Should You Attend an MFA Program in Creative Writing?

You have always wanted to become a writer and have considered getting a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in creative writing but aren’t sure if you want to invest the time and money.The question: Should I apply for a Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing?The answer: It depends.Instead of leaving it there, let’s examine this in detail and see if we can work through a process for making a good decision about whether or not an MFA program is right for you.Creative writing (both fiction and creative non-fiction) is something that many of us want to do well, and if we can get paid for it, so much the better. While an MFA in creative writing is not required for success as a writer, focused study of the art and craft of writing will help most people. Of course, as I write this, there is a minority of writers – some with MFAs – who will say that an MFA program will hurt certain writers and detrimentally alter their specific style or creative uniqueness. While that may be true in a few cases, as a rule, most of us would benefit from focused training and awareness of writing that will come as part of an MFA program. An MFA program is a big investment in time (2-5 years depending on full or part-time attendance, and whether it is a traditional or low-residence program), and in money (from $15,000 – $35,000 for most programs).In order to figure out if an MFA program is right for you, you have to seriously consider what your ultimate goal as a writer is. For example, an MFA in creative writing will benefit almost any writer in five ways:1. It will make you feel like a writer and identify yourself as a writer. (This may actually be the most important thing an MFA program can do for a writer.)2. You will have time to write, and you will in fact have external and internal deadlines imposed on you – you will have to produce material.3. You will learn to give and receive well thought out criticism of a piece of poetry, fiction or creative non-fiction (depending on your program orientation).4. Your writing will improve – if you work at it – because you will focus on improving your skill as a writer and will receive continuous, close feedback on how you are crafting specific work.5. You will likely make some contacts through the program that may help you in submitting polished work, and, if this is your objective, finding employment in teaching or publishing.Thus, most MFA programs will improve your writing and will give you a “terminal degree” that will allow you to either teach creative writing or work in publishing. A terminal degree means that the MFA is the accepted top-degree in the field of “creative writing”, and is the degree you need to teach at the college and university level. While there are a number of programs offering Ph.Ds in creative writing, the MFA is the mainstay and you don’t need a doctorate to teach or find employment.All of the above are good things, and I would not want to talk anyone out of going down the MFA route if that is what they want, but if your goal in not academia or publishing work, then an MFA may not be the right route for you. There are as many (or more) successful writers without MFAs as there are with MFAs. Now, let’s examine some other routes to improving your writing that do not result in MFA degrees.First, you have to examine critically, and as objectively as possible, where your specific level of writing is at, and what your weaknesses are. This critical self-assessment will allow you to work to find training and mentorship outside of an MFA program to improve your skills. Options to improve your writing are many, but a few are:- Reading books on craft.- Attending short workshops and classes (either online or in person).- Attending a course in writing (this can be at a local college, community center, or a writing center.)- Finding a mentor who is a more experienced writer or an editor.- Joining or forming a critique group (this can be online or in person).- Write a lot and try and improve with each piece you write.Let’s face it, MFA programs are expensive and they take time. But for some, they offer the structure and the time needed to improve your writing and reach your goals. However, if you have a modicum of self-discipline and the internal fortitude to critically assess your weaknesses, you can design a program of seminars, conferences, and classes to make similar improvements that you would in an MFA program.Graduation from an MFA program does not guarantee success, but no creative endeavors does. An MFA program (and I caveat this with saying, a “good MFA program”) will offer a pre-travelled path to improve your writing and gain the confidence and contacts to get you started as a writer. That said, in the end, you still have to sit down and write. An MFA program won’t do this for you. You have to get your butt in the chair and put words down on paper or up on your computer screen.In the end, the decision on attending an MFA program or working on your own to improve your writing is a very individual one. Every writers situation will be different. However, with some focused thought and self-analysis, you can make the decision that is right for you.