Getting an MFA – worth the investment?

A number of writers in our Writers’ Café have MFA’s in Writing and we asked them to comment on the value they felt they’d received from their 2-year low-residency writing programs. Lisa Calderone, a Guilford resident, who did the marketing for the first ever MFA program at Fairfield U and completed the degree course herself, explained the main benefits of an MFA.
“Overall, the most important benefits were a sense of community and a thorough grounding in the craft of writing,” said Lisa. Others agreed with her when she said that having academic expectations forced her to write, even when she didn’t necessarily want to. Jane Sherman of Westport added that this course of study helped her set up a writing routine, which she still uses to ensure she writes every day.
I asked about the faculty. Our MFA graduates felt that having access to a high quality of faculty during their studies was a huge benefit. “It helped me form a network of writing contacts which I wouldn’t otherwise have had,” said Christine Shaffer of Westport, who was featured recently in Poets & Writers’ online magazine: .(Here’s her blog on Open Salon: In fact, the article (not Christine) and the list it provided of top MFA schools in the US, provoked an angry reaction from 190 writers and teachers, who claimed the list was unfair. Alison Flood, of the Guardian newspaper in London, was moved to write a whole article about it. Since she explained it much more succinctly than I could, I’m posting the link to it here: .
Back to the benefits of an MFA. With an MFA degree, you’re qualified to teach writing (while you’re waiting for your novel to hit the NYT best seller lists). For example, Lisa Calderone will be teaching an online journalism course next semester for Fairfield U. She’s also the founder and editor of Mason’s Road, the university’s literary journal. Here are their submission guidelines: . Another graduate, AJ O’Connell, is also teaching at the university level. All in all, our graduates were happy with their degrees, and the new friends and connections they made as a result of taking the course.
At our last Café, Alex McNab brought information and some suggested reading about the granddaddy of all the MFA programs, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop ( Here are a couple of books he suggested on the subject:
Mentor: a Memoir, by Tom Grimes
We Wanted to be Writers: Life, Love and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop by Eric Olsen & Glen Schaeffer
So, it’s up to you. If you need an incentive to get you writing, these graduate courses will provide you with structure, deadlines and potentially great or even famous mentors. All you need now is a little time and a credit card. If you decide you’re serious, check out this web page for masses of information to help you decide:

Recent Comments

  • jessicamjonas
    February 17, 2012 - 11:01 pm · Reply

    For me, being part of an MFA program was a way to 1. earn a postgraduate degree (my father has his Ph.D. and my mother has her Masters, so a high level of education is important to me) and 2. give writing the investment I needed to to take it (and myself) seriously.
    In my own experience, the professors are wonderful people. There’s a wide spectrum of personalities, so I get to work with a scary Russian rock star poet who’s barely older than I am but crazy accomplished, and professors who are laid back and groovy and gentle with my drafts, and professors who insist that taking time to do exercises that feel juvenile and silly to my type-A self will make me more creative in the long run.
    The student-to-student experience for me has been less exciting. I don’t live right in the city, we work day jobs, so it’s not easy for me to connect with people outside of class, and after class everyone scuttles home. Some writers in my program are lovely people and some are absolutely insufferable (but I guess you get that anywhere).
    What I’ve been developing over the past 3 years is a slow trickle of different skills and ideas that I’m only now finding out are building more than I thought. I’m much more grounded, partly in craft but largely in understanding what I write and what I would like to. I’ve read amazing things I never would have heard of. I’ve learned how to handmake books and write 20 short stories in a month, and then actually come back and edit them like I’m serious about the things. Overall, I still think MFAs are super expensive, but I think they’re meaningful, too, and I am happy I am getting mine.

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