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Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Randy Susan Meyers, at the blog Beyond the Margins, posted this week about “My Homemade MFA.” Finding herself at a point in her writing career of needing ‘more intent,’ and unable for personal and professional reasons to take the time to pursue an MFA, Meyers decided a do-it-yourself degree was in order. By her own account, she read approximately 135 books about writing and then finished it off with a Master Novel Workshop through Grub Street with novelist Jenna Blum. You can go to Meyer’s blog post for a sampling of the wisdom she gained through her self-study program.

I too am at a point in my life in which I cannot pursue an MFA degree and cannot conceivably attempt a long-distance program for at least four more years. So I had the same notion as Meyers, to do as much as I could by creating a reading program for myself. And while I admit to having read 20 or so books about writing, my main focus has been to follow the ancient Chinese proverb: “He who knows a hundred poems sounds like a hundred poems; he who knows a thousand poems sounds like himself.” That is, I focused more on reading books of poetry than on reading about writing poetry (Meyers is a fiction writer, so there’s another difference in our projects).

When I ask people who have received MFA degrees, they mostly tell me that what they got by attending such a program was 1) time to write, and 2) contacts in the literary world. Neither my self-styled program nor a real MFA is going to get me more time to write since I will not be able to do a full-time program in lieu of my regular life. Anything I would do would be in addition to my already busy schedule (and one thing that fills it up is writing as much as I can now, an activity which would then have to compete with assigned writings). And as for contacts, I’m not likely to make many living as I do in Japan, probably not even if I do a low-residency MFA program and jet in and out off-semesters.

So as much as I would love to have more time to write, and to know more literary folks, the reason for me to pursue an MFA would be for the craft. Which I am told does not necessarily come from attending an MFA program. Anyone wish to dispute this notion told me by a number of writers with degrees? (It’s hard for me to believe that almost anyone who calls herself a writer couldn’t teach me quite a bit about craft, but that’s me without even undergrad courses in creative writing.)

And furthermore, those of you with MFAs, homemade or institutional, what do you think about what your program gave you? Was it worth it? What did you gain? Would you recommend it to others? For those like me who've passed the ideal age and circumstances to go to school, is the DIY MFA going to be enough?


Karen J. Weyant said...

As someone who has debated about getting an MFA, I found this post interesting. I came really close to going to a low residency program, but backed out because of cost. The fact is that I'm not sure what an MFA would do for me -- I have a solid job at a community college, I do have some literary "connections" (although, that is probably loosely defined), and I do publish (am wishful about a full length collection some day).

Like you, I would like to know more about craft, mostly because I'm often faced with questions concerning line breaks and style where I don't know the answers.
I do have a Master's in Composition, but I'm surprised by the number of people who are really shocked that I don't have an MFA -- I don't know how to take that "shock"!

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Karen, I'm like you, trying to figure out what I could gain from an MFA given my circumstances. I don't have a job teaching creative writing, and would like one, but since I couldn't find one in Japan anyway, an MFA wouldn't be a career investment for me. I'm heartened to hear you are able to teach community college without the MFA, though your Master's must go a long way there. I have a Master's in Math Econ which, interestingly enough, often qualifies me in Japan to teach English (ESL). Any old Master's will do here in a number of situations!

So the drive for an MFA would be craft for me. I have used the Dzanc Creative Writing sessions to get help on craft before, and there are other online opportunities...Maybe I should stick to those kinds of options.

Gabriela Pereira said...

Hi! I just found your blog and this is a topic I've been fascinated with for over the last year and have discussed a lot in my own writing. I have an MFA but after graduating I'm not sure I would recommend it to most writers.

To that end, I've created a program called DIY MFA and am currently in the process of rebooting it and giving it an official home on the interwebs. The idea, of course, is to help writers do exactly what you talk about here.

I did a short series of posts about the pros and cons of the traditional MFA and my general feeling is that you've got to take feedback from people who have MFAs with a grain of salt. A lot of times the rose-colored-glasses and 20/20 hindsight kick in and taint their views. Of course, take what I'm saying with a grain of salt too, since I'm just one more person with an MFA who happens to have a different opinion than most.

If you're on twitter, check out @DIYMFA where I'll be posting updates about the project. Would love to hear more about your take too!

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Dear Gabriela,
Thanks for your comments. I followed a tweet of yours to your blog on this very subject (for everyone else: and and

I appreciate your balanced response and will be following your DIYMFA program with interest. Here's the link about it in your blog, for everyone else:

Please keep us informed about when it's new internet home is up and running and I will post more about it here.

Jessica Goodfellow said...

oops, "its new internet home" is what I meant.

Mari said...

At the risk of being redundant, my graduate degree gave me 1) time to write, 2) the fellowship of like-minded, like-spirited souls engaged in the same pursuit, 3) teaching experience, 4) two years in NYC, and 5) a few lifelong friendships. I didn't attend grad school with aspirations to become a career academic and have not pursued that route since. These days if one wants a full-time academic post in creative writing, a PhD in addition to an MFA and significant publications (2-3 books) seems to be the growing trend -- sadly. This is all to say you don't need an MFA *or* a PhD to engage in the work you love and to learn to do it well. Many poets attend summer conferences, and there are some really good ones -- costly, but may better accommodate your time constraints. I'm glad I went to grad school -- it was the right move at the right time and I'm still grateful for the time and $ support I was given -- but I'm not sure I'd do it now, given the economy and the job market for poets. Also, teaching is becoming increasingly decentralized -- online, community-based, private workshops, etc. -- and I believe this trend will continue as universities become increasingly corporatized and put the squeeze on the humanities. My two cents...

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Wow, Mari, you should have written the blog post for me. I have never heard anyone say they regret getting their MFA, though many will tell me that I should not, that now is not the time. The market has changed (as you say), and more importantly, there are options like you mentioned of the private workshop, the summer conference, etc. Excellent point, and an encouraging one for people like me who can't manage an MFA.