So You’re Thinking of Getting an MFA . . .

. . . and perhaps you’re wondering, Should I? Where? What can I expect? To what end? Some such questions are answerable, while others don’t have absolute answers but offer ways of defining the unpredictable path of desire, ambition, success, and the future.

Many, if not most, of today’s recognized literary authors have a connection to a college or university writing program, whether as a teacher, graduate, or writer in residence. But until the early middle of the twentieth century, writing programs and workshops were unknown. Writers taught themselves by writing, by reading, and through discourse with other writers, sometimes by affinity, sometimes by opposition. Literature, no less than law, engineering, medicine, and other professions, is a discipline, though it may seem less codified than these other pursuits. It’s codified, however, in the accomplished works that precede each generation. “The words of a dead man are modified in the guts of the living,” Auden noted in his elegy for Yeats. Would either poet have been greater for taking a writing degree?

Workshops aren’t essential, though they’ve become a primary source of community, encouragement, support, and learning. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, founded in 1936, was the first university creative writing program in the United States. By 1975 the number of graduate programs had grown to fifty-two, a number that in the subsequent nine years tripled to 150, and by 2017 the number grew to more than four hundred. If undergraduate programs are included, today’s number exceeds two thousand. Across approximately eighty years, writing programs have proliferated as the accepted foundation for the would-be writer’s route of entry to a life of writing, publishing, and/or teaching.

In 1967 R. V. Cassill, a Brown University creative writing professor and editor of The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, founded the Associated Writing Programs (AWP), the professional association of academic creative writers. Fifteen years later, at the 1982 AWP conference in Boston, Cassill gave an address in which he called for the disbanding of the association, saying it was time for writers to move away from the academy. “We are now at the point where writing programs are poisoning, and in turn we are being poisoned by, departments and institutions on which we have fastened them.” Cassill’s adjuration went unheeded, and the growth of writing programs accelerated in response to demand and as academic profit centers offering educational and cultural value.

Today’s AWP (2017), renamed the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, has a membership of fifty thousand. The 2016 AWP conference in Los Angeles hosted twelve thousand attendees, a number that represents perhaps 7 percent of an estimated 170,000 MFA degree holders and students in the US. Currently, graduate writing programs and undergraduate programs with an emphasis in creative writing turn out some fourteen thousand new degree holders each year. Add to that number the students who minor rather than major in creative writing and the myriad nondegreed writers who attend nonacademic and summer writing workshops and conferences each year, and the overall number of aspiring writers in the US at least doubles. Meanwhile, the North American writing workshop phenomenon has been spreading to the UK, Europe, and elsewhere, creating a loosely standardized universe of writers.

How many of these writers are, or one day will be, successful, and how to define success? Is it the personal satisfaction that comes from the act of writing itself? Is it in periodical or book publication, and if so, on what scale and to what readership? Is it the creation of art that provides aesthetic pleasure and entertainment for readers, or, for some, is it a matter of art for art’s sake? Is the goal to secure a teaching post from which to encourage and inspire others? Is it to have a livelihood, health insurance, retirement benefits, the wherewithal for a home and family?

The marketplace offers sales figures, a correlation of readership, of which Publisher’s Lunch, an industry newsletter, reports current publishing futures—author-publisher deals ranked and qualified monetarily: Nice Deal ($1–$49,000), Very Nice Deal ($50,000–$99,000), Good Deal ($100,000– $250,000), Significant Deal ($251,000–$499,000), Major Deal ($500,000 and up). Some royalty advance earnings exceed anticipation, some disappoint. A million-dollar advance can turn into a huge loss for a publisher, while a five-thousand-dollar advance can unpredictably earn millions. I know of authors whose first several books each sold only a few thousand copies but a subsequent book sold hundreds of thousands, which prompted sizeable sales of all the earlier books. Alternatively, I know of first-time authors whose bestseller out the gate was followed by other books that did not sell well. Nielsen’s BookScan service accurately quantifies per-title unit book sales, and publishers, editors, and agents can look up the sales figures, which, for better or worse, impact an author’s future deals.

The marketplace isn’t necessarily about art, nor exclusive from it. There are few, if any, undiscovered worthwhile works lying fallow in shoeboxes in the attic—the presses are voracious, especially with the all but limitless bandwidth of the digital age. Content! Many thousands of new literary works are published each year. How many are significant and durable? Which authors matter, and why? What does a prospective MFA student hope to gain from a program? In the Q&A period following a panel discussion at the 2016 AWP conference, a woman in a front row raised her hand, stood up, and said, “I have my MFA, and I’m $65,000 in debt. Now what?” The half-dozen panelists looked back and forth at each other—four of them didn’t have MFA degrees, and two did, and all were notably successful, both critically and commercially, which was why they were on the dais. What to tell the woman in the audience, or what might she better have been told before pursuing a degree in creative writing?

