Monday, August 20, 2007

"MA in Literature or MFA in Creative Writing?"

another of zooeyincharge's questions. (I hope other people are going to chip into this discussion; don't mean to hog the blog in any way, but to at least start a thread for each question in the Mailbag). This is related to jmwelches' question:

I have a BA in CW and have thought about the MFA next. But, I am torn between that and doing some in-depth literature studies to provide a better foundation. Does anyone have an opinion/advice on studying literature (and if so where) prior to pursuing a MFA?

As an English-Creative Writing double major, I can tell you that English lit courses involve literary analysis, theory, historical criticism, expository essays; creative writing courses involve the study of craft, reading stories to see how the writer's mind plotted them and learning to perform such techniques yourself, editing peers' work in workshops. Some MFA students do an MA in literature first; a few MFA programs even offer up specific TA-ship packages for students who already possess MA's, or let students with MA's graduate from the program faster. And I know someone who did an MFA at Columbia, followed by an MA at Johns Hopkins, so it can also be done the other way around.

Which degree you go for is ultimately your personal decision; if both, same goes for the order. A lot of the answers to the questions asked on this blog ultimately depend on the individual. When my turn comes around I'll probably go for an MFA that incorporates a lot of English lit courses, not just creative writing workshops or courses on craft, since I'm one of those writers who thinks the best writing comes from reading good literature. If you go to my database,, and follow the link to any program's website, check out the credit breakdown that shows what courses must be taken to earn the MFA (and whether there are any English lit courses or electives in other departments--always a good thing).


David McCarthy said...

I just received an MA in English Literature in June and I am strongly considering a return to grad school to work on an MFA. I managed to squeeze in a fiction workshop while studying for my MA as an elective, and I happily found it to be on the opposite end of the spectrum from the rest of my classes. In my MAE classes, we rarely studied craft, the beauty of an author's prose, and how the author managed to get from A to B in the plot. Instead, we read "texts" not novels or stories; we focused on the sliding of signifiers, the possible subversion of power in texts, whether the text or the author was actually dead, etc. A lot of our reading was of course theoretical and on the periphery of the story itself--how anti-Catholic was Milton based on Paradise Lost? What are the gender implications in Shakespeare's plays when certain characters mask themselves as the opposite gender? Where was the female voice in Medieval texts? These are issues (more specific than these of course) we would look at in the MAE program. While I cannot be certain, I find it hard to believe that these topics would be discussed in an MFA program.

To be honest, I grew tired of reading as an MAE student. I was unable to enjoy the best part of a book--the story and its characters. Yet, when I took my workshop class in the final quarter, I learned to read in a new, rejuvenated way. It seemed more organic. Rather than reading a "text" as a specimen to be prodded and analyzed, I finally began to enjoy the story and discovered the emotion and life of the work (as corny as that sounds). That was, though, my experience only.
I do agree, however, that reading so critically as you may in an MAE, will find a way to help one's writing but only after one spends a considerable amount of time honing their fiction writing since, as noted in the original post, almost all of the MAE work is expository.

David McCarthy said...

Another way of thinking the two programs: an MAE can be thought of as a MA in Creative Reading and an MFA obviously in Creative Writing