Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Real Reality Question

Dear Author Margo,
I’m getting my MFA through an exclusive program, but I’ve never felt less creative or inspired in my life. I refuse to perform like the rest of my classmates for scrapes of attention or hollow praise from professors who clearly have their favorites. I came here to write, not brown-nose and that’s what everyone else seems to be majoring in instead of writing. Are MFAs a colossal waste of time and money?

Dear Phailing at the Phony Ponying,
I’ve never seen much value in continuing education beyond the basics unless you’re in a specialized field like brain surgery. And, no, writing is not brain surgery even if you happen to be writing about brain surgery. An exclusive and insular environment of a MFA program may bring out the best in some, but mostly it’s just a hotbed of networking, backstabbing and indiscriminate sleeping around.

Writing is a craft, a trade even, that you only get better at by doing. If you have any aptitude for it, you will become a better writer with or without an MFA program. You can fake people skills, but you can’t fake talent or a talent for networking. Your fellow dogs and ponies are nurturing relationships and establishing contacts that might lead to opportunities that will whisk them off the Banana Republic sales floor before they’re 30ish. You might be a better writer than your peers, but they’re getting invited to parties at your professor’s house.

Sure, you won’t be getting that internship at The New Yorker because your adviser thinks you’re a snot, but at least you have your integrity. By the way, do you know the difference between a cappuccino, macchiato and a breve? Good. Skills like that will come in handy in your post-MFA life.

Author Margo


  1. I had to respond - every MFA program is not the same. I'm in a low-residency creative nonfiction MFA program at Goucher, with an amazing faculty (Pulitzer winners, major name guest lecturers, etc.) and students and teachers BOTH on New York Times bestseller list. It is an inspiring, encouraging program and community of writers. I've been a magazine editor for 13 years, and I'm finding myself writing better than I have for a long time, exploring new directions in my work and finding great friends, not competition or backstabbing. The professional benefits to me: becoming a better writer, shaping a book manuscript and proposal, hopefully landing a university position eventually with the degree. I researched, talked with students and alums and haven't regretted my decision a bit.

  2. Reasons for getting an MFA are as varied as the people who get them and that goes double for experiences. I have friends who invested in an MFA because they want to teach, others because they hoped a publishing career would be waiting for them at the end of their two years. What we all agree on is that a writer doesn't become a writer because of an MFA, but they are great places to network.


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