Last week, I graduated with a Master of Fine Arts Degree (M.F.A.) from Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) in the Writing for Children and Young Adult Program. As proud as I am of what I have achieved, I understand that I am one of the 3,000 to 4,000 students a year who graduate with this degree.
“With so many highly tutored creative writers already out there, is success possible without the instruction and literary connections that are cultivated in M.F.A. programs and that a volatile publishing industry — now evolved around program graduates and sensibilities — has come to look for and expect?” Capuzzi Simon, The New York Times “Why Writers Love to Hate the M.F.A.”
During the two years, while I slogged through my monthly packets of critical and creative work and readings, I couldn’t help asking will this degree help my writing? Will it help me become a published author? Fact is, these are two very different questions.
The answer to the first question is an easy, clear, and definite yes. The benefit of having a professional and award-winning author work closely with me helped me identify many writing ticks that hampered my writing. With my advisor’s collaboration I could study story structure. I could analyze plot and character arcs in my own work, as well as others. Through intense critical reading and writing I learned what makes a reader engage with a story vs. walking away. Previously unknown terms like objective correlatives, endowed objects, and pause violations have become craft elements I can now manipulate to create a better piece of fiction. Workshops helped me to read with a critical eye. They also encouraged me to view my work through the lens of comments I received about my work. But more importantly, I have matured through the process. I know I am a better writer. I now have confidence in my writing craft, which I certainly lacked prior to beginning the M.F.A. process.
Ira Glass in his video below tells us there is a gap between what we know we want to write and what we actually write. We can only bridge this gap by writing voluminous amount of work. This is exactly one of the reasons why the M.F.A. program worked for me. With each packet of work, the gap narrowed until I produced what I recognized as improved work, good work, the kind Ira Glass discusses. This journey encouraged me to explore different genres, alternate forms like free verse, in various voices, and it all happened in a safe and nurturing environment. I met and have become a member of a diverse group of writers who share the same passion: children’s and young adult’s literature.
The second question, though, is more difficult to answer. After earning a M.F.A., will my writing projects become published novels.
Literary critic Anis Shivani, in “Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies” says “If you do the degree, opportunities open up.” Without it, he warns, you may be able to publish in small presses but are more likely to be “condemned to obscurity,” particularly if you write literary fiction and poetry.
A M.F.A. can also aid in finding career employment in the publishing industry; however, the statistics can be dismissal. Last year, there were just 112 tenure-track creative writing positions. Although my fellow graduates are all writers, many are looking to alternate careers such as assistant editors and agents. When their resume is reviewed, an M.F.A. will hopefully raise their job prospects.
Another inherent challenge: the cost of an M.F.A.. Cecilia Capuzzi Simon states, “With tuition high for a degree not known for its marketplace potential — on average $27,600 for a two-year program at a public university, $72,600 at a private — funding is often the deciding factor in program choice.”
The reality is that not all M.F.A. graduates will write a best selling novel, or even have a book published. In fact, the increase in writers with M.F.A.’s has created intense competition in the marketplace. To make matters worse, once students graduate from the M.F.A. program, there is no longer the structure and deadlines to produce regular written work. Creativity may start to slip away, lost in the grind of daily life and the demands of a job, family, and friends.
I believe, in life, we have no guarantees. It is true that a M.F.A. is not right for everyone. Nor is everyone right for a M.F.A. But for me it was 100% the right decision. Some people have told me getting published is partly luck, I believe like Oprah Winfrey, luck is being ready for opportunity. And whether it’s luck or opportunity, I know one thing for sure. After the intense work I have put into earning my M.F.A., I am ready for which ever occurs first..
Have you ever considered getting a M.F.A. or do you have one? Do you think an M.F.A. is worth the investment of time and money? Let’s discuss.