QOTW Week: MFA Degrees

15 Apr

Hey all, just a quick reminder, we are still having a Comedy Contest, the deadline for which is May 1st. We’ve got a few entries already and they look pretty solid, so whip out your banana peels and make some funny!

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Right now we’re doing a Question of the Week Week to alleviate our backlog of Questions. Today’s question is from Anthony Panarelli

How important/beneficial is it to receive a higher education in writing, such as an M.A. or an M.F.A, or even PhD in say Creative Writing? Is it instrumental in your development or career? How many of you plan on pursuing a degree?

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It’s not required at all. I do know some agents that automatically give an MFA in writing a higher degree of attention, but in the end, the writing is all that matters. There are high school students who get published becuase they are just damn good writers.

Now, that’s not to say an MFA might be instrumental to YOU in making the a connection or improving your writing. But dont go spend a ton of time and money thinking you have to.

-The Literary Agent and Writer With a New Book Deal!

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I used to want to get an MFA in creative writing!  Then I learned that it only gives you a clear advantage if you want to teach.  Otherwise, you can learn most of what you need to be a writer by living life boldly, writing constantly, and reading widely.  Oh – and a good writing group definitely helps!  (That’s my opinion, of course, and I certainly don’t mean to diminish the value of anyone’s higher education!)

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Definitely not that important. I toyed around with the idea for a while during my senior of college, but after I visited a very prestigious MFA program and met with their director, I realized it was NOT for me, and that I didn’t need to get my MFA to get published (despite what they might tell you). It seemed to me that a lot of the people who were applying were doing it either to be able to teach, or that they needed someone to force them to write. That’s not to say that MFA programs aren’t useful–I think they can be immensely helpful for certain kinds of people, and are great for gaining connections. But that’s all stuff that you can do on your own, too–through becoming involved in great writing groups, and networking.

The Writer With Her First Book Deal

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It isn’t necessary at all! What really works is writing all the time, and being involved with a great writer’s group. I don’t think you need to spend all that money to improve your writing and get published. A lot of published authors don’t have degrees in creative writing! It is certainly useful, but I think it is more beneficial if you plan on teaching it. And a lot of what they teach you is readily available online and in books.

-The Intern Writing her First Book

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I’m not in a very good position to answer this question, but here’s how I made my decision to study what I will. A couple months ago I wanted to study Creative Writing in university, but I kept hearing things about how if you know how to write already and if you have the discipline, you don’t learn much. I’m also afraid of getting stuck in classes with people that are pretentious or look down upon the type of writing I do. If there’s anything I hate it’s snobs that read only classics so they can look smart (I know more than a few people determined enough to get through a book just so they can gloat about reading it.) Another thing I was afraid of is having the teachers or peers pressure me or try to conform me into a specific type of writing, and thereby take away my love for it. So I figured the next best thing would be history. I’ll be going to university next year for Medieval Studies and English (double major if all goes well).

My logic is that if I study history I’ll have a background not only in writing but in the world. The knowledge of how things were and how they came to be could help me immensely if I ever had to create alternate realities or (wouldn’t you know it) histories. I could use little-known events as inspiration. I chose Medieval Studies because it’s so mysterious; it’s the Dark Ages. There’s so much room for the imagination. And personally, I don’t think anything sounds more mystical than Medieval and Renaissance music.

So really, from my position, (being the final year of high school,) I’d just say pursue something you love. If you think Creative Writing would be beneficial, go for it. If you’re iffy or scared about the chances of making it, (admittedly another reason for history; I could always become a teacher,) then find a second love. You could enjoy it just as much, and then write novels based on that knowledge.

Do YOU plan on getting an MFA?

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You can ask us a Question of the Week by clicking on QOTW in the upper part of our website and leaving us a comment. We try to answer Questions in the order they are received, unless something is really pressing.

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27 Responses to “QOTW Week: MFA Degrees”

  1. Eskay April 15, 2010 at 3:17 AM #

    I am doing an MFA. I have already done another creative degree, and in my experience, the people who think they need help the least are the ones who need it most! Studying creative writing in an intense and directed way, and being able to devote that much of your time and energy to writing is a Godsend, especially at this age, and if you have the chance! I say, do it.

