April 7, 2016

MFA Programs vs. DIY-ing Your MFA

Last week I blogged about my favorite podcasts, and at the top was DIY MFA. It’s a do-it-yourself approach to an MFA methodology. Recently, they did an episode about the heated debate between MFA lovers and haters, so I thought I’d weigh in!

 First, I don’t have an MFA, but I do have an MA in American Literature and Culture. I don’t know how every school does it, but at the university I attended, the MA and MFA programs were tightly connected. The students from both degree programs interacted daily in classes, as writing teachers, as friends and cohorts, and we were able to choose our coursework from both programs. So, while I wasn’t specifically studying to earn my MFA, I did take a lot of MFA coursework, and some of my favorite professors and learning outcomes came from the MFA track.

Needless to say, I’m pro-MFA. I feel like there are things you can gain from a graduate program that it’s hard to gain any other way. A few of those are:
·      Interactions with brilliant professors with similar interests
·      Constant workshopping of your writing
·      Focused syllabus/learning plan
·      Rigorous and diverse reading lists
·      Opportunities to teach writing courses to college students

Graduate school, for me, was a priceless experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I loved it, and I have lifelong friends and career experience because of it. However, I realize it’s not always feasible for a lot of reasons. I had a supportive spouse (financially and emotionally). I had a mother who watched my kids while I was in classes. I had a topnotch university twenty minutes from my home. It was still very challenging--physically, emotionally, financially, and intellectually--but I realize I had luxuries that a lot of people don’t have.

I guess that’s what got me excited about the DIY MFA podcast. At first I thought it would be an MFA-hater program, but it’s based on the same sound techniques that I loved about grad school:
·      Focused Writing
·      Purposeful Reading
·      Community Building (this covers workshopping with CPs, etc. and learning from those with more developed skillsets)

The only thing I valued about my program that this doesn’t entail, really, is teaching to others, but I think that comes naturally as you get better at whatever skill you’re developing.

I especially love Hoffer’s quote listed above because I do believe the learning, the continued progress—either by yourself or within an MFA program—is what makes the learners the ones who will succeed in the writing business. It’s evolving so quickly that even though I 110% endorse MA/MFA programs any chance I get, there’s still a need to learn and grow and change with the industry.

My take on the debate?

Does an MFA matter? Absolutely. It builds a foundation of learning and focus that few people are disciplined enough to attain on their own.

Does that mean a degree is essential? Absolutely not. If you can create the structure and discipline and focus for yourself that these programs construct, then more power to you. Because even after an MFA program is said and done, you’re the one who has to incorporate and maintain the ideas for them to do any good.

As writers, we’re so lucky to have unlimited resources at our fingertips. Tools like social media, web courses, books, conferences, critique groups, and many other valuable assets, just begging for us to use them and succeed.

Degree or no degree, whether or not we succeed as writers depends entirely on us as individuals.  MFAs are just another great tool for learning the necessary skills.


  1. I love this! As I've often said, MFA programs are VERY good at serving a specific group of writers very well (myself included, btw, since before founding DIY MFA I earned a traditional MFA in writing). As you so eloquently said, above, not every writer has the opportunity to get an MFA so it's important for them to have an alternative. But for the writers who are in that niche that will benefit from an MFA, and they can swing it... go for it! Thank you for sharing this!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Gabriela! I love what you're doing with the DIY MFA. I think what I was trying to get at is that building the learning foundations are the most important part--and I believe you're doing that with your program. So excited about your upcoming book!