PEOPLE WHO KNOW ME know that I have two graduate degrees: a master of arts in English and a master of fine arts in creative writing. And they assume that it was by getting that second master's degree that I learned how to write.
But that's not true, or at least it's not entirely true. The classes in my MFA program helped teach me to write better, and to become a better critic of others' work.
But even those are secondary, or even tertiary, benefits. You see, for me, the main reason for earning an MFA is to have the appropriate final degree—what, in academia, is called a “terminal degree”—to teach at the university level.
That's why, when writers ask me whether I think they should pursue an MFA, my first question is always, "Why do you want the degree?"
And if their primary purpose is to improve their craft, I always wonder if perhaps they might be better served by seeking out a writers' critique group. Oftentimes it's possible to find one that specializes in exactly the genre in which you hope to work, and one advantage of a critique group is that it is not a limited track, as is the usual two years of an MFA program. You can stick with a critique group as long as you like—indefinitely, if you so desire.
Now, true, in a better MFA program, entry is competitive, so you know the people in your workshops will have been vetted in terms of the quality of their writing. And in a really good program, you'll get one-on-one time with some really extraordinary writers.
For instance, in my MFA program (at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio), my professors included Howard McCord and Michael Mott, and my thesis advisor was Philip F. O'Connor—all deeply respected writers. BGSU also had a strong visiting-writer program: I recall having my poetry critiqued by Gary Snyder, who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize.
And while James Baldwin was in residence with the university's Popular Culture program, and not Creative Writing, he nonetheless took interest in the writers and was always available to discuss, and offer insight on, the craft. Some of those conversations still resonate with me to this day.
When I earned my MFA, though, there were only a handful of fine-arts writing programs in the country (along with BGSU, there were Iowa State, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the University of Pittsburgh, and a few others).
Now, there are literally hundreds of them, and the chances of encountering a true giant of American literature in one of them (that is, a writer who is famous outside the relatively narrow world of literary academe) is significantly lower.
That's why, if you are absolutely certain you want an MFA, it's worth your time to ask a lot of questions, and seek out a program whose graduates are publishing with household-name publishers (and, when teaching, teaching at well-known schools), a program with faculty and visiting writers whose work you know and admire ... a program where no one has to explain to you who the the faculty are.
To this I should add that, after earning my MFA, I did teach at the university level for a while, but never became a full-time lecturer or professor. So I never did fulfill the purpose of the degree, even though that had been my intention when I enrolled.
What happened was this writer's life.
When I was doing nonfiction magazine work, my writing schedule never jived with that of a university, and once I began having novels accepted by publishers, I found that the sound of student work was often discordant with whatever I was writing at the time. I just didn't have the knack of keeping the two separate. Plus, it always seemed that, when it was time to teach, I wanted to write. So I abandoned my academic ambitions and, these days, restrict my teaching to workshops (between novels).
So ... was my MFA for naught?
I don't think so. I still use principles I learned at BGSU every day and —more importantly—maintain friendships with several of my classmates and former professors. I wouldn't give these up for anything.
But, knowing what I know now, and especially given the fact that the world of MFAs in creative writing has broadened so much in recent years, I believe an exceptional critique group might provide most of the desired benefits, especially for someone who does not desire to go on and teach.
And it would be a heck of a lot more cost-effective, as well.