Its time we addressed the fact that the MFA is special. Its not the same as your MBA, PhD, or MA. In this article I will focus on the Creative Writing MFA and the controversy over if getting one is necessary to become a successful author. What’s missing in this argument is that you may become a successful writer without having a MFA, but will you be producing fiction (i.e. Fifty Shades of Gray) or literature (think Zadie Smith, White Teeth)?
While reading this article from The Atlantic, I was terrified that I was going to discover something that would make me want to withdraw all of the applications I just sent out to MFA programs.
I was relieved that it did not offer any new warnings against the MFA that I hadn’t already considered and deemed irreverent.
Most people don’t want a MFA because they think its going to make them lots of money. While having those three letters on your resume doesn’t directly lead to higher paying jobs, the experience you obtain from the program coupled with how you apply the skills gained is a path to being more successful in the field. But artists aren’t really in it for money anyways – otherwise, what are we all doing here?
It’s not a secret, at least not to writers, that you don’t have to have a MFA to get an agent. If the work is good, then you will get noticed. But maybe not – tons of talented writers died very “unfamous”. In today’s world, it is all about connections and who you know as a means to climb the ladder of success. It is exactly this type of community of students and professionals that is integral to a MFA program and thus upholding its value to someone trying to break into the field. A big component of the MFA is networking; you might be taught by some of your favorite authors. Agents claim that you don’t need to have a MFA to get published, but you’re also not going to get noticed if you’re a nobody. The connections you make with other writers is part of what draws people to the program and helps to jump-start student’s careers.
The world is obsessed with titles: having a MBA or PhD signifies that you are more qualified and well-educated than those without one. The MFA might be one of the last degrees that survives solely on the credibility of the program. It is due in part to the fact that a MFA program doesn’t correlate to employment in specific companies yet the program still has in some cases acceptance rates of 5% that proves its educational value. If the MFA did not offer anything in terms of improving your craft, why would prospective students still be competing with each other for a spot when they know its not going to directly lead to a job?
Critics can stop trying to scare aspiring writers out of enrolling in MFA programs. The risks are well-known. Just because something does not lead directly to more money, does not mean it is worthless.