Do you need a Creative Writing MFA?

Leonid Pasternak, from WikipediaDo you need an MFA? You’re a writer. You write stories. You have a novel brewing. You’ve published some poems in small magazines. Or you’ve sold an essay. Maybe you’ve self-published a chapbook, zine, pamphlet, or little book. Or an e-book! Maybe you write and write, and would like to do these things.
Artists, including writers, might choose to pursue an Master of Fine Arts (MFA!) degree in order to become a professional in their field. It usually takes two or three years, and in many cases involves a substantial amount of money, which often means major student loans. An MFA in creative writing usually centers around a writer’s workshop, where students receive feedback on their work, and provide feedback on the work of their colleagues, under the guidance of a professor who is a published author. MFA students have mentorship, community, an ear to the publishing world, and perhaps most importantly, dedicated time and space to write. Funding and an opportunity to gain teaching experience by working as a teaching assistant are also sometimes part of the deal, but not always. 
Do you need an MFA to be a writer? Well, you already are one, right? Debate rages on (well, perhaps rages isn’t the most accurate term - simmers? drags?) about whether it’s worthwhile for aspiring writers to pursue an MFA. Plenty of writers don’t bother.  
Novelist Chad Harbach wrote an essay examining the social and literary consequences of a writing world (fiction, in particular), in which writers inhabit one of two systems: the world of MFA programs or the world of NYC publishing. This is published along with essays by contributors examining features of life from both sides in MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction.
So, is an MFA right for you? If you think so, some guides to programs might be useful: the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) guide to programs, or the MFA Programs Database from Poets & Writers Magazine. In book form, there's also The Creative Writing MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Graduate Students.
Perhaps an MFA program isn’t in the cards for you. Perhaps you might be be a better writer going under your own steam. Can’t you have mentorship, community and connections without the hefty price tag? Can’t you create your own reading lists and writing assignments, your own deadlines? Meet writer friends and share ideas and constructive criticism on your work? I’ll bet you can do these things. After all, you have the whole library at your fingertips!*
Here’s a booklist for you: DIY Creative Writing MFA
You might try working through an online Creative Writing course: there are quite a few free online courses offered by MIT OpenCourseWare! These cover different topics and genres, with courses about reading and writing poetry, reading and writing stories, writing the personal essay, genre writing, writing about race and border crossings… You can find these and other free (and for-fee) online courses on If you'd like some help finding a syllabus or other course materials that are a good fit for you and the work you'd like to do, please feel free to get in touch with us
Especially if you want to do it yourself, local resources for writers are essential - they include classes, events, and writing groups. Here’s our post about some of them in the Portland area.  Also see our booklist of creative writing prompts and guides for ideas for creating your own assignments!
Let's not forget that the whole point of an MFA program in Creative Writing is to do a huge amount of work in a focused, directed sort of way. MFA students read like crazy, from the masters to the innovators. They write like crazy, all the time, head down and pen moving (or, you know, keyboard clicking). They read one anothers' work and think intensely about how and why a great piece of writing works. They dig deep into the mysteries and ambiguities and theories of language and literature. Get to work! 
*Sorry, shameless plug for library services. But seriously: everything you need to read is here, and plenty of resources for guidance about craft. We can help you borrow obscure poetry books via Interlibrary Loan, if necessary. We can connect you with suggestions for your reading list. We can even provide space for writing. If only we could help with the problem of time for writing.

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