Ask the Writing Teacher: The MFA Debate

March 30, 2012 | 37 7 min read

coverDear Writing Teacher,

Hello! I’m an amateur fiction/essay writer who is committing to writing; I have always loved storytelling and writing, and I feel that this would be the best decision for me to live a happy and fulfilling life. I’m unsure, though, of what I should do. I want to return to school, however, a few years ago when I applied to Creative Writing MFA programs I was rejected by each one. I blamed this on my social sciences background, and now am reluctant to apply again. However I don’t know how else I would proceed as a writer. Any advice you could give me would be wonderful, thank you.

Aspiring Author


Ah yes, ye olden MFA debate! It’s no surprise that the first question I received as The Millions (self-proclaimed) Resident Writing Teacher should be about this topic; we’re doomed to argue and question and protest and defend the advanced degree in creative writing until zombies shut us up by eating our brains. (I hear zombie fiction is HOT at Columbia right now, by the way).

Best I weigh in, once and for all, and move on.

Firstly, Aspiring Author, I am sorry that you were rejected from these MFA programs. Rejection is painful, and difficult, and that pain cannot be discounted. In the past few years, I have witnessed many of my best and most talented students suffer this same rejection. It’s unbelievable that these writers, whose voices are original and funny, beautiful and startling, true and sparkling with grit and polish and roar, would be turned away. Foolish, too. What are you smoking, my dear Iowa Writers’ Workshop? (Or, what aren’t you smoking? Loosen up!) On the other hand, I have said bon voyage to many supremely talented writers who were accepted into MFA programs. It’s hard to know who will get in, and who won’t; since I haven’t read your work, I have no idea why your fate was what it was.

There’s a terrific conversation between Curtis Sittenfeld and Iowa Writers’ Workshop Director Lan Samantha Chang about this very process; in it, Chang talks about how they have to turn away applicants who are good enough to get in. I am sure that’s the case at programs across the country. It’s an educational and sobering read, and it also inspires compassion for these people who must wade through billions of applications every year.

I can say, without a doubt, that your social science background had no bearing on your rejection, unless you totally bombed it GPA-wise, which (I’ve heard) can make it difficult for some public universities to accept you because of graduate college standards and so forth (credit wendy at MFA programs look at the writing sample first and foremost; what you studied as an undergrad usually only matters (again, so I’ve heard) when they’re figuring out teaching fellowships and the like.

But let’s think about this. It’s easier to blame your social science background rather than face the upsetting and wrenching thought that these programs rejected your writing. That’s what hurts, that’s what wounds, right?

Ugh, I know that feeling too well myself.

Here’s a fact though: the life of a writer isn’t just about producing work, it’s about showing that work to others: agents, editors, and most importantly, readers. It’s about hearing NO again and again and again, and still turning on the computer, opening the journal, and getting back to work.

If you decide not to apply to MFA programs, it can’t be because you fear getting rejected.

(Just think: the setbacks you encounter on your way to being a published author only make your biopic that much more Oscar-worthy.)

Now that some time has passed, I suggest you review your application and see it objectively. What was good about the work you submitted? What wasn’t? Have you improved in the past few years? I assume, if you’ve continued writing, that you have. Look at your work critically (and I don’t mean meanly, but with an eye for critique). How can your writing be better, so that no one dare reject its brilliance?

If you want to go to graduate school to study writing, then you already know what to do: work like hell on your application manuscript, and then send it off to the schools you want to go to. It can’t hurt to write and revise and revise and revise. Even if you get rejected again, the hard work will have made you a stronger writer. And just, stronger.

Now, the other question is, do you have to get an MFA?

Of course not.

For me, getting an MFA was a good decision. I loved having those two years to read and write, and to think deeply about craft. I was happy to get the teaching experience because I have always wanted to teach, and I met fellow writers with whom I still exchange work with today. It was a good thing for me.

I also didn’t pay to go, and that is important. My main advice to you, should you decide to get an MFA: Don’t spend money (or, not a lot) to get it. Get funded. Anyone who makes the argument that MFA students are rich, or going deeply into debt to talk about short stories, don’t know anything about how these programs work.

I’m sick of people (cough, cough, Elif Batuman, cough) talking shit about MFAs, people who love to compare whatever dead author they’re drooling over these days — you know, someone like Stendhal — to the latest batch of contemporary novelists. Enough about how school poisons genius, about how the workshop makes robots of us all! Enough with the ignorant blanket statements! Some writers with MFAs are great, and some aren’t; the same can be said for writers without MFAs.