    • Julie Eshbaugh April 15, 2010 at 10:06 AM #

      Eskay, I agree with you that immersion in your art form is definitely a blessing. How could a person NOT gain from putting all that time and energy into writing and receiving educated feedback? I’m glad you’re getting a lot out of your MFA. 🙂

    • svonnah April 15, 2010 at 10:08 AM #

      I agree with Julie; it must be so wonderful to have the time/energy to do immersion like that. I’m jealous!

  2. Rowenna April 15, 2010 at 9:59 AM #

    Thanks for your insights–I think it differs so much for everyone. Eskay–it’s great to hear from someone pursuing an MFA, too. Great to get your perspective on how it’s benefitting you, and I hope you continue to enjoy it!
    As for me…I’m with you, Biljana–I studied history and French (mostly literature) because I loved it, and you know what? All that researching in history, analyzing literature in French, and writing papers in both helped my writing tremendously (I think, anyhow…I suppose it’s up for debate 🙂 ).

    • Julie Eshbaugh April 15, 2010 at 10:15 AM #

      Rowenna, you have a great point! Everything we learn can be used to make us better writers. Except maybe the calculus I took in high school… ugh! But for a certain writer out there, even calculus might be valuable to the writing process! (If you’re out there, calculus writer, please comment!)

      • Kat Zhang April 15, 2010 at 11:17 AM #

        I’ve taken Calc for 3 years now…does that count? Haha

        Let’s see… Well, at the very least, I’ve had very interesting teachers to do character studies on! Though I can really say that about tons of people I’ve met.

        Still, after all that calc, the thing that stick out most in my head is the joke:

        “Baby, I wish I was your derivative so I could lie tangent to your curve…”

        Haha, too math nerdy for a writing blog? ;P

      • Caitlin April 15, 2010 at 12:58 PM #

        I have a friend currently in her third year of aerospace engineering studies, but all she’d really like to do when she grows up write sci-fi (or open a bakery that ministers to inner-city kids, one of the two.)

        Anyway the point being that certain genres can really be helped by technical degrees, because those people read books too! Early Sci-fi was uber-technical in a lot of ways and science people get very touchy about accuracy and such. One of the reasons my AERO friends all love the How to Train Your Dragon movie is because they actually try to be somewhat accurate aerodynamics/ stability and controls wise.

    • Biljana April 15, 2010 at 11:52 PM #

      I’m so excited for history! I’m excited for all the language-learning! I feel like that’ll help a lot too!

      Lol right now lined up for languages I have Old English, Italian, Latin, and Medival Latin, and on top I speak French and Serbian. And English, hehe. Cannot wait to start using the knowledge I get from Latin in writing, though.

      I’m glad it’s working well for you. It gives me confidence :P.

  3. Meagan April 15, 2010 at 1:39 PM #

    I don’t think anyone can tell you whether or not you should go for an MFA, if you’re an aspiring writer. I’ve had people tell me that I HAVE to do it or I’ll fail, hands down. I’ve also had people tell me that I should never, ever even consider an MFA.

    The reasons I decided not to do it are similar to Sarah’s. We shared the same creative writing classes in college and had similar experiences. Partly helpful, in that they do force you to write, but largely frustrating because there’s a definite “down with spec fic” attitude among most other students and even many professors.

    The only reason that appealed to me was that a creative writing program would force me to write, which was something… but at the end of the day, if I can’t make myself write, with my own willpower, I’ll never be a full-time, self-supporting writer. You have to find that discipline yourself, no class can teach it. It took me almost three years after my college graduation to really find that discipline, but it’s totally -mine-, not from any class. And that, to me, is more valuable than any degree.

    But that’s just my view! I think it’s a choice every writer has to make themselves. And luckily, it’s not final. You can ALWAYS go back to school if you decide you want to, and if you start down the MFA path and decide it’s not for you, there’s nothing forcing you to continue with it.

