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27 Writers on Whether or Not to Get Your MFA

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Now that September is here and school is back in session, a writer’s thoughts turn to the eternal question: Is an MFA worth it? Ever since the publication of the Chad Harbach-edited anthology MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction earlier in the year, the perennial neurosis about whether or not an advanced degree in writing is worth it has become a progressively louder conversation. It’s one that we should be having, considering the explosion of the MFA in the past 40 years: from a mere 79 programs in 1979 to 854 today, according to Harbach. The MFA may even be having its moment — after all, the last shot of Girls Season 3 had Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath joyfully looking at her acceptance to Iowa. We checked in with some of our favorite writers from then and now to see what they think of the rise of the MFA.

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Photo by Agf/REX/Shutterstock

Gary Shteyngart: Author of this year’s memoir Little Failure and several novels, including Super Sad True Love Story.

Does he have an MFA? Yes, from Hunter.

Does he teach in programs? Yes! Which is why he is a promiscuous blurb writer and has a tendency to pop up in some James Franco joints.

Does he think you should get an MFA? In The Paris Review, he responds to the question “What is your advice for young writers?” with this:

You have to get an MFA. Without an MFA nobody will look at you right, so you have to get an MFA. You have to go to the right parties (The Paris Review is great). “Don’t be pretentious” is my first advice to young writers. This is the big problem — just because you’re getting an MFA doesn’t mean you have to write for the Academy. Be true to your personality. Don’t temper your personality down with words. Don’t build defensive fortresses around yourself with words — words are your friends.

Jonathan Franzen: Funniest punching bag in American letters, lord of Franzenfreude, the author of essential novels like Freedom and The Corrections.

Does he have an MFA? No.

Does he teach in programs? No.

Does he think you should get an MFA? He thinks you should get a great first wife! From The Paris Review:

I got married instead to a tough reader with great taste. We had our own little round-the-clock MFA program. This phase of our marriage went on for about six years, which is three times longer than the usual program. Plus, we didn’t have to deal with all the stupid responses to writing that workshops generate.
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Photo by David Sandison/The Independent/REX/Shutterstock

Helen Oyeyemi: Author of Boy, Snow, Bird and others, Flavorwire office crush, wildly successful before 25.

Does she have an MFA? Dropout!

Does she teach in programs? No.

Does she think you should get an MFA? Not if your mind is crooked. From Buzzfeed:

I only lasted a semester on my MFA program, but you know, that program offered the best of everything: I was taught by the likes of Victor LaValle and took an excellent history faculty course on medieval marriage customs. To those in MFA programs I’d say stick with it if you can but don’t feel bad if your mind is crooked like mine is and you find you’ve got to leave.

Elif Batuman: Author, academic, journalist, the best byline in The New Yorker, writer of The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, very funny lady.

Does she have an MFA? She is a doctor, folks.

Does she teach in programs? She could be your professor, but probably not your workshop professor.

Does she think you should get an MFA? No. Read all of her wonderful (and notorious) filleting in the London Review of Books regarding an M.F.A. book from 2009, The Programme Era by Mark McGurl. Here’s a sample: “Why can’t the programme be better than it is? Why can’t it teach writers about history and the world, and not just about adverbs and themselves? Why can’t it at least try?”

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Photo by Bebeto Matthews/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Junot Diaz: Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, certified MacArthur Genius, author of short story collections Drown and This Is Where You Leave Her and the novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Does he have an MFA? Yes, from Cornell.

Does he teach in programs? He’s a professor of creative writing at MIT, which has to be a bit different.

Does he think you should get an MFA? Naaaaaah. In “POC vs. MFA,” a horror story about the MFA experience that just gets worse, he writes: “I didn’t have a great workshop experience. Not at all. In fact by the start of my second year I was like: get me the fuck out of here. So what was the problem? Oh, just the standard problem of MFA programs. That shit was too white.”

Ted Thompson: Author of The Land of Steady Habits, a well received debut novel from this summer that is due to be adapted by Nicole Holofcener (!) for the screen, and a charming and honest presence regarding the writing life on the internet (his “Ask a Debut Novelist” column is great reading).

