This came in via email last night from a reader, and I was actually writing a post to address this.

Q: I am debating applying to MFA programs but am not sure how worthwhile they are.  What made you decide to get your MFA?  I’ve heard some complain that MFA’s didn’t improve their writing while other writers said they wanted the degree purely so they could teach.  The programs are expensive and time-consuming, and I’m not even sure I want to teach, yet I would like to improve my writing and build a network.  Would I be able to do this on my own by taking workshops in the city and reading more?

A: I think a good place to begin is with this quote from The Morning News, in a discussion between Robert Birnbaum and Tobias Wolff. This is Tobias Wolff speaking here:

Sometimes someone will ask me, “Should I go to a writing program?” And I invariably tell them that they should not go into a writing program until they have gone out and worked for at least two years, and probably three or four would be better, and keep writing as they’re working. If they can do that, and their writing is getting better, then they should consider going to a writing program because it could be helpful.

In college, I had two writing teachers with opposing views of the MFA: Annie Dillard urged me to go right away, and Kit Reed said don’t go, in fact never go, get a job, preferably a magazine job, and just write.

I tried Kit’s advice first, which appealed to the loner contrarian I was back then. And so in the time between when I graduated college and when I applied, I moved to San Francisco, took a job in a bookstore and got a cheap apartment with two friends. I found an internship at Out/Look, the journal of LGBT studies and culture, and helped organize Out/Write, the first national LGBT writers conference in San Francisco. I published my first short story, “Memorials”, in the prize anthology for the Holt, Rinehart & Winston student literature prize and it was nearly included in a textbook–the textbook editor signed the story up and then cut it for space at the last minute. The editor of Out/Look gave me a chance to write a cover-story for the magazine after the writer dropped out–she knew I knew about the topic, the activist group Queer Nation–and I ran with the opportunity. That led to my first free-lance writing work. And at every chance I got, I went to cafes with my friend Choire to write. A travel article I published in Outweek brought me to the attention of David Groff, an editor then at Crown, who invited me to have lunch with him in New York to see if I had a novel.

My point in telling you all of this is that while I was not in an MFA program, I did find and participate with a community of writers, I sent out work, published, I took jobs that put me in touch with working writers and had career opportunities, such as that lunch at Crown, that many young writers today believe only come from being in a MFA program for those now-mythical ‘connections’. Which you do not need writing programs to find.

After two years, I moved to New York, taking another cheap apartment with another friend, and continuing my work as a bookseller, which, in New York, was terrifying–as in the pay, which meant questions like “Do I take the subway to work or do I save the money for a bagel for lunch?” My boyfriend of the time, also a writer, was very seriously sending away for MFA brochures. I was skeptical of the idea but thinking about it–I increasingly resented the time I spent at my day job.

I sat down and set parameters:

  1. I wasn’t going to take out loans to do this. A writer’s life with high overhead of any kind is a curse, and New York was like that already. So I established the goal of getting a fellowship.
  2. Failing getting a fellowship, I was resolved either to wait and apply again, or to go to state schools, with low tuition costs.
  3. Going through the boyfriend’s brochures, I looked to see which schools had graduated the most professors–the credentials of the faculty, in other words. At the time, I noted three rose to the top: University of Iowa, University of MA, Amherst, and University of AZ, Tucson.

I decided to test the waters and apply just to those three schools. In October, I wrote to Annie Dillard and Kit Reed for letters of recommendation. This elicited a postcard from Annie: “Of course you’ll get in and I’m thrilled you’re applying, but am concerned you’re applying to just three schools! Apply to at least 9, which most do.”

My boyfriend was applying to 9 schools. This struck me as too much work, as I was unsure of the reputations of the other schools back then (I know considerably more now). I don’t recommend this small a sample, but in any case, by March, the happy result was that I was accepted at two of the three schools, Amherst and Iowa, with fellowship offers. Arizona turned me down. This was crushing to me, because I’d made it my first choice, despite the desire to study with Marilynne Robinson at Iowa.

Worse, in what seemed like an act of fate, my boyfriend of the time was accepted at Arizona and U Mass but rejected at Iowa.

