Throwback Thursday: MFA Programs: Are They Worth It?

So you want to be a writer. You have graduated from high school and college with a few creative writing workshops under your belt and produced a few short pieces you’re proud of. You think, if I could just find the time or had people to read my work, I think I could do this. I could be the voice of my generation.

(Credit: Huffington Post)

(Credit: Huffington Post)

You still need to learn a few tricks. And you just know that if you jump straight into a full-time job that you’ll never get around to writing that novel. Life will happen. You’ll head straight for the fridge and then your bed after a long shift instead of opening up a blank page and writing.

This is a valid concern. If I wasn’t in grad school right now (albeit for publishing and not creative writing), I don’t know where I’d find the time to write. Or rather I do know where I’d find the time, but that notion is scary because it requires dedication and commitment. It requires long nights and early mornings typing away on your computer rather than going out for drinks with friends or binging on Netflix.

You have to find your own motivation rather than being motivated by your fellow students or professors. Being able to find your own motivation isn’t bad. It’s good. And certainly after finishing an MFA program, it’s a skill you will need to develop, but it can be hard to motivate yourself when you’re still figuring things out. When your own writing style isn’t fully-formed. Or when you haven’t found that story inside of you yet that is just dying to get out.

But it’s important to be realistic about MFA programs and to consider your options before jumping straight in.

According to CostHelper.com, the average cost of an MFA program at a public university is $30,000. But if you’re attending an out-of-state university, you’re looking at closer to $50,000 or $60,000. One term alone at a private university can be roughly $18,000. Regardless of what school you attend, most freelance writers make around $40,000 a year, and authors typically make anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 on an advance for a novel. Unless, of course, you are Stephen King. In which case, you can expect that advance to be much higher.

For some people, this—the money—alone will make or break their decision to join a creative writing program. With that said, a MFA program can be worth it for some, despite the costs. The money shouldn’t scare you, but it should cause you to really look at your writing and your own wants and needs before making a decision—is being a writer something you are serious about? Could you be happy doing something else? Because if you can, then you should do it. Being a writer isn’t for the weak of heart.

For me, the truth is that I’ve thought about an MFA program. I even wondered once if people would take me less seriously without a creative writing degree. If I would take myself less seriously without it. Because, in a way, I suppose the stress and pressure of writing that next great American novel simply so you can pay off your loans might be enough of a motivation to keep writing. But it’s not a very good one. Or a very practical one.

For me, MFA programs are viable options if you plan on writing and completing a novel while still in school. In that way, attending school and taking out loans for it gives you more time to focus on writing before having to get a 9-5 job somewhere. MFA programs also help you make connections in the literary world. You meet other authors, agents, publishers, and even editors. These are all people who, if you stay connected with, can help you later when you have a manuscript you are ready to shop around.

However, for many individuals, these connections seem to be the largest benefit of their programs. Many authors that I’ve spoken to met their current literary agent while attending their MFA program. So for them, that connection alone was worth the money. For others, their MFA program was only worth it because they chose schools with professors who they looked up to as mentors—whose own writing connected with them in some way.

So are MFAs worth it? It’s hard to give that question a definitive answer. If you want to hear the thoughts of people who’ve already completed their programs, here’s a good interview to check out.

I’ve researched tons of MFA programs. I’ve read articles about them and read interviews with MFA students. Personally, I don’t feel that a MFA program is worth the cost simply because there are other ways to learn how to write. You can start a creative writing workshop. You can take classes at a community college or even as electives while getting your undergrad degree. A MFA degree might help you become more disciplined, but if you want it enough, you should be able to push yourself. Write anywhere from 500 to 1,000 words a day. Research. Create outlines to help you stay on track. There are also many ways to meet people in the literary community. Although, you may have to look harder for them. Many cities have readings you can attend for free. Especially if you live near a college. Conferences can also be a great way to network with both publishers and agents.

Writing is personal and often done alone. But don’t forget that after you’re done, someone will need to read it. You’ll need people to support you and your work. So get out there. And if money isn’t a factor, join an MFA program. What could it hurt?

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About Melanie Figueroa

Melanie is the Editor-in-Chief at The Poetics Project. She has a masters in writing and book publishing from Portland State University and a passion for stories in all their forms. Her favorite book is The Bell Jar. You can follow Melanie on Twitter or Instagram @wellmelsbells.
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