What makes a writer?
My one and only foray into the Great MFA Debate.
Welcome to So Relatable, a bi-weekly newsletter featuring conversations about the creative process, suggestions for nourishing yourself, and inspiring links!
It often feels like the MFA in creative writing is the most debated degree in existence. Does an MFA make you a “real writer?” Do MFA programs create a hidden network of insiders who reap fame and fortune while the degree-less toil in obscurity? Is the hegemony of an MFA aesthetic ruining American literature? Is the whole enterprise nothing more than an elaborate pyramid scheme? (Hm, now that you mention it…)
A few weeks ago, the MFA debate reared its head yet again, mostly due to a poorly written screed by someone who really hates MFAs.
I have an MFA, which I earned after graduating from the University of North Carolina Wilmington in 2014. It was by no means a perfect experience. I’m still paying off debt from those three years, I still haven’t published a novel, and I now work in the marketing department of a fintech company. These days my MFA rarely comes up in conversation except as a fun bit of trivia, akin to that time I played roller derby in Texas or the fact that I keep eight pet chickens.
So was my MFA worth it? For me, and the very specific reasons I wanted this particular degree: yes, absolutely. Here’s why:
The timing was right. I was 29 years old when I started my MFA program, which made me one of the older people in my cohort (lol). At the time I didn’t particularly like my job, my partner and I wanted to move back to the east coast after seven years in Texas, and turning my life upside down seemed like a fun adventure. In other words: I had very little to lose by spending three years writing, reading, and teaching. A position of privilege, for sure, but I took advantage of it.
I wanted to become a better writer faster. Anyone who spends time working on their craft will improve over time; the more time you spend, the faster you’ll improve. Before and after the MFA, I was and am lucky to steal an hour a day for my art, and for that I’m grateful. But during the MFA? I had three whole years in which my only duty, my only goal, was to get better. I will always be learning and improving and growing as a writer, but those three years absolutely accelerated my progress.
I received a teaching assistantship. MFAs can be very expensive, and if you think of it in terms of ROI, you might become depressed very quickly. One of the reasons I chose UNCW was because they offered me an assistantship, which amounted to $15,000 a year to teach one or two classes a semester in addition to my own coursework. They also waived my out-of-state tuition for the first year, and I “only” had to pay in-state tuition for the last two years. I still had to take out some loans, but I turned down a number of programs with a much higher price tag, so it could have been a lot worse.
I didn’t expect to become a professor. Many folks are drawn to the MFA because tenure-track teaching positions in creative writing programs require a terminal degree. What these people don’t realize is that tenure-track jobs are more or less impossible to get; the likelier scenario is that you will be an overworked and underpaid adjunct professor with no benefits, no stability, and no institutional support. Instead of trying to be a great teacher, I focused on my writing. Instead of trying to find a teaching or publishing job, I went into marketing and embraced a corporate career. Don’t knock it ‘til you try it!
I have a big ego. A large part of the MFA experience is listening as your peers discuss your work, sometimes brutally. As a result, there’s been some debate about whether the workshop model is the best way to become a better writer. Because I was a bit older, and because I have a high opinion of myself (sorry, it’s true), I was able to tune out the folks who were “not my audience” and listen to the few who were invested in what I was trying to do. If you have clear goals, a strong sense of what you want out of your MFA experience, and the wherewithal to focus on those things and ignore a lot of nonsense, you’ll have an easier time in any program.
I longed for a writing community. I made very good friends during my MFA. In the years since graduating, some of those friends no longer write, or at least writing isn’t as important to them now as it was then. (Understandable!) But a few are still the first people I go to with a new draft, a half-formed idea, or a spicy literary opinion. For example: one of my best MFA friends also stayed in Wilmington, and I just spent a weekend in her mountain cabin with the rest of our book club. I recently read another friend’s novel draft and sent her a five-page letter of feedback. Another friend makes sure to text me every time there’s literary drama on the internet. It’s nice to have friends who will read my work and send me book recommendations and ask how the writing is going, knowing what a loaded question that can be. Writing is integral to how I view myself and experience the world, and friends who see and understand that part of me is a gift.
I didn’t need an MFA degree. No one needs an MFA, not in the Year of our Lord 2021, when you can find or build so many of the things the MFA offers. You can attend literary readings, start a writing group, follow your favorites on Twitter, subscribe to (or write!) a lit-focused newsletter (Craft Talk and Counter Craft are two favorites), read as many books as possible, fiercely protect your writing time, and fall in love with your process. The MFA can be a shortcut to those things, but it is by no means the only path.
The MFA is two to three years long; writing is a lifetime pursuit. I’ve written more, learned more, and grown more in the seven years since I graduated than I did while in school. An MFA is nice to have, but it doesn’t make you a writer.
That, my friend, is up to you.
Snack of the Week
As an enthusiastic snacker, Thanksgiving is my absolute favorite holiday. This year was extra wonderful, because we hosted a great group of friends, ate an incredible amount of good food, and played six games over the course of the day (crowd favorites included Code Names and Monikers). The most photogenic highlight of the meal were the pumpkin garlic knots, as usual. This year I added a sprig of fresh rosemary from my garden and used portrait mode to get the perfect shot before consuming roughly seven knots in one sitting. What a day!
Perhaps the World Ends Here, Joy Harjo. I meant to read this poem at our Thanksgiving feast, but—along with the buttermilk biscuits—forgot. The next best thing is sharing it with you. 🍽
Books We Love, NPR. Previously known as the Book Concierge, this annual, interactive, year-end reading guide can help you find the perfect recommendation to suit any passing whim. I started clicking through covers and my library hold list immediately got ten books longer. 📚
The Art of Botox, New York Times*. “Wrinkles on women are not only stigmatized because they make them seem old, but because they make them look angry, sad, surprised, distressed—they make them look alive.” 👸
One of my favorite newsletters is Girls Night In, which is especially good this time of year, when it’s cold and dark and I don’t want to go out even more than usual. Great product recommendations, smart reads, and creative ways to connect and stay cozy. Subscribe here. 🍵
More newsletter love! Abigail from This Needs Hot Sauce always puts together the best Holiday Gift Guide. I was eagerly waiting for this year’s installment and it did not disappoint! 🌶
* NYT gift link—no subscription needed, and clicking won’t count toward your free articles!
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