Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Having Never Done One

So there’s this piece going around, about what students need to do succeed as writers in literary MFA programs. A lot of it is pretty basic — show up, do the work, read good books, nurse your talent. And a lot of it is pretty bitchy — there’s a bit about how being abused as a child can’t make you a better writer, which is both unnecessary and sidesteps the central literary issue of abuse narratives, namely that coming forward to tell a story is the often first step in ending abuse.

But that’s an issue for another post. I’m here to tell you something else about MFAs, and writing in general.

MFAs are bullshit. You don’t need one.

You may simply want one, which is something else. And this isn’t to say that you can’t make use of one. Or that the process of obtaining one isn’t helpful. Getting a Master of Fine Arts degree can be a great way to hone your craft, meet other writers, find mentors, and enter a local literary community. From a networking perspective, it’s a good idea. Especially if you’re writing mainstream lit, you’ll need to find a way to set yourself apart from all the other writers who talk about three generations of women coming together for a funeral, or alcoholic forty-something English profs who fall for their students, or the divorced thirty-somethings returning to their tiny rustbelt towns and reuniting with the parent of the pregnancy they had aborted back in high school, or whatever.

But you don’t need one. It’s not a requirement of becoming a writer, or becoming a good writer, or a great one, or a successful one. It’s not like a core class you have to pass before they let you graduate. There is no “they.” There is no “graduation.” There is only you, and your last project, and your sales numbers. Everything else is a howling whirlwind of personal and financial insecurity.

The degree you need to become a writer may have nothing to do with fiction.

If you’re willing to spend thousands of dollars of perfectly good money to improve your circumstances, incurring even more debt on top of what you already accrued in your undergraduate years, then spend it wisely. Invest in yourself and your earning potential. Do you want a job that will pay good money while giving you enough time at home to write? Then join a trade school. Learn to code. Learn how to build things and fix them. Join a temp agency. Write copy. Teach outside your country. Get on a cannery boat. Plant trees in a national park. Start an Etsy store. Become a yoga instructor. All of these jobs will pay better than writing fiction, while still giving you the opportunity to write fiction.

Some of your favourite novels and short stories were written on somebody’s lunch break. Why? Because calling six cents a word a pro-rate is a fucking joke. It doesn’t pay the bills. For that, you need a day-job. Day jobs are also useful if you ever want to, say, own a home or have children. And from the perspective of creative craftsmanship, day jobs also allow you to get out and meet the people who later appear in your fiction. You need to do that, if only so you don’t end up writing books about writers. I mean, while we’re on the subject of navel-gazing.

You probably need someone to critique your writing, though.

Because it might suck. Or, worse yet, it might just not be that interesting, because you haven’t learned the difference between “a story” and “a bunch of things that happened.” Legions of writers have built successful careers on defiantly awful stories and prose. (I’m looking at you, John Norman and EL James. Speaking of which: I SHIP IT.) Being boring is worse than being awful. Passive characters who lack agency are unbearable. Stories that have nothing to say are just as banal as people who have nothing to say. It takes years to learn this. But you can learn it faster if you have a group of people, or even just one person, reminding you on a regular basis. That person doesn’t have to be a teacher. That group doesn’t have to be a class.

The thing that’s useful about taking a class is that it’s a regular part of your routine. It’s built into your schedule. It works for the same reason that regular exercise helps you build strength, and regular dates help you build a relationship. Committing to one thing will help you accomplish anything. As a writer, that commitment may take the shape of a class. Or it might be a workshop. Or it might be an intensive course over the summer. Or an internship. That’s your decision. The important thing is to do the work, remain accountable for it, and keep at it. The discipline you can learn in an academic environment can help you in all areas of your life. But you might learn that same discipline elsewhere.

I say this as a person with multiple graduate degrees.

It’s true! I have two Masters degrees, one M.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies, and one M. Des. in Strategic Foresight & Innovation. Before that, I graduated magna cum laude from a tiny Jesuit university, having completed two departmental honors theses and the university’s honors program. What I’m saying is, I did my time in the ivory tower. And I learned a lot there, and I wouldn’t trade my experiences — or the connections I made — for anything.

The long-term projects I completed during my academic career taught me how to complete long-term fiction projects. And now I use my education to write science fiction prototypes for my clients. That’s one of my day-jobs (another being a columnist with the Ottawa Citizen) and it’s why I don’t often submit short stories to magazines. My short story availability is booked up. Last fall I wrote a comic book about human trafficking for the the World Bank’s EVOKE project. I just completed a story about intelligent systems for Data & Society, a think tank in New York. This spring, I’ll be giving a keynote at a design conference at the University of Edinburgh, and this summer I’ll be a guest of honour at Swecon. I’m really proud of and excited about all of those things, and I hope I’ll have the opportunity to keep doing them. But I’ve also never been published in F&SF, Analog, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, or any of the other major magazines in my genre. Those are milestones of success in my business that I have failed to achieve. Obviously, I still have room to improve. And miles to go before I sleep.

To put this in perspective, I joined a workshop when I was 23. I started submitting short stories to magazines when I was 24. My first novel came out when I was 29. I’m turning 32 this April. But I have been writing stories since I was a teenager. I wrote a novel-length project when I was 15. I even submitted it and got the rejections back and everything. And I have been making up stories since I can remember. I spent most of my childhood in my room, alone, talking to myself in different voices.  I suspect the fact that I wasn’t brought in for a psych evaluation has as much to do with the costs of the American healthcare system as my parents’ broad-mindedness. But my mania did not guarantee that my stories were good, or that they had anything to say. (In fact, I’m pretty sure they weren’t, and didn’t.) Plenty of writers start later in life simply because that’s the moment when they have something meaningful to share, and the focus and confidence to share it.

Why am I telling you all this? Because, like the old song goes:

You can go your own way.

There are a bunch of ways to be successful as a writer. Having a vision of what “success” means for you is crucial to this. Success is achieving the thing you set out to do. And if you’re just starting out, all kinds of people will give you all kinds of advice on all kinds of ways to succeed. But there’s only one way to never succeed, and that’s to never try.

1 thought on “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Having Never Done One”

  1. I have spent the last five years traveling the learning curve that is needed to write well enough to get published. From controlling belief to objective correlative to elevator pitches. I am now putting the finishing touches on my first novel, and will start the submission process soon. I learned everything from published non-fiction, blogs, multiple conferences, and other writers. I feel confidant that, other than networking, I am ready. The networking you can develop in other ways. A masters is definitely not needed to get published.

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