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 found and entered a community of writers, I tried to publish, I took work 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’.
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:
- 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.
- Failing getting a fellowship, I was resolved either to wait and apply again, or to go to state schools, with low tuition costs.
- 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.”