PhotobucketSo here’s the question: do you need an MFA?

Answer: No.

(Score! Shortest. Column. Ever.)

But here’s what happens if you ask the question in a slightly different way.

Question: Could you benefit from an MFA?

Answer: Almost definitely.

A little background: My senior year of college, I applied to the most selective MFA programs in the country. They politely rejected me. The following year, I decided I wanted to be in Washington, D.C., and when I applied to American University’s MFA program, they were kind enough to let me in. I graduated two years later with a bright shiny new degree and a much more developed sense of craft.

Ten years later, I’d had a few short stories and poems published in literary magazines (including the pretty darn reputable North American Review), but despite near-constant submission of my novels to agents and publishers over that decade, and dozens of near-misses, I still hadn’t sold a novel.

Getting an MFA will not get you published. Period.

That said, knowing what I know now, would I have done this differently? Probably not. I look back very fondly on my years at American. Full-time enrollment in a writing program was a huge, huge learning opportunity for me. I became a much better writer. I finished my first novel, something I’d never managed to do when my focus was split between writing and classes, or writing and working full-time. Getting the first one done in grad school taught me I could do it. Later I learned how better to balance writing with other demands on my time, but I needed that first one under my belt so I knew what I was shooting for.

What else happened over those two years? I got better at sentence-level writing. I got better at critiquing other people’s work. I met wonderful guest writers and got their input on my writing. I put together a solid portfolio of short stories as well as taking workshops in poetry and playwriting to round out my perspective on language.  I saw a one-act play I’d written produced onstage, I served as a litmag editor, and I took courses in literary journalism, translation, and literature. I had incredibly positive and incredibly negative workshop experiences and both kinds taught me things I needed to know.

Now. Here’s the thing. Could I have done all of these things without paying tens of thousands of dollars in tuition? Honestly, I probably could have. Eventually. You can do night classes, week-long or weekend workshops, and online critique groups. You can pay brilliant freelance editors to provide honest feedback on your work. And there are all those parts of getting published that they don’t teach in MFA programs, or at least not in that program at that time: query letters, novel plotting, finding an agent, who’s who in publishing, all that stuff. Honestly? You can learn most of that on the internet, if you’re willing to put in the effort.

The MFA has a gigantic price tag. Whether it’s worth it to you to pay that price is a completely personal decision. Most of the published writers I know don’t have them, and plenty of MFAs I know aren’t published. And the only decision I think is a bad decision is to draw a line between the two groups and look down at the people who made a different decision than the one you made. I’ve read a lot of rancor in both directions, and it’s pretty much always misplaced.

Do you need the degree? No. Will you pursue it? That’s completely up to you.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s CarbonNYC

About Jael McHenry

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.