To MFA or not to MFA? That is the question
OCTOBER 1, 2021
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON PERMISSION TO WRITE
Let’s get business out of the way. An MFA is not necessary to be a writer but it is valuable. As a degree holder, it took me three years, some student loans (more on avoiding those later), and time in the real writing world to fully understand this. As a self-proclaimed lifetime writer, MFAs were always touted as the highest level of study. When I graduated from undergrad with my Bachelor’s in English, MFAs seemed like the next logical choice. Instead, I chose to work full-time and start a blog. It was the best decision for my writing I could have made.
Fast forward and I’m in New York City. Well into my marketing career but I wasn’t satisfied. The nag of being a writer, a novelist, wouldn’t leave me and it was then I decided to pursue graduate school. I did my research, attended a few events and visited the schools to speak with current graduate students. I applied to a handful of programs (all in NYC) and got into Columbia University. While the program wasn’t fully funded, they did offer some scholarships. On the admitted students night, I asked one of the professors I’d been in touch with if I should accept, to which he said “Fajr, we’re asking you to come to grad school. Not go to war.”
MFAs can feel like they are the end-all be-all in terms of literary success but they aren’t and going into a program with that understanding can actually make it work better for you. Since I had such a large gap when I wasn’t reading or writing much fiction, my program served as a major re-introduction and refresher course. I read books I hadn’t read in ages, authors I had never heard of. Talked about fiction in ways I’d never thought about. We examined every aspect of craft, language and theme. I got to study with writers I long-admired and I wrote more than I had in the ten years prior. The program helped me discover what kind of writer I wanted to be and I found other writers, my peers, whose work I admired. I learned from them. We traded feedback and writing opportunities. Many of them became great friends.
For other writers, MFA programs are the next step in an already established writing career. I knew writers who came into Columbia with publications under their belts, full manuscripts they wanted to work on, and a path already laid out. It truly depends on the type of support you need.
While the MFA was mostly a good experience, it wasn’t without challenges. For starters, it can be very expensive and a huge time commitment to dedicate 2-3 years of your life to a profession that doesn’t guarantee publication (or money). Many MFA programs have teaching opportunities but those may be limited. While you’re there to write, I often found a lot of my time was spent on assigned reading and workshopping my peers’ work. None of that was lost (I became a better writer) but if you’re looking to just write, an MFA may not be the best choice. Of course, there are options. Many schools offer fully-funded programs with teaching positions. There are also low-residency MFA programs that meet once or twice a semester and allow students to work. Or you could DIY an MFA while keeping your day job.
In all, my MFA experience was a rich one. I look at my writing from when I applied to my work now and I see major growth. I learned about what being a working artist really means and how I could transition from my career to building a life around my art. If I had it to do again, I would have chosen a program that was fully funded (no debt) but do I have regrets? No. I now understand that MFA programs are only one part of being a writer. They help us with craft, how to read like writers, and find new ways to look at our work. But will an MFA write your book for you? Get you an agent? Help you make the NYT bestseller list? No. You the writer must do that, degree or not.
Writer Zadie Smith