    • Sarah J. Maas April 15, 2010 at 2:01 PM #

      Amen.

      Dude, I told you that story about what happened when it went to That Prestigious Program and met with their director, right? We sat down to talk, and she asked me what kind of writing I usually did, and when I said: “Oh, I write fantasy,” she literally CRINGED. I’m not exaggerating. She made this FACE. You have no idea how much self-restraint it took me to keep from going off on her. Of course, I’m sure not all MFA programs have a similar attitude, but I didn’t really want to read people’s short stories about single-parent alcoholics in small towns for the next 2 years. Way harsh, I know–but kinda true. 😛

      • Meagan April 15, 2010 at 2:30 PM #

        Sarah reminds me that I DID go to Odyssey, which is almost like a mini-MFA program for science fiction and fantasy writers. If anyone is looking to further their writing know-how (and know-how about the publishing world too!) then you can’t go wrong with the Odyssey Writing Workshop. I am firmly of the opinion that I learned more in six weeks there than I could have learned in six years on my own, and certainly more than I would’ve learned in a general creative writing MFA program. Clarion is also a great workshop, I just can’t speak personally about it.

  4. Anthony April 15, 2010 at 1:59 PM #

    Wow, there are a lot of perspectives here. I guess I’ll have to wait and see what’s going to work best for me. It seems as though I may be better off trying to establish that discipline as a writer. Perhaps I overestimate the prospect of a degree. Who knows what I’ll end up doing!

    Thanks for all the advice!

    • Julie Eshbaugh April 15, 2010 at 3:03 PM #

      Hi Anthony! I know that when I was first completing my BA, I wanted nothing more than to get an MFA. I think I felt like you do in a way – that enrolling in a program would FORCE ME to have that discipline I lacked. I’m sure it would have, too. There are pros and cons to all things…

  5. Julie Eshbaugh April 15, 2010 at 3:06 PM #

    Kat, you killed me with that calc joke! See – everything can lead to creative writing!

  6. Myra April 15, 2010 at 6:49 PM #

    Nope. I don’t plan on taking any Creative Writing courses, ever. Like Biljana, I don’t want to get stuck with snooty people, have teachers look down on me for writing fantasy/SF/any genre fiction if they like literary, etc.

    Also, I want to get a day job other than writing, because I don’t even know if I want to pursue publishing in the end. I’m going into Liberal Arts… which is the pefect program for me, I found. It’s a very broad spectrum of study, and since I have no idea what exactly I want to do yet, it’s perfect for me. So that’s pretty much what I’m going to figure out for the next few years… but aside, Creative Writing classes can be helpful for other people. It’s just not for me personally.

    • Julie Eshbaugh April 15, 2010 at 11:43 PM #

      Myra, I started out as a theater major, took some creative writing courses, and ultimately ended up with a degree in Liberal Studies. Some people said I wouldn’t be able to do anything with a degree in Liberal Studies, but I’ve found very few doors have been closed to me. Best of luck!

    • Biljana April 15, 2010 at 11:58 PM #

      It’s sad that pretensions and preconceived notions play into everything so much… Otherwise I’d sprinting towards that MFA like there’s no tomorrow.

      Good luck with Liberal Arts!

  7. Angela April 15, 2010 at 8:35 PM #

    I’d love to take a creative writing class in English, but that’s impossible to find in my country. I’m probably going to major in international relations.

    Are there any suggestions for how I can take creative writing classes or whatever if I ever go back to the United States?

    • Kat Zhang April 15, 2010 at 10:06 PM #

      You could join workshops. I’ve never done any personally, but I’ve heard good things about them. Of course, you’d have to find a good one…I’ve also heard horror stories about terrible ones!

    • Meagan April 16, 2010 at 1:04 AM #

      I’ll just toot the Odyssey Writing Workshop horn again. If you’re into speculative fiction, then I can definitely recommend it personally, I was in the 2009 class. Anyone who’s interested in sf/f writing workshops, please do feel free to drop me a line about it and ask questions!

      • Angela April 16, 2010 at 1:13 AM #

        Workshops sound great. I sort of want something for beginners, so maybe I’ll find something in the future.

