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Friday, March 28, 2008

Kristen Havens posts MFA Programs Are Bull****, and asks, "If you've been rejected from an MFA program for writing, ask yourself, "What would that degree have bought me, really." She hastens to specify that this applies to poetry and fiction programs, not screenwriting programs.

I think it's a good question, though. In fiction and poetry, what an MFA gets you is the ability to teach professionally at institutions that require an MFA for their professors. Other than that, you get teachers' advice on your writing, and admission to the official Poetry Writing Mafia. You may need those if you plan a poetry "career" where you get published in small presses and occasionally win grants and (because poetry doesn't pay) teach.

If you actually plan to be a poet, you don't need a poetry program. You need to write poetry that people who are not themselves poets want to read.

If you actually plan to write fiction, then write fiction. If it's good, someone will publish it. I can't imagine that racking up $40,000 in tuition debt helps you find the time to write. If you need someone breathing down your neck to get anything finished, get married.

I'm not that big on screenwriting programs, either. I think you can learn far more by going to work at a literary agency; and they will pay you for it. They pay bupkis, but at least you don't have to pay them. You'll get a sense of how the industry works, and what it wants, and what it doesn't want. Then you can write at home, and you'll have people to show your work to. My biggest problem with most screenwriting professors is they teach how to write a "good" screenplay, when what you actually need to write is a screenplay that someone wants to pay money for. Those are not the same things, as you know from the first chapter of my first book.

I'm not even that big on MFA filmmaking programs. These do more for you than screenwriting programs, because to make films, you need equipment, and you need friends who are willing to work for free, who love movies, and who know what an f-stop is. Filmmaking is a collaborative medium. While you can shoot your own videos at home, and edit on a Mac, it is much easier to get a crew in film school, and to work on other people's crews, than it is in Fargo.

On the other hand I think most people go to film school too soon, before they know anything. So they make the wrong calling card film (I did) and don't have anyone to show it to once it's made. I think it's better to spend a few years in LA working, and then go to film school. (Also, you'll be more likely to get in, and you'll be eligible for in-state tuition rates at UCLA, rather than the huge out-of-state rates.) My years at film school qualified me to get an assistant job working for a producer; years later, they helped me shoot a pretty good comedy short film. I think I could probably have got an assistant job anyway, you know?

So before you fork out tens of thousands of bucks for an MFA program, ask yourself if you really need to. What are you getting the credential for? No one in the arts cares about your degrees, unless you want to teach. What are you going to learn that you can't learn on your own?

That way, you'll most likely save a whack of dough; and even if you do decide to go to an MFA program, you will know to spend your time in the program focusing on learning those things that you cannot learn outside of one.

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I agree to a point that you can probably learn what you need without graduate school.

However I did get my MA in creative writing and although I cringe when I look at the stories in my thesis, I still use a lot of the skills I learned in the program. I learned more about storytelling since I picked up screenwriting, but I don't think my education jumped me ahead a few paces.

Plus they pay me more at my day job because of my extra degree.

By Blogger Emily Blake, at 11:21 AM  

Yes, because you are a teacher!

I did say that an MFA is useful if you teach!

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 11:33 AM  

Like Emily, I too have an MFA in Creative Writing. I don't think writers in any genre NEED grad school. And I recognize that these degrees are kind of a dime a dozen now.

But I'm going to defend my MFA like I have about a kajillion times before. (People from all kinds of perspectives seem to have grudges against MFAs...)

1. The MFA program I attended was all about the people I was in classes with. Other, like-minded people serious about becoming professional writers (in a variety of genres including poetry, fiction, and screen) but who needed to stretch and grow and experiment-- and have immediate access to good feedback.

The people I really connected with there almost a decade ago still form the heart of my current two writing groups: my poetry group (now relegated to a largely online dealy) and my screenwriting group. When you're starting at around the same place, and supporting each other moving forward, you all move forward! Hence, everyone in my poetry group has a published book now, and everyone in my screenwriting group has options/development deals, etc.

