Why You Should (And Shouldn’t) Apply To MFA Programs

Alot of the recent debate on MFA programs has centered on whether or not they actually help you become a better writer. And that’s all well and good. But it kind of ignores the fact that on a purely financial level, a well-funded MFA program offers a pretty great place to lay up and write for two or three years. For a literary writer, seeking an MFA almost seems like a no-brainer: universities are willing to pay you to learn how to write better. But for a genre writer, the calculation is slightly more complicated.

I first realized that I wanted to get an MFA after reading an excerpt of the Writer’s Daily Planner, put out by Small Beer Press*. The planner contained the deadlines for numerous contests, fellowships, and grants. Thousands and thousands of dollars, just lying around for writers to take. Now, I realized that all this stuff was really, really hard to get, but so what? Becoming a successful writer is also really, really hard. If I was somehow able to put myself in the running for this alternate income stream, then I’d be able to buy two tickets to the making-a-living-as-a-writer lottery instead of just one.

And I realized that the unofficial baseline requirement for most of these grants and fellowships and awards was a Master of the Fine Arts degree. Now, of course no one would ever say that an MFA is required to get all that other stuff. But an MFA definitely acts a sifter to separate you, as an applicant, from random people who can’t string words together.

In addition, the MFA can be a lucrative opportunity in itself. Many MFA programs are able to provide all or most of their student with teaching opportunities that come with tuition waivers, stipends, and health insurance.  These teaching opportunities vary in terms of workload, but they are usually considered half-time appointments (20 hours a week). In America, the half-time job that comes with health insurance is an extremely rare animal, and definitely qualifies as something of a find for any writer.

So from a purely financial standpoint (especially in an era when unemployment and underemployment amongst recent college grads is so bad), I totally understand the financial calculus that makes MFAs extremely attractive to aspiring writers (including the 2009 version of myself).

The instruction that you’ll receive in an MFA program is also very important. I fear that I am making myself out to seem quite mercenary in this blog post by waiting until now to mention it. However, I think that the instruction is largely a mysterious animal. All MFA programs basically offer the same method of instruction: each semester you take a workshop in which you submit work that is critiqued by your classmates and the workshops’ instructor (who is usually an advanced writer whose successes have led to a professorship at your school).

It’s a little difficult to tell whether the instruction at a school is going to suit you. Good writers are not necessarily good teachers. You might like a writer’s work, but they might have nothing interesting to say about your work. You might dislike a writer’s work, but they might have alot to teach you. Until you’re sitting in the workshop, how can you know? Anyway, this is mostly something that the aspiring writer doesn’t need to think about. When professors are reading applications, they only accept students whose work they like and think they can improve. But the instruction only sweetens the pot on what is already a really good offer.

However, I think that for genre-influenced writer, there are some fairly major considerations that can outweigh all of these options. In almost every MFA program, most of the students and professors are writing literary fiction. And even in the most open-minded programs, the majority of the students will be writing realist stories. To the extent that they are familiar with non-realist literature, it will probably be with its literary exemplars–Wells, Verne, Borges, Calvino, Kafka, Pynchon, DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Aimee Bender, etc, etc, etc–rather than with the writers that the genre-influenced writer is likely to think of as being the true lions of non-realist writing. Your professors’ critiques of your genre-influenced stories will be based on the standards of what makes a good literary story (which is sometimes different from what makes a good science fiction or fantasy story) and you’ll be expected to critique your classmates’ work on the basis of those same standards.

I don’t mean to say that you can’t submit genre-influenced stories in your MFA workshops. In fact, you should definitely never attend an MFA program where you can’t do that. If you’re a genre-influenced writer, it seems pretty imperative that you apply using stories which are more or less similar to the ones you plan on turning into the program’s workshop. I don’t think I can give you any advice that is more important than that. If you write some realist stories just to get into a program and then you get in and you find that they don’t like your SF work….then you kind of deserve what you get. One reason that I’m fairly comfortable with attending Johns Hopkins is because I applied with a science fiction story. I wrote about my speculative tendencies in my cover letter and, before accepting my offer, I asked professors, students, and alumni whether my science-fictional work would be accepted there.

But it’s entirely possible that they might accept you, but you will find yourself unable to accept them. I know some very good SF writers who don’t seem to enjoy mainstream literature. If you’re a writer who’s not familiar with literary fiction and has no interest in literary fiction (and, more specifically, in realist stories), then (I imagine) most MFA programs would be pretty hard places for you to live. Despite the financial rewards, I doubt it would be pleasant to be at war with your environment, and I think (for most of you) it would not be very good for your writing.

The only way to see if this is true for you is to just be honest with yourself. Do you read realist stories and novels? Do you enjoy them? Do you sometimes write them? For me, the answer to all of these questions was ‘yes’. This meant that, for me, the decision to apply was as much of a no-brainer as it is for most aspiring writers of literary fiction.

NEXT: Which schools should you apply to?

*Operated by Kelly Link, MFA UNC-Greensboro.

4 thoughts on “Why You Should (And Shouldn’t) Apply To MFA Programs

  1. prezzey

    Love this series. There’s just one thing I’d add – what if MFA programs make people worse writers? Someone I know who edits a semipro genre mag says that this is the case, and that people who have that in their bios tend to submit stories that are artsy in the wrong way, etc.

    G-d forbid that would happen to you! But I have heard this argument. Personally, I think the financial security is a huge plus and I’d totally recommend people to go for it if they can.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I’ve heard that argument too. It’s definitely possible. If I feel like if that is happening, then I will quit (although it seems like the kind of thing that could just sneak up on you).

      However, I’ve read and enjoyed the work of a lot of writers who seemed to escape the homogenization process. Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Junot Diaz, Joe Haldeman, Stacey Richter, Aimee Bender, Michael Chabon, Flannery O’Connor, and Raymond Carver all have MFAs. I think that tends to be a good sign. If you enjoy the work of the MFA brigade, then it’s more likely to be the right thing for you to do.

      1. prezzey

        However, I’ve read and enjoyed the work of a lot of writers who seemed to escape the homogenization process.

        Fair enough, that’s a good argument…

        The only issue I see with a list of successful writers is that we do not hear of the failures – people who obtain MFAs and then fail to produce successful genre fiction, or just fiction in general. It’s kind of like the file drawer problem in science. So I don’t know, maybe there are lots of such people…

        Something else:

        Huh, I wouldn’t have categorized Junot Díaz as a genre writer though! (I like his work – I read a lot of non-genre fiction too. It’s just that this characterization surprised me somewhat.)

        1. R. H. Kanakia

          Oh, I don’t think of him as a genre writer. But he’s definitely influenced by genre. And I think he has an interesting style and I like his work.

          The vast majority of people who get MFAs fail to produce interesting fiction, but, then, the vast majority of aspiring writers also fail to produce interesting fiction. I agree, the thought of being homogenized by the program _is_ kind of scary, but I’m not toooo worried about it. People also say that the Clarion workshop homogenizes writers, and I managed to escape from that experience unscathed.

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