Does he have an MFA? Yes, from Iowa.

Does he teach in programs? Teaches, but not in an MFA program.

Does he think you should get an MFA? No.

But I guess what I’m saying, mostly to myself, but also to you and to anyone else who might be struggling with this, is that you don’t need a book deal for your commitment to your writing to be valid, you do not need a grant or a residency or an MFA. All of those things are nice, and by all means you should go after them, but I guess what I’m saying is that you do not need permission. You give yourself permission, one day at a time, you find the hours and protect them, you treat them as important and they become important, you treat your work as valid and it becomes valid.

Maureen Johnson: Prolific Young Adult writer of books delightful (Suite Scarlett, The Bermudez Triange), series frightful (the “Shades of London” books which are Jack the Ripper-themed), and noted internet personality.

Does she have an MFA? Yes, Columbia.

Does she teach in programs? No.

Does she think you should get an MFA? Officially, no: “Frankly, I don’t push MFAs on people at all.” She’s pro life experience. But she has good techniques on how to get the most out of your MFA.

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Photo by Mediapunch/REX/Shutterstock

Elizabeth Gilbert: Journalist and author of books both true and fictional, including Eat, Pray, Love, The Signature of All Things, and The Last American Man, among others.

Does she have an MFA? No.

Does she teach in programs? No. She’s currently on Oprah’s “The Life You Want Tour.”

Does she think you should get an MFA? Try an advanced degree in the school of life, working on ranches and learning how to rope a steer and all that kind of stuff. From her site:

“After I graduated from NYU, I decided not to pursue an MFA in creative writing. Instead, I created my own post-graduate writing program, which entailed several years spent traveling around the country and world, taking jobs at bars and restaurants and ranches, listening to how people spoke, collecting experiences and writing constantly.”

Alexander Chee: Author of Edinburgh, and next year’s hotly anticipated historical novel about an opera singer in Paris, The Queen of the Night.

Does he have an MFA? Yes, Iowa.

Does he teach in programs? Yes.

Does he think you should get an MFA? Yes. In his MFA Vs. NYC essay, excerpted on BuzzFeed Books, he makes an argument for putting writing first, for what a writer can get from a workshop (after, of course, lots of youthful MFA-whatever cynicism):

It’s true of families, and equally true of workshops: You meet people there you’d never meet otherwise, much less show your work to, and you listen to them talk about your story or your novel. These are not your ideal readers — they are the readers you happen to have. Listening to their critiques forces you past the limits of your imagination and also your sympathies, and in doing so takes you past the limits of what you can reach for in your work on your own.
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Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

George Saunders: Best short story writer alive, mensch, author of books from Civilwarland in Bad Decline to Tenth of December.

Does he have an MFA? Yes, Syracuse.

Does he teach in programs? Yes, Syracuse.

Does he think you should get an MFA? Yes! In a recent interview:

Writing somehow tends to move us from a position of one-dimensional certainty about a topic to a more ambiguous or even confused state — and that is mind-enlarging. On a more pragmatic level, I think the MFA degree has made it easier for our grads to get teaching jobs.

Flannery O’Connor: The best practitioner of southern Gothic, short story writer and novelist.

Did she have an MFA? Yes, from Iowa.

Did she teach in programs? No.

Did she think you should get an MFA? No! She went hard against writing that came out of the Academy: “We want competence, but competence by itself is deadly. What is needed is the vision to go with it, and you do not get this from a writing class.”

Jia Tolentino: Former editor for The Hairpin, MFA graduate from Michigan, great freelancer.

Does she have an MFA? Finished this spring!

Does she teach in programs? No.

Does she think you should get an MFA? Only for free: “Here, briefly, is where I stand on writing programs. The ones that make you pay are dead to me and I do not understand how they continue to exist and multiply. The ones that pay you are rare and beautiful, like unicorns.” For more of her M.F.A.-related thoughts, try this piece.

Stanley Elkin: Your favorite writer’s favorite writer, the author of such wicked, crucial work like Boswell and The Magic Kingdom.