Writing programs should not be approached naively. Some students arrive with an unexamined expectation that the program will provide the necessary knowledge, whole and complete, and that rewards will follow. Disappointment easily supplants this illusion. Curricula and requirements vary from program to program, but generally in a two-year creative writing program a student can expect to take one workshop each semester for four semesters, as well as a craft-related reading seminar or two each semester and some independent study for a thesis project. A student’s work will come up for discussion in the workshop two or three times a semester, and the teacher will likely meet individually with the student at least a couple of times briefly—twenty minutes or so—unless a teacher decides to mentor a particular student, which happens for relatively few. And, to some extent, it’s better to arrive at a program with a portfolio of promising work already well under way and recognized as such by the faculty than it is to produce work specifically for a workshop.

Assuming a productive course of study, the benefits of a writing program include time and freedom to work without distraction, the community and support of other writers, a way of identifying as a writer, an opportunity to explore and develop aesthetics, networking, and, finally, a degree, which may be a more or less meaningless credential in a writing life, as the works written, published, and praiseworthy are the true bona fides.

One of my early teachers, a poet, advised me not to go to graduate writing school, saying, “Everyone pumping gas in that town has an MFA.” And another professor warned me against working in publishing. “Do anything else,” he said. “Dig ditches if you have to.” He was a great academic, a noted Swift scholar, whom I admired, but I looked at him and thought, Here’s a man who never dug a ditch—while all through my twenties, I’d done manual labor on construction sites—so I ignored his and the poet’s experience and instead undertook an MFA and simultaneously a New York publishing career, neither of which I’ve regretted.

Nonetheless, the poet and professor accurately indicated that academic and publishing business pursuits, however literary, are secondary or tertiary to direct creative engagement—there’s better material for poetry and story writing almost anywhere other than on a campus or in a publishing concern. Exceptions immediately come to mind—Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, John Williams’s Stoner, Richard Farina’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, to name only a few. Yet the stream of graduates and manuscripts flowing from a writing school education represents a normative result—a recognizable sameness of understanding, approach, and accomplishment. Donald Hall, former US poet laureate, once observed that the danger of workshops is that they may trivialize art by removing the terror.

There’s no need, however, to add to the terror. Writers seeking help sometimes say, “Don’t be afraid to be brutal. I have thick skin.” To which I respond, “It’s not necessary to be brutal. It’s only necessary to be accurate, and that can be done with kindness.”

A truth worth considering: Few are called, many answer.

But the many students of literary art matter, as readers, as true believers, as a cultural fundament that unpredictably spawns affirming, brilliant, and occasionally genius works.

In searching for a writing school, look for the ones whose teachers you most want to learn from and who, likewise, want to work with you. Visit the schools, meet the faculty and students, and be aware that the faculty may change from season to season, with departures, new hires, sabbaticals, and visiting teachers. Make sure that the teachers you want to work with will be present and available to you. And a school’s expression of belief in your work should be expressed in financial support. Don’t go into debt to earn a writing degree.

The career path in writing is so uncertain that it can hardly be called a career. Better to think of it as a vocation, and be aware that the annual median income for writers in the US, including writers who make seven-figure advances, is only in the mid-four figures. Consequently, the atmosphere of being in writing school can be like that surrounding a roulette player with all his or her chips on the table and the wheel spinning . . . what will be the outcome? Anxiety, envy, backbiting can result unless the school leadership and ethos are positive. Generally, that’s the case, though not always or uniformly so—and, again, it’s well worth visiting the schools you’re considering and making sure you know the people and the place.

Graduate school at its best is seldom anyone’s favorite time of life, so it’s well to consider choosing a location where, apart from schooling, you’d like to spend a couple of years—some locales are more attractive and rewarding than others. It’s good to think of where and how you can have an ongoing life, friends, pursuits apart from school, so that not everything always seems to be riding on the outcome of a workshop.

