So you want to be an author. You’ve graduated, survived a few writing workshops, and produced pieces you’re proud of. But you still need to learn a few things. You need to find your voice. You think, if I could find the time or had people to read my work, I could do this. Your mind drifts toward thoughts of MFA programs and wine-fueled discussions of literature. Of the day you’ll move to New York City and walk the same streets so many of the greats have.
You’ve even had your doubts—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. But you’ve pushed past those doubts, sort of (we all have those days), and came through better for it.
You may very well be the voice of your generation, but there’s more than one way to go from writer to published author. So before you enroll, take a step back and consider your options.
According to CostHelper, 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. In fact, one term alone at a private university can be roughly $18,000. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s May 2016 report, writers and authors earn a median annual wage of $61,240. But this number is flawed for several reasons. Certain authors, like James Patterson for instance, earn millions, while less-established writers’ income varies drastically. The lowest ten percent earned less than $29,380. Some have compared the cost of an MFA program in relation to what graduates can expect to earn to highway robbery.
The truth is that I’ve thought about an MFA program. I wondered if people would take me less seriously without a creative writing degree. If I would take myself less seriously without it. In a way, I suppose the pressure of writing that next great American novel simply to pay off your loans might be enough motivation to keep writing. But it’s not a very good one. Or a very practical one.
To be clear, writing the “Great American Novel” isn’t a practical reason to keep writing at all. But that’s another post.
For most, the money alone will make or break their decision to join an MFA program, but they do have their benefits.
MFA programs are viable options if you plan on writing and completing a novel while still in school. In that way, attending school, whether on scholarship or by taking out loans, gives you time to focus on writing before having to get a 9 to 5. MFA programs also help you make connections in the literary world. You meet other authors, agents, publishers, and even editors. These are people who, if you stay connected with, can help you later when you have a manuscript ready to shop around.
These connections can be one of the largest benefits of an MFA program. Some authors meet their literary agent while still in school. For them, that connection alone is worth the money. Others look for professors they admire, whose writing connects with them.
So Are MFA Programs Worth It?
It’s hard to provide a definitive answer. If you want to hear the thoughts of people who’ve already completed their programs, here’s an interview to check out.
For me, short of scholarships or fellowships, the cost alone places an MFA program out of reach. But there are plenty of other ways to learn how to improve your writing. You can start or join a creative writing group (there are plenty of online ones too). You can take creative writing electives while working toward your undergraduate degree. Get focused. Develop discipline. Write anywhere from 500 to 1,000 words a day. Research. Create outlines and goals to help you stay on track.
There are also many ways to meet people in the publishing community. Although you may have to look longer and work harder. Many cities have readings you can attend for free. Especially if you live near a college or university. Conferences can also be a great way to network with both publishers and agents (even other writers).
Writing is personal and often done alone. But don’t forget that after you’re done, someone will need to read your manuscript. 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?