Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Guest Post by Brian Jenkins

Thoughts on Getting an MFA Degree in Creative Writing
by Brian Jenkins

Should aspiring writers go for a Master's in Fine Arts degree in creative writing? It depends who you ask. Gail Hochman, a New York agent at Brandt & Hochman, stated in an article in The Atlantic, "We look favorably on anyone who has an MFA, simply because it shows they're serious about their writing." She also said, "but perhaps more important than which program the student attended is which writers that student studied with."

MFA programs in creative writing provide young writers with the distinct opportunity to connect with more accomplished writers. They receive advice from experts on craft, technique, and other important aspects of writing and also get feedback on their works-in-progress. Students typically read authors of classic literature and become aware of their styles so they can try to integrate these into their own writing.

Some programs also provide opportunities to meet agents, editors, and publishers. Many graduates from highly regarded MFA programs get their work published soon after obtaining their degrees.

According to the same article in The Atlantic, Ethan Canin, a University of Iowa faculty member and an alum of its Writers' Workshop, believes that a student's competitiveness can be "humiliating and degrading" but also sobering in useful ways. However, many professors and program directors report that their programs are places where writers can find some sanctuary from judgement. They feel as though writing students are surrounded by supporters and mentors. Chuck Wachtel, program director at New York University, said, "I see it as not so much teaching students as helping them learn."

Many of the writers who are teaching at top programs teach infrequently. They typically teach only one class every year and a half. This is because many schools believe published works do more to enhance the program's image than the amount of time instructors teach classes.

Getting Accepted to an MFA Program

Most program directors report that a short writing sample is the primary factor in determining who gets admitted into the program. Typically, the four vital elements program directors look for in candidates are talent, teachability, ambition, and collegiality.

Full-Residency Programs

In full-residency programs, students get immediate feedback on their writing and feel like part of a community of writers. These programs usually take two to three years to complete.

Low-Residency Programs

In these programs, writers don't need to spend a lot of time on-campus. Low residency programs are appealing to people who have full-time careers. Many programs emphasize close, directed reading of books every semester. Students correspond with a faculty advisor online, and in some programs they also correspond with other students. They usually attend 7 to 10 day residency periods in the summer and winter. The residency periods place an emphasis on workshops and provide contact with faculty members. Low-residency programs can usually be completed in four semesters.

Writers interested in getting an MFA degree can check out the Poets & Writers website to review low- and full-residency MFA creative writing programs in the United States and in other English-speaking countries.

MFA Program Workshops

It's vital to find out how a program's workshops are operated. Regarding less effective workshops, Michael Cunningham, Brooklyn College's director and a Pulitzer Prize winner, stated, "you typically show up with work in hand, and people tell you what's wrong with it." He also thinks that another problem is the consensus nature of the workshop process, which may lead young writers to validate work that seems similar to other generally acclaimed work.

If you're considering enrolling in an MFA degree program in creative writing, it's important to get familiar with the faculty members' work to see if they'll be suitable mentors for you.

Brian Jenkins writes feature articles primarily on career topics for, where he has contributed content to the website's guide to career planning.

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