To MFA or Not To MFA
That IS the question.
In 2010, I decided I was finally going back to school. I was thirty-five, had three kids, and had just lost my home to foreclosure in the 2008 housing crash. I’ve always had impeccable timing for complicating my life even more than it already is. But I had put off grad school for years because I had kids so young and felt I couldn’t work part-time, raise my kids AND go to school. The foreclosure made it clear to me that I was stalling. It weighed heavily on me, because I also could not for the life of me land a full-time “real” job. I’d been writing books for several years, had tried to get an agent, came close, won a contest, got a couple magazine publications, but long story short — I wanted more. I needed more.
And if I was going to get more, I knew I had to take on more.
First, I enrolled in an Associates of Fine Arts in Writing — an uncommon accredited program, but I was fortunate to have one nearby. I figured it would be a good test for grad school. If I could handle going to classes with a bunch of eighteen-year olds, I could do anything. I absolutely loved it. Very quickly, my mindset began to shift from “I’d like to get published” to “I will get published.” And with that in mind, I started looking at MFA programs.
I want to make it very clear: You do not need an MFA to get published. You need to have a damn fine book.
But that’s the only disclaimer I’m going to state because I loved my MFA program (Vermont College of Fine Arts) and I love now teaching in an MFA program (Sierra Nevada College). I have learned a lot along the way, however, regarding MFA’s and the strange way many programs ignore the white elephant of publishing in order to focus on craft and academia. It’s not a good idea to apply to an MFA because you think it’s the only way to get published, but I’d gander most people apply with that in mind. I certainly did. Yet, I also wanted the education experience. My undergrad had been social welfare, so I’d never had the English track so many of my classmates had. I was ready to soak up literature, lectures, and critical essays like you would not believe. And writing a thesis? The motherlode. Yes. I was a big nerd.
Here’s the thing: I was fortunate to have a boatload of experience at conferences and retreats prior to starting my MFA. And during my program I also interned for an online YA magazine and a literary agency, so I simultaneously learned publishing and craft, but many MFA students do not have these experiences going in. Many don’t have these experiences until they graduate, if they are lucky to find them. So, why shouldn’t the MFA talk about publishing if so many of us are diving headfirst into a program with that exact goal in mind? I suppose it’s because of these varying levels of experience. In my class alone, there were people who had never finished writing a novel and those who’d had already published a dozen. I fell squarely in the middle.
If you’re considering an MFA, keep this mind: you may not get a very big dose of publication education during your program and a lot will be up to you to seek out.
Your faculty will likely want you to focus on the quality of your writing, which is a good thing because remember: damn fine book. This is starting to change, however. A few programs integrate both the business and the art of writing. Where I teach, for example, they bring on agents and editors to work with students for one semester so students get insight from someone on the inside. Many faculty at many programs wear both hats of writing and editing as well, so it’s worth your effort to research if this is what you’re looking for. I’ve also seen entire MFA’s dedicated to publishing, rather than writing, which speaks to the vast learning on both sides of the fence.
But no matter the program, you are going to have to accept that there must be a lot of self-education in this process. Publishing has an enormous learning curve. Getting an MFA, for me, was a huge confidence boost. I finally felt like I could really be a writer. It forced me to be even more disciplined than I already was and became a major credit in my bio. Letters after your name look good on resumes and query letters, but I won’t lie, it’s not a guarantee for anything. Students in my class went on to do a variety of things in addition to or instead of publishing: teaching high school, teaching college, agenting, editing, or simply continued writing. I’m sure some went on to do none of the above as well. There is still a tremendous amount of work that goes into any of these careers long after the degree is in hand.
A quick look:
An MFA will give you:
Improved writing skills
An incredible bibliography
A community of writers to glean from
A potential body of work
An MFA won’t give you:
A book deal
A teaching job
Full understanding of the publishing (or teaching) world
Do your research and ask a lot of questions from people who have completed an MFA. There are a lot of opinions on the subject. Also, it’s well worth your time and money to attend a few conferences whether you get the degree or not. Join writers’ associations such as SCBWI or AWP. And lastly, it’s probably best to consider an MFA for academic reasons, not for getting published quick because you’re likely to be let down. It will, however, help you get one step closer to having a damn fine book.
Jess Rinker is the author of Gloria Takes a Stand, a picture book biography of Gloria Steinem, and the forthcoming, Send a Girl: The Brenda Berkman Story, due out in 2021, both published by Bloomsbury. Jessica’s middle grade novel debut duology, The Dare Sisters, will be published in Fall 2020 and 2021 by Imprint/Macmillan.