When and Why to MFA, If Ever

With the recent spate of articles debating MFA programs and the kind of writing they produce (including Elif Batuman’s “Get a Real Degree” in the London Review of Books and Chad Harbach’s “MFA vs. NYC” in Slate), we asked novelist Emily Barton to share her thoughts. The following originated as advice for her undergraduate students and has been reprinted with her permission.

Emily Barton is the author of Brookland and The Testament of Yves Gundron.

When Should I Apply to MFA Programs?

In general, I find that my students wish to apply to graduate schools either during their senior year of college or directly after they graduate. I know of one student for whom this seemed a very wise decision: someone who wished to go to medical school after earning an MFA. For this student, waiting would be impractical, because medical school, residency, and internship take up a lot of time, after which there will likely be a lot of debt to repay. In this instance, going to writing school right away seems like a wise choice.

In all other cases, I encourage my students to wait before applying. Often, they think I mean “a year or two,” and it is certainly the case that a year or two is better than no years; but I think three, or six, or ten would be even better. This is for a number of reasons:

  1. It’s important for a writer to be able to write outside of an academic setting, without deadlines or structured encouragement. Most of the time, this is what an actual writer’s life is like. If you can only produce within the structure of a workshop, you may not develop the stamina to write books in the midst of life’s myriad other demands. (Which get more complex as you get older.)
  2. Workshops are tremendously valuable—if I didn’t think this, I wouldn’t teach them—but equally valuable are a writer’s own instincts. It’s important to develop independent work habits so you can listen to your own internal editor more thoroughly.
  3. A few years working in the vast world that’s not all that concerned with writing will leave you highly appreciative of the tiny world in which writing is the primary object of focus.
  4. Maturity is an invaluable asset to both writers and members of workshops. The more mature you are when you enroll, the stronger will be the work that you bring to the table; the more intelligently you’ll be able to engage with your peers’ critiques; the more thoughtful, humane, and articulate critiques you’ll be able to offer them.

I like this article by Robin Black on Oprah.com about earning an MFA as an older student. And here’s an excellent piece by Michael Nye, managing editor of the Missouri Review, explaining why it would be a good idea to take a gap year or three (or twelve).

Why Should I Apply to an MFA Program?

I believe the reasons one should attend an MFA program are, in descending order of importance:

  1. To have an opportunity to work on one’s work more or less interrupted for a period of a few years, and to receive feedback from established writers one admires and from creative, hardworking, dedicated peers.
  2. To befriend other young writers, so that you can offer encouragement to each other for the rest of your lives. I met two of my three first readers in graduate school, and am forever indebted to them for their insightful criticism and support; and I am equally grateful for the many good writer friends I made there. They enrich my life daily.
  3. To find out if you might be interested in teaching writing, and to gain some experience through a teaching fellowship, if possible.
  4. To have the imprimatur of the program on your vita. Attending a good program can help catch the attention of agents and publishers. (Though of course it’s important not to overestimate the importance of this final point. The main thing that catches someone’s eye is good writing.)

If these reasons don’t seem important to you, now probably isn’t the right time to apply. Do not feel that you “must” attend an MFA program.

To Which MFA Programs Should I Apply?

Here are the factors I believe you should weigh when considering which schools to apply to, again in descending order of importance:

  1. Which programs will be most likely to nourish and encourage you as a writer, to help you grow in the direction in which you yourself wish to grow? By this I mean, you should research which programs foster a style of writing you’re interested in (some have a decidedly more realist or experimental bent than others). Find out who’s teaching where, and apply to programs where writers with whom you would sincerely like to study serve on the faculty. Ask currently-enrolled or former students of the programs you’re interested in what the institutional culture is like. Consider which programs are in places in which you’d like to live. For one student, the literary scene of New York City is a great asset; another would prefer to study in a quirky small town where rent is cheap. These two students shouldn’t apply to the same places.
  2. Consider your financial situation. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but writing literary fiction generally isn’t a way to make a fortune. For most writers, it isn’t a means to make much money at all. My husband has, thus far, placed thirteen stories in reputable literary journals; in total, he has earned less money from his fiction than a first-year associate, fresh out of law school, earns his first morning on the job. I learned recently that the toll collectors on the Thruway earn quite a bit more than I do in an average year. I’m sure they also get better benefits. This is okay, because I really love my twin jobs of writing and teaching; and because, like probably almost all writers, I’m not in this for the money, though I’m grateful to have a roof over my head and food on my kid’s plate. What I’m saying is, I think it’s wise to consider your finances. If you come from a working- or middle-class family, or if you have other siblings whose educations your parents will help support, I recommend not adding too much debt to your load. With that in mind, research which programs offer low tuition to start with, or tuition remission if you win a teaching fellowship, or overall good financial aid programs. It’s also worth researching cost of living in the locations of the various schools; tuition isn’t the only factor in the amount of debt you’ll accrue.
  3. Consider which programs are actually worth attending. One school may have a very fancy pedigree. Another may reside at the University of East Podunk, but have a wonderful faculty and a dynamic, nurturing institutional culture. Both would be excellent kinds of programs to consider. But unlike applying to college, you don’t need to apply to any “safety schools;” I’ve never heard of anyone transferring, with grad school. So only apply to places to which you’d really like to go.
  4. If you need a little initial guidance, Poets & Writers publishes a helpful annual ranking of the MFA programs. This is a good place to gather some basic information for further research. (And a good magazine in general.) The Creative Writing MFA Handbook also maintains an excellent and exhaustive blog, which is a fine resource for those considering or applying for MFAs.

If figuring all of this out seems like too much work is required, I would once again say that this year probably isn’t the right one for applying to graduate school.

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