Did he get an MFA? Ph.D in literature.

Did he teach in programs? He was an English professor.

Did he think you should get an MFA? No. But you should take some time to write and find your style, not William Faukner’s style: “The remarkable thing, remarkable for me anyway, was that I discovered that I could write only after I passed my prelims. I had been writing and chopping away at stuff, at this story or that. I took all the writing courses, but I had no style — or, rather, I did have a style but it wasn’t mine.”

Lan Samantha Chang: Author of Hunger and All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, and the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Does she have an MFA? Yes, Iowa.

Does she teach in programs? Yes, she is a professor and the director of the most prestigious MFA program in the country.

Does she think you should get an MFA? Yes. The odds are staggering, but she’s all for the value of the Iowa education:

“So, those of us who work at the program, we see the Workshop as a kind of quirky home for gifted misfits. We feel like we’re nurturing young writers, and we’re thrilled by signs of promise. We have our own — and I don’t mean to speak for everyone — somewhat eclectic or eccentric lives. Small town lives. We don’t think of ourselves as representing anything at all.”
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Photo by Sutton Hibbert/REX/Shutterstock

Curtis Sittenfeld: Author of Prep, American Wife, and Sisterland.

Does she have an MFA? Yes, from Iowa.

Does she teach in programs? Sometimes!

Does she think you should get an MFA? Sure? Maybe? In an interview with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop director Lan Samantha Chang, Sittenfeld weighed in, noncommittally: “When I was teaching at the Writers’ Workshop last fall, I talked to my students about that particular essay. I thought it made some interesting points. I’m not sure I agree with its overall argument, but it is something that is popular for people to say, that there are too many MFA programs.”

Blake Butler: Editor of HTML Giant, writer of many things, including the novel There Is No Year and the memoir Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia.

Does he have an MFA? Yes, from NYU.

Does he teach in programs? Does HTML Giant count?

Does he think you should get an MFA? Only if it’s free:

“A lot of people rarely seemed to do their work. Many people complained about writing like it was a job they were actually getting paid to do, or as if coming to college were just a really expensive party with a shitty required costume. In general, I would not recommend anyone get an MFA unless you get funding. That way you can feel less bad about fucking off.”

Edan Lepucki: Author of California — a debut novel that got the “Colbert bump” due to the Amazon vs. Hachette wars — and frequent writer for literary website The Millions.

Does she have an MFA? Yes, Iowa.

Does she teach in programs? She runs Writing Workshops Los Angeles, check out the offerings here.

Does she think you should get an MFA? If it’s free. As she wrote in an “Ask the Writing Teacher” column for The Millions:

“I also didn’t pay to go, and that is important. My main advice to you, should you decide to get an MFA: Don’t spend money (or, not a lot) to get it. Get funded. Anyone who makes the argument that MFA students are rich, or going deeply into debt to talk about short stories, don’t know anything about how these programs work.”

Sheila Heti: Author of novels including Ticknor and How Should a Person Be?, recently the co-editor of Women in Clothes.

Does she have an MFA? No.

Does she teach in programs? No.

Does she think you should get an MFA? Nah. “For me, grad school has never had much meaning or allure. As well, I have known a lot of people in grad school and no one seems very happy about it.”

Lorin Stein: Editor of The Paris Review, former editor for Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Does he have an MFA? Yes, from Johns Hopkins.

Does he teach in programs? No.

Does he think you should get an MFA? He’s undecided, really. Depends on the person:

You can learn things in a writing program, of course. It can give you the sanction to spend your days reading and writing, if you need that kind of sanction. More important, it can offer a stipend. This is probably the best thing a program can do, beside helping you to realize if you have no talent. (This service tends not to be advertised.) But I find it hard to believe that spending so much time with other young writers — people so much like you — is good for the spirit, or makes you a more interesting person.
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Photo by Omar Vega/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Cheryl Strayed: Author of Torch andWild, beloved advice columnist behind Dear Sugar.

Does she have an MFA? Yes, Syracuse.

Does she teach in programs? She teaches, but she’s in demand regarding Wild.

