(From a Person who got a BA in Creative Writing but didn’t go for an MFA)*
*To clarify. I earned a Bachelors of Art in Creative Writing at a liberal arts college in a program that was structured to be like the Master of Fine Arts programs with the workshop structure. Although encouraged by my advisor to pursue a MFA, I decided that I wanted “go out in the real world” and stretch my writing wings outside of academia.
Pro: A Writing Community
Being part of a community of artists can be very exciting, very inspiring, and (on the flip side) very intimidating. Regardless, the community aspect is probably the best part of pursuing a degree (whether Bachelors or Masters) in creative writing, as you get to meet and befriend tons of people who are as passionate about writing as you. After all, they are putting their (student loan) dollars where there mouth is.
You can learn so much from your peers both in class, but better, outside of the classroom environment. Whether it's a dedicated ‘sit down and write’ time shared together, an open mic night, reviewing each other’s work outside of class assignments, or sharing ideas over dinner or drinks. Working alongside similarly passionate people can be a real motivation, better than elusive future career success or class grades.
You can create or get involved with communities like this without having to attend a graduate program. Online or in person. Got to a website like meetup.com to find writing groups in your area. With these groups you can learn how to be motivated to write, and to set time aside for writing, outside of having class deadlines. That internal motivation tends to be more elusive.
Con: Only Focuses on One Type of Writing
It’s no secret that MFA programs tend to focus on a certain type of writing: literary. If you’re more compelled to write strongly in a genre (romance, sci-fi, mystery, childrens, YA, etc) you are probably not going to find the writing advice that you need in an MFA program.
These programs also tend to focus on short stories because of how that fits into the classroom structure. My education on writing longer works is very lacking despite the one novel writing class I took during my Bachelors pursuit.
This is not to say there aren’t some skills to be gained for most, if not all writers, from a literary writing education, such as how to construct nice prose and the basics of building a story. You have to consider, however, if the costs and benefits of what you’re getting if you don’t want to focus on another other than the literary genre.
Pro: Learn from Published Authors
A decent creative writing program will have your creative writing workshops taught/lead by actual published authors. Often, many writing blogs online (like this one *weeping emoiji*) are written by unpublished or poorly published writers. A published author actually knows what’s up, has actually succeeded business-wise and artist-wise. Most valuably, they will give you direct feedback to your work.
You can find blogs written by established authors with their advice and perspective. You can find books by established authors with their advice and perspective. Alas, they won’t be able to give you direct feedback though.
Con: Can Stifle Your Creativity/Individuality
Perhaps some people flourish under the MFA workshop structure. Looking back, I found it stifling, to the point where I had a hard time writing post graduation for several years. Yes. Years. Please keep in mind, that I found it stifling even though I received As and Bs (mostly As) in all my creative writing/workshop classes, and had several professors (including one who was also my advisor) who were very supportive and encouraging to me in particular.
Why is it stifling? Consider the previous con. For one, it only teaches literary writing/ the literary genre. You don’t get to experiment outside of that. You don’t study outside of that.
Two, you start writing for a very particular audience. Broadly, the literary-academic audience. Narrowly, your workshop class. Most narrow of all, the professor who will be doling out your grade. You start -- or at least anxious old me started -- to overthink what this class or that classmate or the professor will think about it. With that scrutiny, it’s hard to take risks. And it’s hard to think about all the other, varied, audiences out there in a world, who would never pick up literary fiction in their life, but are extremely well-read in their genre of choice.
Three, the workshop structure. The workshop has become a bit notorious in the writing blogosphere of late, or at least on the blogs I frequent. For those unfamiliar, a workshop (also known as a critique group in informal settings) is when you send your story out to the class (or informal writing group) beforehand for them to read, and during class time they rip your story a new one. *Clears throat* I mean, critique your story like their grade depends on it.
Honestly, go read Kris Rusch’s blog about the ‘Serious Writer Voice’ for some issues with workshops.
Personally, I found some value to workshops. It taught me to have a tough skin, it helped me learn to show my stories to an audience, and how to receive and perceive criticism. A quick rundown: take critique with grace, do not lash out to defend yourself, listen to the general advice of the critiques (if everyone finds a certain part confusing, for example, might be a sign a part of your story needs clarification of some sort) not the particular advice that tells you what you should do exactly with your story (ex: you should totally kill your character at the end).
Again, some people might flourish under this. I know several people I went to school with are make some splashes in the literary short story world. But you have to be a literary writer.
Con: Lack of Creative Writing Education Outside of Workshop Formats
With my middling feelings about workshops, what I wish is that my workshop education was mixed in with other types of creative writing education. In workshop classes, we either read and critiqued a classmates’ writing, or we read real, standup literary writers and classics and talked about them, how they worked, etc. Occasionally we read essays on writing.
I personally, would’ve loved more practical advice. We are given rules and guidelines in writing, but not always how to achieve them. That advice, the ‘how-to’ I’ve found years later, reading author blogs from established writers as well as writing books. Write Tight: Say Exactly What You Mean With Precision and Power by William Brohaugh taught me the ‘how to’ of precise language, even though my professor always said to make your language precise, for example and also for recommendation.
The Round Up
So, here is my perspective. I do not regret getting my BA in Creative Writing. I would’ve majored in Literature or English if not Creative Writing, because those are my areas of passion. I don’t regret it because it was part of an invaluable college experience where I grew a lot as a person and as a writer, where I made good friends. I also do not regret not pursuing an MFA. (I am now pursuing a Masters in a completely different subject area.) I think I learned what I could and then had to forge my own way.
I know MFAs are a hot topic. Anyone regret their time in a MFA or similar program? Do you wish they were structured differently?
Insights from the life of an aspiring, struggling writer; a passionate reader, and a working librarian.
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