I received email yesterday from someone asking about the usefulness of MFA programs. Here's my response. If you've got more to add, please do. I'll forward the comments to the person who emailed me.
No, I don't have any college degree at all. My impression (and keep in mind that I have an anti-academic bias) is that MFA programs are more for creating new MFA professors than for creating writers.
However, I think the specific instructor probably makes more difference than whether you're in "an MFA program." If I could be mentored by Michael Chabon or Madison Smartt Bell, I'd take that class.
There's no way around sitting down and writing a lot. It's the basic necessity. If it happens with competent guidance, I'd imagine there could be a significant increase in progress. There's a great deal of incompetent guidance out there, though, and I do know of people who felt they had to unlearn everything they'd learned in their MFA programs before they could begin to write commercially viable fiction.
I'm trying to think of a conclusion, but I'm not sure I have one. Everything's conditional: IF the instructor's good... IF your goals are this or that... IF...
The only hard-and-fast rule I can think of is to research the instructor. Though a lot of impressive publication doesn't mean anybody knows what they're talking about, I'd avoid anyone with very little publication history. If I wanted to write for a wide audience, I'd also avoid anyone who's published only in small literary journals.
I know more professional writers without MFAs than with, and MFA programs are easy to make fun of because so much bad writing comes out of them; but if the student's got a knack for writing (no way around that one) and puts in the time (no way around that one, either), and the teacher's good, I can see the benefit being worth the investment. In that circumstance, a well-placed instructor can also be a business contact.
It probably wouldn't be a bad idea to track down some graduates of whatever program you're interested in.
So basically... if, if, if, if... and this is all from someone who's never seen the inside of an MFA program, so take it for what it's worth.
One thing I'd add is that even a good instructor isn't necessarily a good fit for a particular student. I'll also say here that I have serious doubts about writing instruction in general, to the point where I'm not sure I'll be accepting any more invitations to teach. Your thoughts?
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