Career Writers and MFA Programs

After a literary agent read my work and deemed it “literary” I swear I heard my bank account groan and cobwebs start to grow in my wallet. The agent didn’t say anything I didn’t already know, but there was still a part of me that hoped there was a loophole that I didn’t know about and perhaps I could slip inside it and make a living doing what I love.

So I did what most people who feel compelled to write do–I shrugged, went back to my computer and started on the next story.

Another option that many choose is to seek out an MFA program. Many writers have negative opinions concerning MFA programs, stating that “all the work sounds the same” and “they’re a waste of money.”  I seem to be in the minority when it comes to strong opinions concerning MFA programs. I truly feel that workshops and critique groups and writing programs are important for career writers and they should be chosen with care and only utilized if and for as long as they serve the writer and the work.

Mark McGurl has a few thoughts about MFA’s that he addresses in “The MFA Octopus: Four Questions about Creative Writing.” For example, when asked why do people hate creative writing programs so much?


Well they don’t really, not everyone, or there wouldn’t be so many of them—hundreds. From modest beginnings in Iowa in the 1930’s, MFA programs have spread out across the land, coast to coast, sinking roots in the soil like an improbably invasive species of corn. Now, leaping the oceans, stalks have begun to sprout in countries all around the world, feeding the insatiable desire to be that mythical thing, a writer. Somebody must think they’re worth founding, funding, attending, teaching at.

But partly in reaction to their very numerousness, which runs afoul of traditional ideas about the necessary exclusivity of literary achievement, contempt for writing programs is pervasive, at least among the kind of people who think about them at all. In fact, I would say they are objects of their own Derangement Syndrome. Logically, any large-scale human endeavor will be the scene of a certain amount of mediocrity, and creative writing is no different, but here that mediocrity is taken as a sign of some profounder failure, some horrible and scandalous wrong turn in literary history. Under its spell, a set of otherwise fair questions about creative writing are not so much asked as always-already answered. No, writing cannot be taught. Yes, writing programs are a scam—a kind of Ponzi scheme. Yes, writing programs make all writers sound alike. Yes, they turn writers away from the “real world,” where the real stories are, fastening their gazes to their navels. No, MFA students do not learn anything truly valuable.

Never mind that all of these answers are—at least in part—demonstrably wrong. The interest in slamming creative writing programs soars above the niceties of measured assessment and factual demonstration, catapulted there by deep-seated feelings about the nature of creativity, which we all love, and school, which we emphatically don’t, at least not in this context.

To read more of McGurl’s thoughts on MFA programs, click here:


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