Inspired after reading Dan Green’s post
I’ve thought long and hard about this issue, after having attended a fairly well-known master’s creative writing program. For me personally, it worked out tremendously well, though not for the reasons one might suspect.
It didn’t help me at all for publication (though that might partially be my fault). Most of my fellow graduate students went on to other fields; there have been two or three books published; one student was nominated for an Oscar(!).
It didn’t really open doors for me in academia, although ironically it opened doors for international teaching. I think one of my fellow grad students is teaching at a university (a fairly good one, btw). It didn’t really happen as a result of her literary success but her savvy networking skills. Having a master’s degree did have some marketability for technical writing (although having a master’s is quickly becoming the norm now).
I was lucky because I went to grad school straight after undergrad. Much less personal disruption. At 21 my writing style was weak and flabby. My imagination (and literary experiments) were original, though my experience base was limited. Going through the workshop improved my editing skills and taught the value of taking your time when revising. None of the stories I wrote during my stay were particularly remarkable, though the stories I wrote immediately afterwards (IMHO!) were.
A writing degree gave me more realistic expectations about what constituted literary success. It also exposed me to the fact that writer/artist types have titan egos, and guess what–so do I. Writing workshops gave good experience about dealing with such types (and helped me to realize why others sometimes find ME annoying and stubborn). It also made me see how widely literary types differ. Your own personal background might strike you as prosaic, but it’s actually quite different from people your age. What you view as ordinary others might regard as quirky. People sometimes complain about the cookie-cutter nature of workshop fiction, but that is a lie; once you are around other writers with similar talent, you see how distinctive (and messy) each person’s rough drafts can be.
I assume by now MFA programs are emphasizing videogames, videos, and other web projects, while the dinosaurs who still read Flaubert and Ford Maddox Ford are probably viewed with polite tolerance. The dirty little secret of MFA programs is that you really don’t NEED to be around tremendously gifted writers to grow your voice. You could easily find excellent feedback from community writer’s groups, community college courses or (heaven forbid!) online forums. One reason in favor of using local resources instead of grad school is that you are more likely to come across a wider swath of writers (in terms of age, ethnicity and talent). In grad school, a certain amount of groupthink and oneupsmanship occurs, which is not particularly bad, but makes you a narrow-minded and boring person.
One other thing. A lot of people sign up for MFA programs for the contacts, especially the literary agents and publishers. At one time that might have made sense (especially in New York programs or in programs with a strong literary magazine). But quite frankly, publishing is changing so much and so quickly that I’m not sure an MFA program helps you with introductions or agents anymore. Ironically, the two most helpful learning experiences for me has been technical conferences aimed specifically at independent content producers. First, South by Southwest Interactive, (in Austin) provides lots of contacts and cross-fertilization in the New Media world. Lots of panels not directly related to literature, but with huge consequences upon it. The annual ACM Hypertext conference (held alternately in the US and Europe) has also been quite wonderful. I’m sure others can chime in with names of other conferences; the main draw of South by Southwest Interactive is that it’s ridiculously cheap ($150 for early registration) and lasts 4 days. I met a lot of people with creative writing degrees at both conferences. I am a biased person, of course, but people with creative writing degrees are always interesting to talk to. Just don’t marry them (joking, of course).
There is value in taking time off to do something like an MFA, but you have to consider opportunity costs. Your time and money might be better spent building up a savings account for that time when you can quit that job. Ironically, the academic environment of creative writing programs tends to stifle reading for pleasure or the “big projects.” The main thing I learned from a creative writing degree is that I no longer needed an academic structure to force me to write. I could do it on my own. That’s why many apply to creative writing programs; they believe external pressure is necessary to be productive. But for me the urge to write is a psychological motivator, not a social motivator. Yes, attending a writing program affords you extra time to write, but how much extra time? (and how much extra cost?) Couldn’t you accomplish the same thing with a leave-of-absence or a job with flexible hours?
Although not a poet, I would imagine that poets have a totally different perspective on the subject. Poetry involves more formal training and feedback; you write poems weekly, and apparently youth works as an advantage. Poets are such rare lonely creatures that I guess they need excuses to be around one another. Also, poetry programs have different myths. In fiction, we have the myth of the great American novelist who lives happily ever after (the rest of us belong to the unwashed masses of the mediocre and unpublished). Poets have three myths: retreating into nature or retreating into addictive activities or retreating into suicidal despair. Ok, I’m simplifying, but poets never dream of being rich or famous (not in the conventional sense anyway). Novels still entertain the notion of such lavish rewards. Our ambition is what dooms us.