It started here and has expanded here. Another MFA debate. While this is ground we've covered before and before and before and will likely tread on again and again and again, it has reminded me of my own struggle with this issue.
So first, the bare facts: I do not possess an MFA. I likely never will. I kind of wish I had one. But I also know that I would hate some parts of getting one.
There you have it. As I not-so-cogently tried to illustrate in a comment on Ed's blog (sorry for the circular argument), what seems to always be missing from the should-you-get-an-MFA debate is this middle ground. The gray area. The space where an unpublished writer really does feel an MFA might help but also realizes that to get one requires $20,000 or so and where does that leave us? Pitting our potential future writerly success (in dollars) against the potential value of our writerly training (in dollars). That's a tough sell. I think it's even fair to say (which no one ever does) that this kind of financial requirement might breed jealousy among those who truly don't have the means to make this happen. Is it similar to being envious of someone who has more money than you do? I'm not sure -- but it seems there might be similar elements.
Yet what is also a tough sell to me is the easier route which is taken by many non-MFA holders that surely an MFA isn't all that valuable (the infantile if I can't have one, I don't want one approach), which also seems suspect and not on point.
I think it's obvious that there are many benefits to getting an MFA. I think, though I may not be taken seriously because I don't possess an MFA, there are also many outstanding writers who would not benefit from such a program and who would ultimately be better served by living their life and writing in their own way, on their own schedule and seeking out critical readers when they're ready. I don't disagree that writing programs may encourage a certain way of writing and that many recent graduate's work reflects this suspicion. I have doubts about whether writing can truly be taught, yet I've also been expertly guided by a few instructors to whom I'm ever-grateful, so who am I to judge the merits of one MFA program over another? I also think of all the writers I admired growing up that never heard of an MFA, let alone got one. The writers who believed that life should inform your writing & little else.
I fall somewhere in the middle. I really do wish I had an MFA and so when I hear of people getting them, just starting them, just finishing them, I get wistful. I think of Iowa and wonder if I could have gotten in if I tried. I wonder if it's too late for me. I berate myself for not having sent in all those applications year after year after year. I wonder if I would be published by now if I had sucked it up and made the time and financial investment. Yet with a mortgage and a job and so many other financial things pressing down upon me, I think maybe it will never happen. I also wonder to myself that if I had really wanted it to happen, wouldn't I have already done so? When I was younger & not about to be married and didn't have to worry about the mortgage and the three dogs? Perhaps if I had made writing more of a priority early on, I would have made the space for an MFA.
Why, then, haven't I already done it? I've taken many writing classes, been in many workshop environments. Some are helpful, some are not. Much of this depends on the quality of the writers in the class or workshop and much of this depends on the quality of the writing you bring to the class or workshop. I always seem to drop out of these. I find that I'm spending too much time reading everyone else's stuff and not working on my own. I justify this dropping out by saying that I would rather just write than jump through all these hoops. I suspect I feel the same about getting an MFA. At least in part. The idea of working with a mentor (or 2 or 3) on my work over the course of a few years sounds divine and I think I could benefit enormously from that. The thought of workshopping and reading everyone else's stuff and so much more -- I'm less into that.
I have also been told by agent friends and published writer friends who've both gotten MFA's and not that I don't need one. That it isn't worth it in the end. That I will have to "unlearn" all the bad tricks and cartwheels I was taught. That I will struggle to find my way back to my own writing voice again, once it is all over. And who am I to question these "more successful" writers and well-known agents on such matters? If they say I don't need it, I suppose I don't need it. Or do I? And what do we mean when we say need? Do you need an MFA to get published? Certainly not. Does it help? Maybe. Will the quality of your writing improve? Maybe. Probably. I'm guessing so.
Yet if I'm very honest, I think one of the main reasons I haven't gotten an MFA is because I'm afraid. I'm afraid I won't be good enough. I'm afraid I'll be found a fraud. I'm afraid that my dream of becoming a writer will be dashed the moment a visiting writer like ZZ Packer gets a look at my stuff and says "Honey, this is not for you." That may not be all of it, but I think it's pretty close to the core of it. Yet I also believe (naively?) that I may still meet with literary success (a whole separate post required on what that can mean) without an MFA.
While I know this doesn't clear up the debate, it at least clarifies some of my own confusion on the subject. And, I hope, adds a too-often-skipped over layer to the discussion. It isn't as simple as should you or shouldn't you. It isn't as simple as the end-product and the number of MFA holders that go on to be published authors or the number of non-MFA holders who are just as successful. I think the journey and the decision is different for every writer and I think we, as readers and writers, have to respect that journey and that choice. We must celebrate that writers at all stages of honing their craft are eager to give it a go and that we may be the lucky readers of their work sometime in the future. Whether they've got the MFA or not.