculty attend the reading? Are the questions in the Q&A lively? Or, if you’re at a conference, talk to the writers who teach and ask them about their schools.
--Don’t expect that you’ll automatically get a teaching job after you graduate. If you want to teach—and be sure that you really do want to; it’s not a requirement to being a writer, and may even be a detriment!—you will need a graduate degree. But, to teach creative writing, you will most likely also need a published book (or some amazing, New Yorker-like publications). The degree is no guarantee, and don’t make a mistake imagining that it is. (If you want to teach, try to get some experience while you’re in school. And expect that you’ll be teaching mostly comp while a TA and probably after you graduate and perhaps even for the rest of your life.)
--Think about money. Will attending graduate school put you in debt for the rest of your life? Are you okay with that? There's value to the idea of devoting time/energy/resources to learning to be a better writer--good teachers can help you leapfrog ahead of yourself in terms of writing progress. Will knowing that you’re spending all this money (and time and making the other sacrifices needed) make you take your writing more seriously? There is always going to be a higher standard for critique and study in a graduate program—not to mention the more rigorous reading requirements. Do you want/need someone else to impose those standards upon you; at what price?
--Perhaps the greatest benefit of a graduate writing program is the community, during and after. Maybe you will meet people who will be friends for life, or who will read and comment on your work for life, or who will become high-powered editors/writers who can help you. Maybe. At the least, you’ll be surrounded by a group of people who care deeply about writing/literature and who want to follow the same path of artful pursuit you do.
--Probably this should be a whole separate discussion because I won’t do it justice here, but think about what you want to write. If all you want to write is science fiction (or romance) or some other genre, you WILL learn to be a better writer in a graduate writing program. But your path may be rougher and more challenging than if your interests were more literary. Again, do your homework: How does the program feel about less “literary” writing?
Unsolicited advice I have for all MFA students:
--Read the books your teachers have written. Ask your teachers questions about their work: how did you handle dialogue? Why did you decide to give the main character 6 brothers? Etc. Talk!
--Make the most of every opportunity. If your teacher offers individual meetings/office hours, go. If your teacher/peers hang out after class for booze or coffee, and it’s within your realm to attend, go. If your teachers/peers are reading their work, go. If the “famous” visiting writer needs a ride somewhere and you can offer one, go. In short, just go-go-GO!
--Write things down. If your teacher mentions a book/journal/article that was influential to him/her, write it down. Look it up. Think seriously about reading it, if not immediately, at some point. Teachers don’t say these things for no reason, you know!
--Be organized and timely. Get your work done. Try not to be a problem.
--Don’t suck up. Instead, be a nice, interested, interesting person, and you won’t need to suck up. Ask questions instead, and don’t talk only about yourself and your own projects. Be involved in the larger world.
--Be the person in your program who organizes, whether it’s a potluck or a new online literary journal or a fun night bowling. It takes effort to keep your community connected, so pull an oar.
--Thank your teachers at the end of the semester, even the teachers you didn’t like. You probably learned more from them than you think you did.
--Don’t race your way through the program. This is probably the only time in your life where you have all these smart people devoted to you and your writing…take your time and enjoy it.
What about the Low-Res MFA?
Unique advantages to the low-res:
--You don’t need to move and/or uproot your life to go to school.
--There’s a nice mix between workshop interaction and individual, devoted attention to your work.
--Speaking as a fiction teacher, I think it's easier to work on the novel form since you have one mentor for a solid chunk of time who can read a good amount of your work in a sustained way.
--The residency location can be a plus: i.e. if you like the mountains, choose a low-res program located in/near the mountains!
--The reading list can be self-directed so you're reading materials that resonate with you.
Disadvantages to the low-res:
--That word above, "self-directed": this type of program would be a disaster for a certain type of person, who's a totally disorganized procrastinator. In the low-res, you really have to make yourself do the work.
--Things are changing, but typically there are less fellowship and funding opportunities available at low-res programs, so the onus of finding a way to pay for the program comes from the student: savings, student loans
--There may be limited TA opportunities.
Disclosure: I teach at the Converse College Low-Residency MFA Program and at the more traditional Johns Hopkins Master of Arts in Writing Program.