By then, I was also an assistant editor at a little start-up magazine called OUT Magazine. The University of Massachusetts Amherst had offered me a tuition waiver plus a fellowship, and John Edgar Wideman had blown my mind by writing me a note, saying he liked my work. The boyfriend and I rented a car, drove up to Amherst and had lunch with Mr. Wideman, where we learned a hiring freeze due to the bad economy was going to mean faculty shortages within the program [again, note—all of this information dates from over a decade ago—U Mass has since recovered]. Connie Brothers, the assistant director of the University of Iowa’s program, then called me at work, offering double what U Mass had offered. My whole office freaked out, as did I. And then Connie said something I still think about.

“Before you say yes,” she said, “do you like your job?”

“I do,” I said.

“Well, think about it before you say yes, because we’re just going to have to get you another one once you get out of here.”

[This is one of two parts. Part two goes up after Thanksgiving.]

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ALEXANDER CHEE is a recipient of the 2003 Whiting Writers’ Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in Fiction and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony. He is currently the Visiting Writer at Amherst College. His first novel, Edinburgh (Picador, 2002), is a winner of the Michener Copernicus Prize, the AAWW Lit Award and the Lambda Editor’s Choice Prize, and was a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year and a Booksense 76 selection. In 2003, Out Magazine honored him as one of their 100 Most Influential People of the Year. His columns and articles have appeared in Out, Martha Stewart Living, Garden Design, TimeOut/NY and Bookforum. He is a graduate of Wesleyan University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has taught fiction writing at the New School University and Wesleyan. His second novel, The Queen of the Night, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He is represented by Jin Auh at the Wylie Agency. You can reach him at alexander dot chee (a) gmail dot com

13 responses to “When To Get Your MFA. Or Not.”

  1. I really need to get over to Wikipedia and find out more about what an MFA actually is. Masters of Fine Arts, or something along those lines?

  2. Greg Olear says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Alex. Looking forward to Part Two.

    Happy Thanksgiving!
    G

  3. Pris says:

    I’m really looking forward to part two, also. Thanks for writing this and zowie, I’m impressed by your accomplishments in the field!

  4. Megan DiLullo says:

    I’m very curious as to what you have to say in part two.

    It’s always nice to hear what someone has to say who’s been out there. This is very helpful.

    Thanks, Chee.

  5. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    During my seven years in the regular work world, I saved money knowing I’d to to grad school one day. I was compelled to get an MFA, although I really expected to study public policy or education. The experience was what I needed. However, I don’t think anyone has to get an MFA to learn to be a better writer. Such programs are only one option among many.

    You’re right about those mythical connections–they’d don’t exist. Good writers willing to do the hard work of writing, seeking an agent, etc. do find their way.

    Thanks for this insightful piece!

    • Aaron Dietz says:

      Ronlyn – This reply comes quite late, but I just wanted to say I’m glad to hear that hard working writers do find a way to make it–especially since everything I’ve been able to grab a hold of has been through a connection. I have nothing but mostly-blank rejections to show for any endeavor involving people that didn’t know me…and I always thought I was lucky for that.

  6. Kimberly says:

    When I got rejected by the only two MFA programs I applied to, I decided to take that money I had socked away and make a film instead… (which lead to another one… and another one… and another one… ad infinitum, amen.

    I learned WAY more than I ever could have in film school (or so I keep telling myself) by simply *doing*.

    And now, there’s nothing that gives me greater pleasure when one of my friends, who hold MFAs from either of the two illustrious schools who so rudely snubbed me, asks for professional ‘real-world’ advice.

    Not that I don’t still wish I had their higher-level connections (which is one of the things that MFAs can provide, and it’s not to say that an MFA is a bad or unnecessary or non-useful thing, but still…), but I tend to side with Kit Reed. Learn by doing in the real world.

  7. J.M. Blaine says:

    I too should wait for part two
    to comment
    and add my own experiences
    with the world of MFA…

  8. […] – In college, I had two writing teachers with opposing views of the MFA: Annie Dillard urged me to go right away, and Kit Reed said don’t go, in fact never go, get a job, preferably a magazine job, and just write.  I tried Kit’s advice first, which appealed to the loner contrarian I was back then. And so in the time between when I graduated college and when I applied, I moved to San Francisco, took a job in a bookstore and got a cheap apartment with two friends. I found an internship at Out/Look, the journal of LGBT studies and culture, and helped organize Out/Write, the first national LGBT writers conference in San Francisco. – MFAs in The Nervous Breakdown […]

  9. […] the previous installment, I detailed my undoubtedly flawed if also successful plan to apply to MFA programs. This week, how I made my decision to go, and some lessons […]

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