MFA: Boon Or Boondoggle?

From time to time I will talk about the writing life in a category of blog entries under the title the writing life.

It might interest readers who have the urge to tell their story or write a book.

I recently read in the book Happiness, a collection of essays taken from the critical literary journal n+1, a chapter by Keith Gessen, a guy who was a penniless writer forced to teach fiction at a college. He does have an MFA, and sold a book for a six-figure advance (advances are always against future royalties.) Yet for most of his writerly life, he existed on $15K to $20K in yearly income.

This will be the first writing myth I bust: that a traditional avenue for a writing career is the only one a would-be writer should aspire to.

First: I’m not a fan of most MFA fiction (or fiction for that matter), so I’m biased against having a job in an “ivory tower” academic institution where you teach writing to students. I read a fine column in Poets & Writers about how real-life experience is vital to have as a writer, instead of going the paper-mill route.

I make an exception: certain MFA writers are good–like Danzy Senna. And it’s a matter of preference, because Heidi Julavits is a famous MFA-writer, and I found nothing spectacular about her first book, The Mineral Palace. (I read it when it first came out.)

She was on a panel discussion I attended titled: “MFA: Boon or Boondoggle” easily over 10 years ago.

The myth of having to write full-time, the myth of most writers being able to earn a livable income solely from writing, is just that: a myth.

The wind-up:

To get an MFA, you have to think of your R.O.I., or return on investment: if you’ll recoup the expensive tuition by getting a book deal with a decent advance.

I will return on Thursday with a more hopeful scenario to combat this common dilemma.

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