        I checked out the Odyssey Writing Workshop. It looks great, but I’m not sure if I’d be able to handle it @_@. I’ll be sure to contact you if I have anymore questions. Thank you.

  8. Gabriela da Silva April 16, 2010 at 11:00 AM #

    Ok, need some insight here people!

    I’ve toyed with the idea of getting a Master’s in Creative Writing for a while.
    Of course, there’s no such thing in Mexico, so I would have to go to the USA/Canada/UK, get a scholarship, job and maybe a loan.

    Thing is, you’re makingit sound like… well, it’s just not worth it.

    What is included in a CW degree? Don’t you learn, say, techiniques? I learned SO many good tricks for writing in my Literary Theory class – intradiegetic narrators vs. extradiegetic, fictional authors, narrative authors, the effect of using more words or less words, how to use rhythm…

    It wasn’t a writing class, but knowing how to deconstruct a text gives you a very deep insight into how it was written.

    But if that’s not what I’ll learn – in extreme depht – in a CW master, then I’m better off saving my money and travelling ’round Europe, or getting a master in psychology. That can help for writing too.

    • Kat Zhang April 16, 2010 at 11:35 AM #

      Complete plug for the MFA at my university. It’s very competitive–hundred apply each year, and only 6 people are accepted. It’s also top 20 in the nation.

      http://www.vanderbilt.edu/english/mfa

      I know some of the first years, and they’re totally cool. So I wouldn’t say all MFAs are snobby 🙂

      The link above describes in a good amount of detail the classes offered. You have to scroll to the lower part of the page though–the beginning is all application information. It is all free if you get in, though!

      In all reality, there’s very little chance of me ever getting an MFA, and I really think its benefit depends heavily on the individual and the program.

    • Vanessa April 16, 2010 at 12:00 PM #

      I’m not saying a MFA isn’t worth it… it just isn’t NECESSARY in order to become a better writer. I’ve taken a few creative writing classes, and they’ve been useful; but I also realized that I don’t enjoy being forced to write in certain ways. That, and I’ve experimented enough on my own. Much like my art, I find it more enjoyable when I treat it as a fun hobby rather than an assignment. To each their own, of course; we’re all different! There can be no denying that you’ll learn more about the art of writing in an MFA. But, the question is, how useful would it be for your OWN writing, and for your pursuit of publication.

      Personally, it just isn’t something I would do. I like the idea of teaching myself; the idea of spending so much money on something that I can learn in less expensive ways doesn’t appeal to me. Having a MFA in your resume or author bio doesn’t necessarily make you better than someone who doesn’t. It can sometimes make an agent take notice in you over someone else, but it really is all about your writing. If it’s good, you’ll find someone who loves your stuff and who will sign you.

  9. Glaiza April 17, 2010 at 5:31 AM #

    Really interesting post. My friend and I were talking about an MA in creative writing the other day, although I think we’ll make up our minds about it later on because we’ve just started university…I’m studying a bachelor of arts and basically chose to go to the only university in Australia that has a writing major lol. Like someone said above, I’ve been thinking of also majoring in something like ancient history, anthropology or psychology to enrich my writing/thought processes/whatever’s going on in my head. I’ve only realized this now though lol, so I’ll need to switch some of my subjects around for next year..

    • Vanessa April 17, 2010 at 4:17 PM #

      I’m an English major, but I took quite a few History courses on the side! I say, if you think it’s interesting, you should take AT LEAST a class in that subject!

  10. TymCon April 17, 2010 at 10:48 AM #

    Lol i did read Lord Of The Rings just to say i didXD This could just be my opinion but if you get a MFA then that dosn’t really leave many options for a “Dayjob”. Writing is a really long term thing, you’ll need something to pay the bills and eat.
    And i totally agree with the writer who’s editing her first manuscript.
    Back to the lord of the rings thing. The amount of people who look down on current fantasy authors because they’ve read the trilogy. Personally i had to struggle through it, their was something off with the pacing.
    Yeah that was a barely coherent rant:D

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