Do I need an MFA to be a writer?
By Michelle Barker
The quick answer to this question is: no, you don’t. There are lots of ways to learn to become a writer. Reading is the cheapest and easiest one. It’s hard to imagine anyone who’s not an avid reader doing any writing of value. Studying how a good book has been written will give you almost everything you need to know about the craft—if you know what to look for.
As the naysayers would put it, it’s just letters behind a name. There are plenty of writing workshops and conferences a new writer can attend, both in person and online, to learn the craft and meet other writers. There are also many great craft books that can help you along the way.
Why Get an MFA?
So why would anyone decide to spend thousands of dollars on a degree that they don’t really need?
I had been a writer for decades before I decided to do an MFA, and I asked myself that question for several months before I finally applied. A writer friend of mine had already embarked on her degree, so I contacted her to ask why she was doing it.
“Is it worth it?” I asked.
Her response: “Absolutely. No matter where you are in your craft, doing an MFA will make you a better writer.”
Having done one now, I have to agree. Sure, I already knew how to write. I’d published countless poems, short stories, and non-fiction articles, though I’d never been able to find a publisher for my novels. I’d taken scores of workshops, been to several conferences, read a stack of craft books.
But whatever I thought I knew, it was nothing compared to what I learned during my degree. In the MFA, I learned how to read like a writer. I learned how to edit effectively, especially on a developmental level. I learned how to write a novel. And I developed a network of writers that has been extraordinarily valuable.
Was it worth the money? Definitely.
Would I recommend it to other writers? Without any hesitation.
Is it necessary in order to become a published author? No. But I don’t think anyone who embarks on it will regret their decision.
Yet I offer caution as well. I can smell an MFA story a mile away: something that feels slightly pretentious and a little too in love with its own words. And how useful your MFA is depends to a large extent on who your teachers are. As with everything, some are better at it than others.
For that reason, I’d choose my program carefully.
Learning How to Critique
As editors, our aim is to deliver a mini-MFA in all our feedback. We try to be educators as well as critics. In short, we try to tell our clients everything we wish someone had told us before we took an MFA.
But there’s no substitute for learning how to critique. You do it by doing it, and in the MFA program this happens every week, over and over, with other people’s work and your own. You learn how other people read and you see what they pick up that you might have missed.
When you learn how to spot the flaws in other people’s work, you eventually also learn how to spot them in your own.
I mentioned reading as a great way to learn how to write. The trick is in knowing why something is good. What has the author done well? Or, if you’ve picked up a book that doesn’t hold your attention, what’s wrong with it? Can you spot what the author has done to make you want to put the book down? Without training, you might not.
That’s what the MFA did for me that writing workshops and conferences didn’t do. That’s why my answer is yes—if you have the time and the money, and if you want to become a better writer, it’s worth it.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.