I chose to get an MFA in Creative Writing for a lot of reasons, not all listed here. You may not share these reasons and that’s OK. We have different lives and different ways of thinking.
And there are many paths along the writing life. Mine certainly isn’t definitive, even though I immensely enjoyed my program and am grateful for it.
In this post, I’m going to lay out my reasons for pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing, and also some alternatives. Like I said, I don’t believe that my experience is the definitive one and I’m not going to work myself up into a lather defending a degree that isn’t necessary for the majority of people.
I got my MFA in Creative online with Lindenwood University. This was perfect for me as it provided me the flexibility and autonomy I needed to study when, where, and how I needed to. They provided an excellent foundation in advanced writing techniques and embraced genre writing, screenwriting, poetry, and creative non-fiction. What I loved about the program was my ability to create my own degree. I split my time between novel-writing and poetry (with an emphasis in Asian forms.) Another thing I loved about Lindenwood is that they weren’t worried about you pumping out the next Goldfinch for your thesis. They wanted you to tell something authentic to yourself, whether that was YA Romance or literary fiction. This is not the experience with all MFA programs, so if you are considering an MFA, know what you want out of it and be sure to choose a program that fits you.
Before we start, I highly recommend that you get reeeeeaally honest with yourself about why you are considering an MFA, your needs, your strengths (because you do have them), and any other relevant personality quirks. Try a SWOT analysis- yes, it’s used in organizations but it works wonderfully on people too. Gotten honest with yourself?
Perfect, let’s dive in shall we?
- Developing Discipline. Or routine. Or consistency. Or whatever you want to call it. I did not have it and I knew it. And I knew that as long as I was working a full-time job and had a full Netflix queue, I would let myself off the hook. Without the imposed deadlines of coursework, I would not develop a good writing habit. Take into consideration your energy level and laziness factor. Many other self-published and indie authors that I’ve met have not had this problem, but it was a huge issue for me. I’m lower energy and need longer to build up internal motivation so I needed an outside source to help me develop the habits and techniques with which to push myself. Once I learned that I could do 3-4 hours of homework every night, 30 minutes of writing a day seemed easy. If you’re self-disciplined or good at making schedules and keeping goals, this may not be a problem for you.
- Ferreting Out Blind Spots. My major in undergrad was focused on literature studies, non-fiction, and professional writing. From the few creative writing courses I’d taken, I knew I was woefully under-prepared to write America’s Next Great Novel. What was plot? What was structure? Characters had arcs? Hell, if I knew. I had some lovely ideas and no experience getting them on paper. Funnily enough, this point never really goes away since I keep discovering things I want to improve, but I do feel more prepared to handle it now. Since I’d had several gap years, I wanted outside eyes on my writing to help me jumpstart it. Being open to feedback on your work, looking for areas to improve, and being part of a writing group or finding a critique partner can prove vital if you don’t want to go the MFA route. (And I’d suggest at least a critique partner even with an MFA!) At the time, I didn’t have a chance to get involved in the writing groups in my area, so an online MFA made sense.
- Learning To Take Criticism/ Self-Confidence. Now, I had some of the greatest professors and classmates you could ask for. They provided thoughtful, pointed feedback aimed at making my work better. And it was never a personal attack. And I KNEW I needed the feedback, had joined the program to get as much as I could. But it still took a couple semesters of deep breathing for the “I am the worst writer ever” and “how dare they” feelings to go away. And since it was online, no one saw my embarrassing angry tears. This is probably the point that is easiest to counter- you can usually find writing groups or guilds by calling your local library or searching online or through apps like MeetUp. Heck, you can even create your own on MeetUp or Facebook group. I do suggest you look up some quick guides on how groups should give feedback to participants though, since having a professor moderate was a big benefit of being in a classroom structure. (I might make how to give feedback in a group a future post actually.)
- Lots Of Personalized Learning In A Short Amount Of Time. An MFA was definitely the quickest way to focus on my two main areas of interest and shore up my biggest, gaping areas of knowledge. I was able to complete my degree in 2 1/2 years instead of taking Lord-only-knows-how-long piecing it together from forums, articles, and self-guided books. During my MFA, I dove into craft-based learning immediately, had pitfalls in my writing pointed out right away, and developed an ability to assess my own writing and ask for help. And while I’m far from through learning, I now know where to look for good resources (and where not to.) With access to published authors who are invested in my learning and success, my MFA was way better than a subscription to Masterclass or GreatCoursesPlus could ever be. However, it was significantly more expensive and the cost makes an MFA a hurdle or impossibility to most if a scholarship isn’t available. There are many cheaper and free alternatives out there from Facebook groups, free webinars, forums, podcasts, YouTube channels, and cheap course and app subscription.
I absolutely loved my MFA in Creative Writing program and still actively participate in its Facebook group. It helped jumpstart me back into writing and made me realized just how much I can accomplish when I focus. I have an academic bent so I knew I’d thrive in a more structured environment, even an online one.
However, I realize an MFA isn’t a good fit or even possible for everyone. If you decide not to pursue an MFA, I’d encourage you to embrace your writing with joy and seriousness anyway. Those two aren’t mutually exclusive!
Do that SWOT analysis of not only your personality but of your writing strengths and weaknesses to develop your own “curriculum.” Set some big goals for yourself and run after them! Is there a creative writing book you can pick up used? A Facebook group you can join? A blog or podcast you can follow?
I wish you the best of luck on your writing journey! And if you have any questions about MFAs or alternative paths, shoot me an email at email@example.com!