Does she think you should get an MFA? She’s unsure. But it was good for her as a writer:

I can speak from my own experience, and that is getting my MFA was really important to me because it allowed me time to really focus on my writing and to take my writing to a deeper level that would have been a lot harder to do completely on my own. An MFA program gives you a reason and it gives you permission to go new places in your writing and spend some time focusing on it. It sort of legitimizes your writing.

Chad Harbach: Author of The Art of Fielding, editor of MFA vs. NYC, N + 1 guy.

Does he have an MFA? Yes, University of Virginia.

Does he teach in programs? No.

Does he think you should get an MFA? In his dystopian vision of the future of writing, the M.F.A., while imperfect, seems like an okay option:

“The rapid expansion of MFA programs in recent decades has opened up large institutional spaces above and below: above, for writer-professors who teach MFA students; below, for undergraduate students who are taught by MFAs (and by former MFAs hired as adjuncts). All told, program fiction amounts to a new discipline, with a new curriculum.”
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Photo by Amanda Schwab/Starpix/REX/Shutterstock

Susan Orlean: New Yorker staffer, journalist, writer of The Orchid Thief and other excellent books.

Does she have an MFA? No.

Does she teach in programs? Yes. Also Skillshare.

Does she think you should get an MFA? It’s a gift, but don’t cloister yourself and go experience the world:

Colleges are a wonderful terrarium, and I can see where you might just think, “Hey, I really like this, and this is where I’m going to stay.” That’s fine, but if your idea is that you’re going to be out in the world writing for The New Yorker — as is often the ambition that they describe — you’re getting further and further away from being part of a world that would be interesting to write about.

Anelise Chen: Writer, MFA grad.

Does she have an MFA? Yes.

Does she teach in programs? Maybe?

Does she think you should get an MFA? She called it a Ponzi scheme in The Rumpus. It gets better:

“For a person who really wants to become a writer, none of this matters. She will go to school if she feels it will help her become a better writer; she will not go if she feels it will harm her. She will teach in a Program if she needs the money, she will not teach if she is can find another way to make a living. Even if she decides the Program is nonsense, she can go her own way.”
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Photo by Marty Reichenthal/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr: Legendary author. Start with Slaughterhouse Five.

Did he have an MFA? No.

Did he teach in programs? Yes.

Did he think you should get an MFA? He’s quoted as saying, well: “You can’t teach people to write well. Writing well is something God lets you do or declines to let you do. Most bright people know that, but writers’ conferences continue to multiply in the good old American summertime.”

Michael Nye: Author of Strategies Against Extinction, the managing editor of The Missouri Review.

Does he have an MFA? Yes.

Does he teach in programs? Unclear.

Does he think you should get an MFA? He’s questioning whether it’s a fair investment in a career: “What if we honestly ask ourselves: what does this degree actually prepare our graduates to do?”

Arielle Greenberg: Poet, former professor at Columbia College Chicago, currently living in rural Maine.

Does she have an MFA? Yes, Syracuse.

Does she teach in programs? She has, yes.

Does she think you should get an MFA? Yes. She makes the argument that an MFA is a bellwether against our country’s anti-intellectualism:

I’d be thrilled if we lived in a nation — like some others in the world — where people gathered in local cafes and plazas to recite great verse and breathe it in, but the truth is, in America, this happens primarily in the classrooms and reading series and conferences and living rooms of MFA students, alumni, and faculty—and for this we should be thankful.
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Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Margaret Atwood: Canadian for “writing that will blow your mind.” You’ve read The Handmaiden’s Tale, now go read her other works.

Does she have an MFA? A Master’s Degree from Radcliffe.

Does she teach in programs? Yes.

Does she think you should get an MFA? She thinks you need a room of your own, writers:

You do it by yourself, or on your own time; no teachers or employers are no involved, you don’t have to apprentice in a studio or work with musicians. Your only business arrangements are with your publisher, and these can be conducted through the mails; your real “employers” can be deceived, if you choose, by the adoption of the assumed (male) name; witness the Brontes and George Eliot. But the private and individual nature of writing may also account for the low incidence of direct involvement by woman writers in the Movement now.