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!

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

  1. At this point I think an MFA would be more damaging than helpful to me. I mean ultimately it would be helpful, but it would take a few years to recover from it. I would guess.

    When I knew I was serious about writing, I started reading the greats. Literary stuff. I love it. I don't understand why it gets a bad rap. Sure there are the duds, but every genre has those.

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  2. Thanks for the encouraging post. The reason I would've loved to have taken a MFA program is to be in a room with others who thrive on talking about writing, reading, and books. I get some of stimulation in my writers' critique group, which as you mention, helps one grow as a writer.

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  3. I consider myself a student of writing, but doubt I'll ever get around to getting an MFA. I took some classes at one local university, then enrolled as a non-degree student in a masters in writing program at another local university. I don't have the time or money to finish the program, but it was great to learn what academic writing programs are all about and I think it was still a very valuable experience. In the meantime, I've joined a few in-person writing groups, which have been incredibly helpful. I can't say I have an unofficial MFA yet, but I'm working on it!

    Regarding the literary fiction required in an MFA program: While I don't mind (and often enjoy) reading literary fiction, one thing that bugged me was a requirement to WRITE literary fiction. I mostly write genre fiction, but I always strive for evocative, well-written prose. In my writing classes, I found that the teachers didn't seem to get genre fiction, and didn't really approve of it either (particularly sci-fi, horror, or fantasy. They were mostly okay with crime, mystery, etc.). So, I found that I was writing literary stuff to please them, and writing stuff I enjoyed more on the side.

    I just didn't feel like, as a genre writer, I could be true to myself in an MFA program. I do think the trend is changing, though, and I have seen that speculative fiction writers are being added to the staff in some these programs. Hopefully times will change and there will be less bias either way between genre and literary fiction writers — we all can learn a lot from each other!

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  4. I still haven't read this one: Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

    I've read the other two though. I'm not big on 'how to write' books, just because there are so many other works of fiction I'd rather read. But maybe I'll check out Reading Like a Writer.

    I can't afford to get an MFA. It's not in the cards for me. I hate the idea of going into debt. Anyways, being in the real world teaches me a lot about life.

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  5. Oh…and one thing I'd like to add. I have a bachelor's already, but I'm enrolled in an Associates of Fine Arts for Creative Writing at my community college and it is fantastic. I was skeptical prior to starting, but the teachers are fabulous and really know how to encourage each of us where we are at. They don't try to turn us into specific writers or carbon copies of themselves. I love the department and can't wait for classes to start back up this fall. It's definitely worth looking into, in your own communities, for those of you who can't afford an MFA but would like extra guidance in a classroom setting.

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  6. Extremely good advice. Too many people look for a simple way to curtail around actual hard work when it comes to succeeding. Writing, like about any other profession, really takes dedication and a commitment to better yourself and to constantly further you own knowledge, breadth, and scope. Saying “Anyone can be a writer” is akin to saying “Anyone can be a surgeon”.

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  7. I didn't have to pay for my MFA. In fact, they paid me. . .for teaching, of course. And it was a pretty tiny salary. But if you're willing to teach, and MFA doesn't cost that much. Just saying.

    That said, I like your list.

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  8. I think this is a great list. Does every writer need an MFA? Nope. But if you can't afford one and want to learn the academic approach to writing, this is awfully good advice. Will RT.

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  9. @Loralie & @Anonymous – I'm sorry I got on my snarky horse, but you're right that overall experience, and how it contributes to your education, is what I was talking about.

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  10. Hmmmm…Why is real education dismissed at every turn lately? It's like we really, really want to be as dumbed down as much as possible.

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  11. The author's comment about the University of Phoenix betrays serious ignorance about the institution. Know what you're talking about before you make unfounded statements like that, please. I'm a member of the faculty.

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  12. I'd argue that the University of Phoenix is a college education, and a legitimate diploma, it's just not the same experience. I understand your point, though.

    I'd also argue (but not here, because the arguments supports your point) that experience is so much of what fills in a writer's prose, and I can see how an MFA adds to that so much more than reading a book. I like that you touched on that with your list. Thank you for the advice ^_^

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