It has become commonplace these days for pundits to deride the value of an MFA in creative writing. It’s too expensive, they will say, with little hope of return on that investment. Why? Because teaching jobs in creative writing are nearly impossible to land, particularly tenure-line jobs that pay reasonably. And the odds are even more remote of translating an MFA into a professional career as a writer.
These aren’t unreasonable points. If your goal is to make a living as a creative writer or as a creative writing professor, the odds are surely daunting. They aren’t impossible, of course, and a career as a professor, in my experience, is a pretty nice one. And some people do manage to earn a living as writers—often quite good ones—though mostly with nonfiction works or novels or screenplays (if you are wanting to make a living writing poetry, forget it).
Of course, there are other values that come into play. Homecare workers are in high demand these days, and for some people that is an excellent job, but should you give up your dream of writing and do that instead—because there are more opportunities? That doesn’t make sense to me. We spend an incredible amount of our lives working, so isn’t it important to do something we truly enjoy, even if it means making less?
Another common argument in favor of the MFA is that it opens the door to many other jobs: journalism, advertising, editing, business or technical writing, and anything else that requires strong verbal and writing skills, which, by the way, is most professional jobs.
A third argument is that the years spent seeking the MFA will give the student an opportunity to devote herself or himself to writing and developing a voice, to be surrounded with others who love writing and reading, to get advice and professional mentorship from published writers, to work (perhaps) on a literary journal, and to teach (perhaps) undergraduates.
These are pretty strong arguments.
So what is the upshot? Am I glad, for example, that I went for my MFA, which I received from the University of California at Irvine in 1978?
Yes and no. I am glad that it made me qualified to teach at the college level, which ended up being my career until I retired, in 2020, as a Professor of English at The Ohio State University at Lima. But did the experience help me as a writer? Nope. I could make a case it did the opposite, that I was a stronger writer before I arrived than when I left.
I might also argue that it took me decades to recover from the damage of the experience. Why? The workshop. That is the model for most creative writing classes across the country. The students and the professor read a student’s work before class then dissect it during class, analyzing its strengths and weaknesses then offering suggestions for revision.
So what’s wrong with it?
For some writers, everything. It takes what, for those writers, is the unconscious act of writing and makes it conscious. The workshop, in other words, develops the analytical brain at the expense of the creative brain. This, for some, lowers the quality of the writing and can lead to terrible writer’s block. That’s what happened to me, at least. I left graduate school in my 20s and didn’t really begin writing again until I turned 50.
So is the MFA a scam? No, it’s not. For some, it is a wonderful experience and well worth it. For others, it’s a bust. I know that’s not the definitive answer readers want, but there you go. Get over it. It’s complicated.