This weekend is the Newburyport Literary Festival, and I’m thrilled to be moderating a panel called “Inspiration to Publication: The Journey of a Debut Author,” with editor Sarah Cantin, agent Susanna Einstein, debut novelist Virginia Hume and publicist Jennifer Romanello.
This event will attract mostly aspiring writers who are curious about the life cycle of a novel, and one of the questions they’ll probably ask is whether you need an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in creative writing to succeed. Many authors take that path, and I’m one of them.
My own reasons for earning an MFA were unusual. Most graduate students enter MFA programs hoping the degree will lead to college-level teaching jobs, an agent, or a publishing deal. I went because I earned an undergraduate degree in biology and wanted to study literature. My MFA gave me time to write, deadlines to produce new work, and an audience who could critique my manuscripts. One of my professors even referred me to his agent.
So, was it worth it for me to get an MFA? Absolutely—but with one important caveat: I didn’t have to pay for my degree because I landed research and teaching fellowships. If I had to pay for the degree today, I might not do it, especially if I had to take out loans. Here are three reasons why:
1. An MFA Won’t Guarantee a Teaching Job
Many people enter MFA programs under the illusion that, because it’s a “terminal” degree like a PhD, they’ll be able to teach at the college level, but these days teaching jobs are in short supply. Even if you do get a college-level teaching gig, it’ll probably be as a lowly adjunct faculty member with no job security. You’ll earn less money than most bartenders.
2. An MFA Won’t Help You Earn Money with Your Writing
I’ve been a freelance writer for over 25 years now. And guess what? It’s not because I have an MFA. My first paid writing assignments were thanks to my biology degree, because editors were willing to take a chance on me for science and health articles when they saw that credential. Later, I wrote mostly for women’s magazines, not because I had an MFA, but because I was married with children and could turn out funny essays and parenting articles. More recently, most of my income is from ghostwriting books for celebrities, business executives, doctors, etc.–and I land those jobs because of my journalism experience. Have I earned even one paid writing gig because of my MFA? Nope.
3. An MFA Won’t Get You Published
While it’s true that some of your MFA professors might have agents who are willing to read your work because there’s a personal connection, they won’t take your manuscript because you have an MFA. It’ll still have to be a commercial manuscript, one they can pitch and sell to publishing houses. And guess what? If you write commercial fiction, your MFA professors and classmates will probably tell you it’s not “literary” enough.
The bottom line? MFA programs will give you deadlines, writing mentors and peers, and the kind of intense focus on craft that can certainly make you a better writer. However, you can also become a better writer for a lot less money by attending writers’ conferences and writing workshops, taking courses on social media and digital publishing, and joining community writers’ groups that will give you feedback on your manuscripts.