How to Get an MFA in Five Steps

This week, GalleyCat promoted New York Writers Workshop’s free ebook of Portable MFA in Creative Writing. While I have nothing against the existence of this book as a writing guide (the people over at the New York Writers Workshop are successful, well-known, and respected in their fields), I was skeptical of it proclaiming to give writers the MFA experience. A GED does not have the same weight as a high school diploma, and a certificate from the University of Phoenix is not a college education. So how could a free ebook come close to substituting a Masters degree? [Note: I don’t think the writers of this book believe it can either. It’s just a catchy title. But, it’s one that implies “an MFA is too expensive, so buy this book instead.”]

I’ll be the first to admit that an MFA in creative writing is a luxury degree. No one needs it. That doesn’t mean that, even after my accumulated $60,000 debt, I regret getting one. I’d recommend an MFA program to anyone who’s serious about writing, but I can see why some might not think it’s worth the price of admission. The good news is there are ways to cut costs and achieve (relatively) the same results. You just need to be willing to put in the work, and realize it’s not going to come from one source or happen overnight.

So here goes – my MFA in Five (Not-Always-Easy) Steps:

1. Buy the following books:
On Writing by Stephen King
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass

There are a million writing guides all proclaiming to be the only one you need. Do you ever only need one book though? Besides, if you found this blog you’re already savvy enough to know the internet is full of free advice that comes directly from agents, editors, and published authors. The three books I mentioned, however, are what I consider “the best” of many, many books on writing. You want to pick them up, trust me. And hey, buy the Portable MFA while you’re at it (or download it for free!) because it sounds like they have some good people over there. (I realize that sounds sarcastic, but I promise I’m being sincere!)

2. Read Literary Fiction.
Rarely will you find an MFA program that teaches genre fiction, and the reason is not because it’s “looked down upon.” My former colleague Nathan Bransford summed up what he called “the reverse snobbery” of literary fiction quite nicely (here), and I could not agree more. There seems to have been a backlash against literary fiction – that it’s too high brow, that they want something “real,” and that it’s not accessible. The thing is, sometimes those things are true and sometimes none of those things are true. Like with every genre, the stereotypes attached to it give it a bad name.

“Accessible” literary fiction like Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, and Jonathan Lethem are what I tend to fall back on when I’m able to read for fun. We all have our favorite genres. But if you’re trying to give yourself an MFA-style education, you need to push yourself. That’s why they teach the uber-literary in MFA programs. Reading the same book you’d read while commuting or at the beach is not going to help you learn anything you don’t already know. So pick up something you’d never buy otherwise. Pynchon maybe? Nabokov that’s not Lolita? Personally, I’d recommend some post-modern Barthelme. Sometimes you need to read something that will make you scratch your head, stretch your mind, and remind yourself that you’re a scholar.

3. Go to readings at your local bookstore.
This is something all the advice in the world can’t replicate. Seeing established authors in person reading aloud from their published work. Then, if you’re lucky, speaking to them – whether in a Q&A session or during a quick handshake before they sign your book. Witness what writing is when it’s off the page.

4. Give yourself “in class” assignments.
Set a timer for 10 minutes and write as many words as you can. It doesn’t matter what the topic is or even that they make sense as a cohesive idea. Just move your pen. Or type – whatever your preference. The goal isn’t to develop a story, but just to see where your mind takes you.

Another favorite in-class assignment of mine was to take a famous writer, study their sentence structure, and then try to replicate it. You’d be amazed at how hard this is. Pick literary writers, or the classics, for this task. Stretch your limits and go beyond your comfort zone. I once had to mimic Proust and produced a long, lyrical sentence about Wal-Mart. Like with the previous assignment, the importance isn’t placed on what you write, but rather how you’re writing it. 

(Although once you deem yourself ready to graduate and want to focus on publishing your work, I recommend taking authors within your genre and studying their structures. While it won’t be as “artful,” it’s a good way to learn what they’re doing, how you’d compete, and what you’d add to the market.)

5. Join a writer’s group or take a creative writing class at a local college.
Again, physically being near other writers is something you can’t find in a book. The most important aspects of an education is experiencing, learning-by-doing, and meeting people. Specifically, meeting strangers. Cheat on your beta readers and workshop your manuscript with people you don’t know, and maybe aren’t even sure you can trust. Sit uncomfortably and optimistically while your classmates tell you every single thing that is wrong with your work directly to your face. It’s wonderful and horrifying and makes you a stronger person. Their word isn’t bond, but how you interpret their advice will make you a smarter, more prepared writer.

This Five-Step Program will not, and should not, take less than one year to complete. Diplomas will be awarded upon graduation, though I cannot guarantee they won’t just be photos of corgis in party hats.

Good forth and learn, you bright young things!

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27 thoughts on “How to Get an MFA in Five Steps

  1. How did you pull off 60k in debt for an MFA program? Did you have substantial help from family or something? I had 30k in debt just coming out of undergrad, which I felt was required even to get a job. How do you expect these people to pay back the loans Harry Davis, or others championing going into debt for it.

    Also unless you are going to an MFA straight out of undergrad and used to living on a college minimum wage budget, stipends don't really pay much, they basically pay you minimum wage.

    Think about the opportunity cost.

    At my current salary of 45k which isn't all that much, if I went to an MFA program and got a minimum wage style stipend of 18k for the year AND full funding for 3 years. I would still be down 60k dollars, and with no additional employment qualifications (I don't plan on teaching)

    Paying 20k straight out of pocket to go to a low res would actually be more cost effective at anybody's salary over 30k a year than going to a program that waived your tuition AND gave you a 18k per year stipend plus you would have the job experience on top of that…

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  2. I've recently completed a top MFA program and am still surprised how much I learned–that is, how little about writing I knew before entering the program. I think that if writing is a matter of life or death, or life and death for you, do it justice and learn from living masters and in person. To have at least four accomplished writers think about your work with you, to give you their four un-honied suggestings, is a rare opportunity. Go into debt for it, if you are serious. Don't be suckered out of your life, for no one will give you anything back for staying where you “belong”–in the poorhouse of ignorance.

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  3. Thanks for this post! I'm a new follower of yours, and I appreciate the generous, practical advice from someone in the industry and with the educational background. Looking forward to my corgi.

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  4. Like JMCooper said, sometimes community colleges have great writing classes; this was recommended to me as well although I haven't purused it yet. Even my local library has a writing workshop every so often, so there is always a place to start to improve craft. I've learned a ton just from reading a few books on writing and going to a critique group. It's not the same as an MFA but I already know an MFA is not for me.

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  5. So I went to this writer's group I'd never been to in order to get my work critiqued. They allowed everyone to read for four minutes. Four minutes! And then offered feedback.
    It was sort of awesome. And very funny.
    Although, I might have thought it was more awesome if everyone there wasn't over 60 and a children's picture book author.
    I'm re-reading the Existentialists for a super secret project I have planned. Can we count that as literary fiction?

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