I Don’t Have an MFA, But You Should Get One if You Want To

This week, we’re talking about a writing education.

Do you need an MFA from a prestigious program in order to write and sell a novel?

I mean, no.

I don’t have an MFA, and I have sold and written a couple of novels. The truth is, I didn’t even consider a degree in creative writing when graduate school was on the table for me. In teaching, you do need to get a master’s degree in order to maximize your earning potential. In almost all K-12 schools, teachers are paid on a set scale, and our salaries increase depending on how many academic credits we’ve acquired. After a few years in the field, I got my master’s degree from a prestigious education program at the University of Minnesota. (For better and mostly for worse, “prestige” has always been important to me. Thank goodness it’s becoming less so as I’ve reached middle age.)

I really love teaching, and my program helped me think about it and imagine it in new ways. My courses were about systems and language and power and media, and I loved them. I learned a lot and wrote a lot and published a little, and I do not regret getting my master’s degree in education even though I’m still paying for it fifteen years later.

Though I likely would have enjoyed it, a second master’s in creative writing was not in the cards. I have taken several graduate-level courses in various disciplines over the years to keep sharp on the job and also to broaden my skill set, but I never took out an additional student loan, and I’m glad for that.

Around the same time I started writing seriously, I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. Liz (I like to pretend we’re on a familiar, nickname basis) isn’t big on MFAs. She says they’re expensive and unnecessary, and instead of getting one, you should just read voraciously and put pen to page. Here she is quoted in the Miami Herald at the time of Big Magic‘s publication: “There’s a part of me that says, ‘Please, MFA programs, bring me evidence to support why it’s worth it for this young person to take out $100,000 in debt to become a poet. . . . I think any system that tells you that you need to spend an enormous amount of money to be legitimized as a creative human being is a racket.”

That advice and perspective helped spur me onto my novel-writing path without any specific credentials. Yes, I still paid for classes and a developmental editor. All told, I’ve probably spent $5000.00 on my writer’s education in the last five years, and I’ll continue to invest in it in the form of books, workshops, festivals, and conferences. Education is always valuable. But, if you’re short on money or time, you can DIY your own writer’s training. In fact, DIY MFA is a good place to start. Or, my local literary center, The Loft, where I took online classes, has myriad resources. There are Facebook groups too, and courses by established writers. You can learn without paying through the teeth.

That said, I think if you have time and money (or a program decides to fund you!), an MFA could be a stellar idea. All education is worthwhile, and making the decision to devote yourself to your work in a serious way? That could really jumpstart your writing.

The bottom line, in my opinion, is that there’s more than one path. All the paths are probably workable. The most important thing to remember is that writers write. You can do it without a university if you’d like.

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Kathleen West

Kathleen West is the author of the forthcoming novel, Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes, out 2/4/20 from Berkley. She lives in Minneapolis with her family.

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