Monday, August 20, 2007

"How can an MFA help you professionally?"

zooeyincharge asks.

Everyone has a different opinion on this; in my view, very little. Sure, everyone knows it's the terminal degree in the field of creative writing, which qualifies someone to teach creative writing at the college/university level. But a lot of creative writing profs don't have an MFA; I even know a couple of directors of creative writing programs who don't, and they are very well respected poets. In the end, the degree alone isn't likely to get you a position teaching creative writing--considering the many many people who possess it these days--what matters much more, I've learned from many sources, is a strong publication record.

Other people will tell you it'll help you make "connections." But really, what does that mean? That editors are more likely to choose your material for their publication if you're connected? I'd be skeptical about that. That you'll likely meet someone in the program who knows someone who knows someone who can offer you a job? As vital as networking is when you're looking for a position in any industry, it still boils down to who the best candidate is. In short, I really don't think an MFA holds any professional promises whatsoever. It is not guaranteed to make you a creative writing professor, a published writer, the editor of a magazine, etc. etc. All it promises is that you'll have 2-3 years to "hone" your writing and to read, read, read a lot of good literature. Which is even better done if it's done outside of a degree program, if you ask me.

Anyone else want to comment?


Vince said...

I have to agree with Anna. I think a lot of your success with a CW M.F.A. depends on your willingness to SUCCEED professionally. This means having the determination to make the most of matriculating as an enrolled M.F.A. student. Talk to your writing professors. Go to program seminars and readings. Really get to know your faculty advisor and select a mentor within the department who piques your interest. It's not realistic or practical to believe that you will support yourself as a professional writer once you have earned the CW M.F.A. You can work on having a full-time career RELATED to writing while you are working on your own works that you hope will be published in the future.

dll said...

It's really hard to answer a question that is not very specific – in this case, does not define what professional goals the asker is interested in. Professional goals are likely to differ from genre to genre, person to person. Can a poet expect the same career path and outcome as a fiction writer? Can/Should fiction writers have the same career expectations as non-fiction writers? Vince says that it's "not realistic or practical to believe that you will support yourself as a professional writer." But it's really NOT that unrealistic if you work in non-fiction and want to do freelance work.

(There seems to be this default position on MFA message boards - the default is set at fiction writers interested in residency programs. That's me, but I feel sorry for anyone outside the default zone. Probably why poet Seth Abramson created his own board)

I think the question "how can an MFA help you professionally?" implies that the asker believes that it WILL help you, but isn't sure HOW?
So, let’s assume that an MFA will help you "professionally" and that your preferred genre is fiction, HOW can an MFA help? By, as Vince says, offering you access to published writers, seminars on the craft, readings (opportunities to meet with writers outside your program), workshopping with your peers (the one I'd add).
But, as Vince says, all the ways in which an MFA can help you are predicated by your "willingness to SUCCEED professionally." Are you willing to do the leg work and take advantage of all the ways the MFA can help? If not, then the MFA can NOT help you, nothing can. And the question is moot.

K.Stewart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
K.Stewart said...

I doubt that "As vital as networking is when you're looking for a position in any industry, it still boils down to who the best candidate is" is completely true, because Universities are a business. I think that people tend to forget that all too easily, and expecially literary fiction writers tend to think they are above the business of publishing. As a journalism student and future publisher, I know that connections are incredibly important--as well as being able to get a big name to blurb your book, and having a publisher who will pay to have your book put in the front of bookstores.
So, how can an MFA help you prefessionally? By transforming you into a professional. It can help the most if you think of it as a professional degree with all the trappings: networking, developing a sense of the business (be it the business of a university or the business of publishing), craftmanship, and the time to treat your own writing seriously. Your goal can be a professorship, but don't forget that universities are a business, too.

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