othelladub's Diaryland Diary



A friend e-mailed this to me. I hope she won't mind me posting it. Pretty interesting.

Dr. David Breeden


Question: Can an MFA really help me or should I study something that will get me a real job?

Master of Fine Arts programs in creative writing have exploded in popularity since the late 1970's, and, as with most exploding things, have become a bit fragmented. Most major universities and several smaller colleges now have them, many offering alternative programs for those who cannot attend traditional classes. MFA's come in all shapes and sizes, some more worthwhile than others.

Criticism of MFA programs has at times exploded also, leaving a good deal of shrapnel to sift through. In the early days critics argued that young writers need to spend more time studying in traditional masters programs, reading, for example, more literature.

Later, critics began to complain that MFA programs had become special-interest groups, only interested in promoting themselves and the careers of their instructors and graduates, who were, the critics argued, indistinguishable clones.

More recently, critics have argued that the proliferation of the programs itself is the greatest danger, the number of MFA graduates far outstripping the market need for writers.

All of these arguments have some truth to them. So far as they go.

MFA programs usually do emphasize current writers to the exclusion of the classics, which tends to give the average MFA graduate a skewed notion of literary tradition. On the other hand, the graduates know

considerably more than the average literary scholar about contemporary literature.

MFA graduates often do resemble each other and their teachers in writing style. After all, programs admit students based on the taste of the writers involved in decisions. Then, teachers praise writing which they find interesting and high-quality. And, teachers tend to promote the careers of former students they consider the best. On the other hand, most serious writers know how to appreciate other aesthetic choices and will often encourage those they find the most irritating.

Certainly the sheer number of graduates can be daunting, considering that only a handful of writers make a living writing. Even with the expansion of writing programs, which does make jobs after all, very few graduates can become teachers in any given year. Thus the better restaurants fill with MFA-graduates waiting tables.

All these arguments miss the point, however. In our rush to be good consumers, we sometimes forget that MFA programs were designed to make better writers, not better employees. While an MFA is like and MBA in being part of a graduate curriculum at many schools, the MFA cannot be career-specific in the same way. No graduate program guarantees career success, but certainly some others offer a surer chance at success than an MFA. Graduates of MFA programs show potential, not achievement and enter a world far more subjective and difficult than business.

So, a healthy worry about MFA programs can be a good thing. They have operated like many another pyramid scheme: those in early made a fortune. Or at least got famous. For the rest, the vanishing of returns has been inexorable. Since the number of "name" literary figures can be counted on one's fingers and toes, the chances of becoming one prove slim. And the number of "famous" programs, too, can be counted using few digits.

Yet, if there is one place a student should still be an idealist, it is in an MFA program. Go into one in the fine old high-minded way. Go into one because of a love for writing. Because you want to discuss craft and style with other writers. Because you want a little time in your brief stay on this earth to communicate with prophets and angels.

An MFA degree won't get you a job. Still, the original vision of a place where writers can talk to writers is a good one. If you need to be a writer, an MFA program may be the best place for you. Choose the program carefully. Go there to meet writers you admire, not because of the reputation of the program. Go there for your spirit, not your checkbook.

10:57 p.m. - 2002-03-25


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