It’s also odd, I think, to blame (or credit!) someone’s writing to a 2- or 3-year program, which the writer might have graduated from years ago. Life is weird and complicated, and schools and teachers can only influence a writer’s artistic identity so much.

In this year’s Tournament of Books (my favorite “sporting event” of the year), match commentators Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner bring some levelheaded sense to the MFA debate. Here, Warner says,

The notion that somehow the study of creative writing is producing some kind of homogenized product doesn’t stand up against even the briefest scrutiny. Ann Patchett (Iowa) writes good, old-fashioned realism. Tea Obreht (Cornell) works an amalgam of realism and fantasy. Donald Ray Pollock (Ohio State) mines the territory of literary pulp.

That said, like any groups where people gather and share ideas and inputs, a set of values is likely to arise and be shared by many members of that group. Often, these values are already in place prior to the person joining the group, and they have sought out this group because they see like-minded individuals already there.

And then Guilfoile says:

In an extremely informal survey of the stuff that I read, MFA graduates produce work that I like/dislike at exactly the same rate as everyone else. And while having an MFA no doubt has boosted your career as a teacher, I think you will testify that it is no guaranteed short track to getting published.

Amen, brother! An MFA program might help your career, but it more than likely won’t. Just last week a student said to me, “I hear that if you go to Iowa, and someone there likes your work, they just make a call, and voilà, a star is born.” (Okay, he didn’t say it like that, but he did use the phrase “make a call.”) Man, I wish it worked like that! It didn’t for me, and no MFA applicant or student should assume it will for them.

Here’s what an MFA will do: it will make you write, and you’ll get feedback on that writing. After you graduate, when someone at a party asks what you do, you might have the confidence to say, “I’m a writer.” But you might not.

In the event that you don’t get an MFA (or after you’re done getting your MFA), here’s what you can do to be a writer:

1. Read, read, read.
Read as closely and widely as you can. Figure out how narratives are made, how they make you feel this way or that. Enjoy yourself, and note when and why. When you hate a book and spit in its margins, figure out why it disgusted you so. Reading also includes exploring websites like this one, which discusses literature with passion and insight. Join these communities, share in the conversation. (Clearly, with your email, you’ve already done this.)

2. Join a writing group and/or enroll in a class.
Here’s an opportunity to meet fellow writers, to get feedback on your work, to figure out what’s bad advice and what is helpful. To get deadlines. To hear about new books. To receive guidance from a teacher. (I teach privately and for UCLA’s continuing education program, and I just pretend most of my classes are graduate-level. I think other teachers do the same.) And if you live in a small town with limited options, research online classes. If you don’t do this, then at least find a friend with whom to exchange work.

3. Seek out a guru (or two)
If you fall in love with the work of a contemporary writer, send them an email (or an old fashioned letter) telling them so; or, if you can, go to a reading of theirs to profess your love in person. You never know, one of these writers just might be eager to start a conversation about their work and yours, about the pleasures and perils of storytelling. I have used my role as staff writer at The Millions to bother at least half a dozen writers I admire, and I think I’m almost brave enough to reach out, next time around, as a regular old fan.

4. Set goals and deadlines for yourself.
Decide what you want to work on. You might start out small, like, “I want to finish a draft of this essay in the next six weeks.” Later on, you can keep simultaneous goals: “I want to revise my essay in two weeks, and also get halfway done on that short story I’ve been fantasizing about.” Write down these deadlines and plans, and announce your intentions to a kind soul (or two) who can keep you honest. Learn discipline.

5. Send work out.
This should be secondary to the writing, but after you’ve gotten your work in good shape, research the submission process. Duotrope is an excellent resource for short story writers, and blogs like AgentQuery can help you navigate the agent submission process. Don’t write with publication in mind (such writing can have a stink to it, I think), but educate yourself, and then put your work out there. Get used to being rejected.

6. Commit
In your letter you said, “I’m an amateur fiction/essay writer who is committing to writing.” That syntax struck me. Why not, “I’m an amateur fiction/essay writer who is committed to writing.” I sense hesitation in that gerund; I see a person on the verge of stepping into the writing life, a person with a foot lifted, but not yet landed. To that I say: Come on, walk on over. We’re waiting with open arms.


The Writing Teacher

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is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.