1. Do I need an MFA?
Only if you ever intend to teach at the college level. There are some provosts who would be unlikely to allow even, say, Gabriel Garcia Marquez to be hired, should he lack an MFA or Phd. Many writers in days gone by without MFAs made it bad for the rest of us, by taking teaching jobs and then being terrible teachers, at which point administrations began requiring degrees, and not just publications and awards.
2. Do writers need to study? Aren’t they better off just writing?
Even the Beats read each other and revised, no matter what Jack Kerouac said. That’s why it wasn’t called “The Beat”, but, “The Beats”. There was more than one. You go to find a group of peers, in part, where you develop a conversation that lasts at least 2 to 3 years, but usually much longer—I am in regular touch with my friends from my MFA days, and we read each other still. There is such a thing as a “natural writer”, but they come with a problem, which is essentially this: natural writers do not push themselves at what they are not naturally good at, and typically lack good work habits because they didn’t have to learn how to do what they do. They lack stamina. And they do need to learn good work habits.
If you have a gift, it is in fact more important that you study.
3. Does every writer need an MFA these days to get published?
No, of course not. It’s not like driving, say. You are not disallowed from being published for lacking an MFA. It does give you a training in work habits that lets you get there more quickly, though.
Also, the rumor that programs make people write like each other is bunk. If that happens it is the writer who let it happen. The program is just the place where it happened. For me, my program was a place where you turn into yourself and no one else–where you shed the ways you imitate others and are forced to be your own writer. I was at my program with Chris Adrian, Benjamin Anastas, Tom Piazza, Emily Barton, Kirsten Bakis, Brady Udall, Zachary Lazar, Anna Keesey, and Samantha Chang, to name just a few, and our work is not like each other’s work.
4. Aren’t there too many programs?
There are more MFAs certainly now than ever before but this isn’t a bad thing. Even if they all don’t publish, it’s only for the good that this many people have tried–it’s better to think of it as a sign of how much writing still matters. I find it a bit cold-hearted for people to be very romantic about the idea of the undervalued writer, hidden and starving, and yet to then be brassy about students trying to be valued as a writer.
5. What is an MFA worth, anyway?
An MFA will allow you access to teaching, as I said. This can mean a bump in pay if you teach high school, anywhere from 5k to 15k more than you’d get otherwise, or it can, in some cases, mean a 6 figure teaching salary. Depending of course on where you are teaching and who is paying and how much you’ve done.
For what it is worth to you, apart from pay scale, you take 20 years of wondering if your work reaches people and you turn it into two years of having people tell you to your face whether it reached them or not. Very talented people, in some cases, geniuses. Thus the ambivalence towards these programs, on the part of many writers. You may think you want to know but then when you do, it’s rough sometimes. But, sometimes not. As my sister says, you just don’t know until you know.
6. Don’t you just go to make contacts?
You might make contacts but you might not. Contacts are funny things. In the olden days, they were just called “friends”. But they don’t do anything for you if the pages aren’t where they should be. And if the pages aren’t what they should be, which is to say, if they are not good, then you embarass your friend and the ‘contact’ goes away wondering about you. Don’t go to an MFA program if you’re just looking for contacts.
If you’ve done your job, the work itself sends people looking for you. So just try to get to that place. Program or not.