People have been debating the validity of a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing since the Iowa Writer's Workshop was founded in 1936. Some people are adamantly con, declaring that writing cannot and should not be taught. Others maintain that giving talented writers the time and space to work on their craft is an act of utmost cultural importance. It's just as easy to find great writers who don't have MFA degrees as it is to list great writers who do. Oh, and there's that whole MFA vs. NYC debate started by n+1, not to mention Junot Diaz's New Yorker essay, "MFA vs. POC." All this results in a bunch of young literati so busy worrying about what an MFA can or cannot do to their literary career that they forget to write at all.
"SHOULD I GET AN MFA?" —every writer alive
Me? I'm ambivalent. When I found out in college that you could go to graduate school for creative writing, I thought an MFA sounded like the dreamiest thing in the world and I set my sights on getting that degree. But once I arrived at an actual MFA program, I realized that it wasn't for me. See, there's a distinction between getting an MFA and being a writer, and I think a lot of people confuse the two; you can be a writer without an MFA, but an MFA does not automatically make you a writer. Don't get me wrong, I think MFAs can do wonderful things for the right people — nurture their talent, protect them from outside distractions, guide them toward the right books and people — but I also think they can be a distraction from the very thing they're supposed to promote, which is writing.
Should you get an MFA? I don't know. If you think that an MFA will help you become a better writer, and if you can get into a funded program, you should absolutely go for it. But if you crave the stimulation and connections and improvement that a good MFA program attempts to give you, but don't want to quit your job/leave your city/do homework as a grown-up, then by all means, stay home and get the writing done another way. Is it the exact same thing as attending the Iowa Writer's Workshop? Nope. But is there more one way to skin a cat? (You're a writer, you know how the idiom ends.)
1. Form a writing group ASAP.
The number one reason to attend an MFA program is to get serious writing done, and I will fight anyone who disagrees with me. Believe me, nothing forces you to write like a deadline set by a kindly but intimidatingly smart workshop teacher. So in the absence of a kindly but intimidatingly smart workshop teacher, it's up to you to form a DIY workshop of cool kids who will keep you on your toes and skewer you if you don't meet your deadlines.
So join a writing group. Or form a writing group. Write up the world's most honest ad: "I want to meet a bunch of smart and almost-but-not-quite intimidating writers who are also cool/nontraditional/interested in spy fiction and can commit to monthly story submissions plus weekly meetings…." Post it on Craigslist, coffee shop bulletin boards, and any and all artists' resources in your city. The more open and honest you are about what you're looking for in a writing group, the more you'll attract the type of people who are on the same page as you. THIS IS NOT A PUN.
Real talk: If you form a group and discover that you don't love everyone's writing, don't despair. I've heard more than enough tales of inter-workshop MFA feuds to be able to confidently tell you that MFA students often dislike their workshops, too. Just do the writing.
2. Respect your self-imposed assignments and deadlines.
Think of the next three months. Would you like to have one solid 20-page story by the end of the summer? Do you think you could manage two? Poets: Want to write five poems? Six? TEN THOUSAND? Set a reasonable (REASONABLE!!!) goal and sketch out deadlines. Then make them happen, whatever else you do. Respect yourself enough to respect your goals. Remember not to get overly ambitious here, or you'll burn out like a never-been-published candle.
3. Make a reading list.
I have a sneaking suspicion that plenty of MFA programs don't emphasize the reading component enough. It's like they assume that at this point in your "career," you're already disciplined enough to steadily work your way through 20-30 quality works of literature a year. HA!
Listen, if you don't force yourself to read in order to strengthen your writing, you'll never read. In five years, you'll barely be able to write, either. And you'll also have rabies. And scabies. Compile a list of 10 books that you're going to read this "semester," and begin to work through them. Try this: two classic novels, two books of poetry, one memoir, two books written in a style you love, two books you think you'll hate because your writing styles are so different, one new release or big seller. Or whatever. The point is simply to start reading seriously. As Confucius said, "No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance."
4. Volunteer as a creative writing tutor.
A big (and controversial) part of the MFA experience is teaching creative writing to undergraduates. Now, you won't be able to work as a creative writing professor without a graduate degree (unless you write a really, really successful literary novel), but if you feel that teaching creative writing will help you with yours, there are plenty of ways to do so. Bonus: You're not being exploited by academia as cheap labor under the guise of "helping your career!"
Where to volunteer? Dave Eggers' non-profit, 826national.org, is always looking for artsy folk to teach writing to little kids. You can also approach after-school programs, prisons, and churches, and offer to run a free poetry class for a week or two. If all else fails, put another ad on the coffee shop bulletin board. Just don't use a creepy font or weird clip-art, and don't make "writing instruction" sound like a euphemism for "living in my basement forever."
5. Volunteer for a literary magazine.
Prefer the editorial side of things? Your MFA-going peers are working on their literary magazines, but there are plenty of indie mags that aren't based out of an MFA program, and they want you. They won't pay you, but they want you. You'll have to hunt around a bit to see which magazines are "hiring," but believe me, they do; recently, I've stumbled across calls for editorial positions at Memorious, PANK, and Brooklyn Quarterly. If you don't have the experience to snag an editorial position, offer to be a first reader. It looks good on your résumé and it's a surprisingly helpful way to learn the ins and outs of good prose — plus, you'll learn what everyone else is writing about (hint: deer metaphors).
6. Start your own live-lit reading series.
Once you get that writing group going, ask bars, coffee shops, and art galleries if you can throw a reading there. Tell them you'll bring a drinking audience, or sell wine for a dollar and set out a hat for donations. MFA students typically give readings at least once a year, often more; it's not going to magically make you a better writer, but it teaches you to edit your piece for a crowd and not just for the page, which is surprisingly difficult. Besides, starting your own reading series means you can network like a crazy person. Invite readers from other literary magazines, writer's groups, and MFA programs in the area. Invite a famous person. Every writer likes to be asked to read her work.
7. Attend writing conferences.
You'll have to pay your own way, but who knows what sort of valuable connections you'll make? Find your ideal writing conference here, and file this one under Hustle.
8. Submit to literary magazines.
Everyone in the MFA world is doing it. Don't start submitting until you've got clean, polished, well-crafted prose, but don't wait 10,000 years to submit, either. Remember, literary magazines aren't going to reach out to you, begging to read your unpublished work. That first (and second and third and maybe millionth) publication is entirely up to you.
9. Find a literary mentor.
One of the biggest assets of a good MFA program is the amazing faculty. The best writers in the world teach at MFA programs, and studying with them can be life-changing. (Please note, though, that a good writer doesn't necessarily a good teacher make.) As you bop around the city, MFA-less and frantically booking readings, see if you can't befriend someone older and more successful than you. They'll show you the ropes in a way that no institution can.