The patterning of commentary in workshop discussions of a writer’s efforts may often seem subjective, contradictory, and random, and from teacher to teacher the ability and desire to mediate and make sense of this circumstance varies greatly. A student who took a class from a well-known writer once told me, “I finally figured out that if he said, ‘Yeah,’ he didn’t like it, but if he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ he did.” Any writer’s task in receiving feedback or criticism involves reading through the reactions, sorting the differences between those reactions and the responses the writer desires for the work, and then figuring out how to close the gap, how to derive principles for writing and revision from input that may not be expressed in immediately comprehensible and literally applicable ways. The burden of work—the joy, if you can see it that way—belongs to the writer.

If you’re going to take a degree, take one from the best school you can. A student once phoned me for advice, saying he’d been accepted at a reasonably good school in the Midwest and also at an Ivy League school and was inclining toward the Midwestern school. I advised going East, and he did, and subsequently other important doors opened for him by virtue of his chosen school and the contacts made there—doors that would not have opened otherwise. In later life, other people typically will not recall or care what college you went to, yet if you’re going to expend time, effort, and money for an education, it makes sense to acquire the best pedigree you can, while giving yourself fully to your studies.

As both student and teacher, I’ve been amazed by how many students arrive in class not having read the teacher’s works and then also fail to read the off-syllabus works the teacher mentions in the course of lecturing and discussion. Each individual learns in his or her own way, and there are as many ways to go about writing as there are writers; and writing students can naturally be much more eager to hear commentary on their own works than on the works of others. During workshop discussions, student questions about other writers’ works tend to be prompted primarily by something the questioner thinks or wonders about his or her own work, and many good questions arise in that manner. However, it’s hard, if not impossible, to fulfill one’s talent and build a body of work without an impersonal knowledge and context for the art. Potentially, the teacher represents not only individual experience but also accumulated knowledge and understanding of how and why a piece of writing and each of its individual parts work or not, and of what quality a piece is, apart from whatever personal taste or affinity a reader may bring to a piece. The student who studies to gain an objective context for discernment can better assess his or her own gifts as well as the teacher’s gifts and suitability to help the student.

In a degree program and across a lifetime, a student’s classroom peers can be a primary benefit of the education. Look for a school whose graduates, year after year, have demonstrated a notable caliber of accomplishment. But also be aware that a workshop is just that—a time and place for growth and development. In any workshop anywhere, in the best academic program or in the most informal workshop, you can expect to find students whose work varies in range of talent and degree of accomplishment. It is relatively rare in a class that even one or two students are already presenting fully finished, high-caliber work, though any number of students may be showing worthwhile work. The primary purpose and goal of a class is to understand each writer’s work on its own terms and to help the writer bring the work to its best version of itself. Flourishing of egos, defense of critical postures, the desire to demonstrate one’s intelligence or knowledge simply for the sake of doing so should not be part of a class, and a good instructor will confidently model understanding based on close reading and a perceptive awareness of how to direct input for each student and for the class as a whole.

In applying to a program, keep in mind that acceptance into or rejection from a program does not necessarily represent an accurate assessment of your work. I know, for instance, of a student who was rejected by a prestigious school one year and, in the following year, reapplied with the same work and was accepted and given a full scholarship. The outcome of an annual admissions process can depend on the overall volume and quality of applications, who’s reading them, departmental budgets and politics, and horse trading between members of an admissions committee, each of whom favors different candidates. In a writing life, as in any other, one may be accepted or rejected for the wrong or the right reasons, and it’s prudent not to expect overmuch in the way of fairness. Nor is it entirely predictable who will fail or succeed and by what measure. The supremely talented student may not turn out, while the apparently average or mediocre one may blossom brilliantly. In this regard, no one can be oracular given all the factors involved, not least of all fate.

Students often ask me a question that I asked one of my teachers when I was starting out. The teacher had recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and I asked him if he thought I could succeed. He snapped, “I’m not God.” I left his office and wandered around the university quad in a daze. Later on, not having understood, I went back to my teacher as I was about to graduate with a BA and said, “I’m trying to figure out what to do with the next several years—” He cut me off with, “Yep, that’s what we’re all trying to figure out.” Granted that he was touchy and that he distrusted the prize, fearing it would inflate and mislead him, his two responses have been some of the most useful advice I received.

Byron noted that if a man writes six great lines, he’s immortal. James Salter noted, “The famous cannot fail, they’ve already succeeded.” These lines point to the timelessness of truly accomplished work, and among the many reasons to write, the most durable is the desire to offer connection, meaning, illumination, beauty, and an enhancement of life’s possibilities.

Some things can be taught, some learned—so much depends on the character of the writer.      —Tom Jenks