In Defense of the MFA: My Story

I have decided to pursue an MFA in creative writing.

Lots of people in the writing / publishing world have strong opinions about MFAs. Not all of them favorable.

Photo by Brenna Richardson © 2015 Please click this image to visit her site and buy her art because she is awesome.

Photo by Brenna Richardson © 2015

Here’s what I’ve concluded.

When I was a kid I wanted to be good at everything. I wanted to be a renaissance man. I wanted to know all about math, and science, and literature, and history, and be good at sports, and save people from burning buildings, and be the indefatigable hero of my own life story.  My goals were the result of a genuine love of learning multiplied by a truckload of childish naiveté.  Why couldn’t I just know everything there was to know about everything? Learn six languages? Become a master craftsman in every skill imaginable?

Turns out the time-consuming effort of earning a living makes it tough to pursue your dreams,  no matter what my millennial childhood may have promised. In fact, if I was going to “master” anything I needed to narrow my list. I couldn’t be the best at a few of my favorite things, if I was lucky, I might be get away with one, but only if I worked at it hours a day, incessantly, until I died.

So, I chose to write. Writing would be my one thing. Fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, poetry, whatever genre gave the best expression to the things I wanted to say. Writing was the thing I wanted to excel at, if not due to “natural” talent, then through hard work and intentionality.

And that’s what I’ve done. I’ve written a novel, several short stories, and a few screenplays. In terms of quality, they’ve been a mixed bag. I’ve had some interest from studios/producers. I’m proud of some things I’ve written. But not everything. Some, in fact, are quite bad, but I’ve done my best to autopsy the failures and learn from them. I’ve gotten a few stories into print, and genuinely feel that I’m improving.

The problem is? I want more. To learn more. To be better.

So, I researched and applied to MFA programs with the following questions in mind.

What if, I could spend a couple years in the company of other people, roughly my age, who have similar goals? What if I could sit under the tutelage of women and men who have created the kind of art that I admire? If writing is my thing, the only thing that I get, why wouldn’t I do everything I could to be the best at it that I’m capable of being?

 

Now, I know the rebuttals  are already queuing up in some people’s minds:

But MFA programs will turn your writing into generic Mac & Cheese!

MFA programs only teach writers how to teach writers and not how to write!

An MFA is a worthless terminal degree!

It doesn’t guarantee you’ll ever publish anything of value ever!

 

Those criticisms may be valid.

Some of them I put pointedly toward professors I met on my campus tour.

For me, writing is solo mountain climbing. I’ve already decided I want to summit the thing on my own. I could certainly try to get to the top without conferring with other human beings, but doing so seems treacherous. Instead of groping around in the darkness or accidentally throwing myself down a crevasse, why not hang around base camp for a while and see what experienced climbers think of the conditions? What’s the harm in listening to a few Sherpa stories, checking out what routes they’ve taken, what equipment they’re using? After a brief period of note taking, I’ll hit the trail again and apply what works.

 

I’ve decided that writing is my thing.  I want to be the best writer I’m capable of becoming.  Will an MFA accomplish this for me? No. But it will probably help, at least a little. And that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

 

Lots of writers I respect have MFAs.

Lots of writers I respect do not have MFAs.

I know people with MFAs who’ve published diddly squat since leaving their program.

I know people without MFAs whose work suffers from a lack of writing fundamentals.

 

An MFA does not make you a writer. Writing makes you a writer. I already write, I just want write better. We’ll see if this degree does the trick. Either way, I’ll let you know in a couple of years.

 

 

About 

Joshua Rigsby is a freelance writer, tea drinker, and full-time father based in Los Angeles, California.

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