2. My program emphasized working in more than one genre. So, if you go in a fiction writer, you also have to make strides in two other genres of your choice: say, stage and poetry, or kid's lit and creative non-fiction. Not only was this huge for me (I went in purely a poet and left an emerging screenwriter) but I think it's really important to work in more than one genre, and stretch your craft. Too many wannabe screenwriters just never do that. And it shows.

3. Since I was a Canadian attending a Canadian university, my MFA cost nowhere near $40,000 in tuition. The yearly tuition was actually cheaper than a year of my undergrad.

So, there's my defense.

I leave the defense (or further abuse) of a Film MFA to someone else!

By Blogger Jennica, at 11:47 AM  

Thanks for answering my unanswered question, Alex. : ) I like this quote:

"If you need someone breathing down your neck to get anything finished, then get married."

I think you're right, that the programs' main strengths are they can buy you the right to teach writing. Certainly there's nothing wrong with that. Everyone needs a day job.

By Blogger kristen, at 11:49 AM  

I'm agreeing with you, Alex.

Unfortunately, I've found that getting into the discussion (or argument) with someone seriously going for the MFA (had some interesting discussions with the wife about it, actually lost a friend over it who wanted to go for photography, etc. etc.), they don't want to discuss the practical side of it. They've made their decision and get angry that their husband/boyfriend/good friend isn't supporting them.

And, no offense Emily, but I have to agree with points that Alex has made in the past about the whole social/motivation side of it. $40k is a lot to pay for meeting other people and having an outside motivation to do this stuff. There's plenty of ways to meet other people in your same situation. For instance, I'm involved with a writing workshop now that has 7 people in it after a year and keeps growing.

As for motivation. . .that's an issue that I'm not willing to breach. I've been working on a bachelor's thesis and novel for the last 10 years without classes, largely because I've been pushing myself to do it, despite other people saying, "Why not just go back to school?"

By Blogger The_Lex, at 12:29 PM  

I have an MFA in film.

So does Scott Frank, Alexander Payne, David Lynch, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Kimberley Peirce, Darren Aronofsky, Spike Lee, Terrence Malick, Paul Schrader, Susannah Grant, Robert Zemeckis...

And yet Spielberg didn't go to college.

Here's the thing: at an MFA program you LEARN. You learn the craft. You learn visual language. You practice and are challenged -- more than you would by experimenting on your own or reading a book.

The problem is, if you don't have talent, you're wasting $40,000. But if you have some talent, your craft will develop in a deeper way, leaving you far more prepared for success in Hollywood.

And if you are a success here, it's much like law/med school debt -- the earnings your education helped achieve allows you to quickly pay off debt.

Look, if you want to learn how the industry works, make connections, etc -- go work at an agency. But to assume the whole point of an advanced degree is networking is shortsighted and unfair.

By Blogger Matt, at 12:27 AM  

I, too, am a refugee from the world of the MFA programs (fiction). I'm unusual, though, in that my bachelor's is in physics. So, I've been able to see how higher ed works in the arts as well as the sciences. And I hold the literary world of higher ed in complete contempt. (I know nothing of film school.)

If not in the august settings of universities, graduate school in literature would be regarded as an everyday pyramid scheme; that's exactly what it is. Further, pretentiousness is to the English department what empiricism is to the Physics department. It's incredible to behold an academic department fueled by what is elsewhere a personality flaw, but I'll stand by that statement any day of the week. Finally, there's a dirty little secret about all those literary magazines you're supposed to publish your stories (or articles) in--no one's reading them. If you want to be read, you'd be better off writing for the community magazine available for free at your local coffeehouse.

There. I feel better now. Do you?

By Blogger David, at 9:12 AM  

First of all I meant to say I DO think my education has jumped me ahead a few paces.

And I agree there are other ways to get there, but that doesn't mean you discount the value of grad school. I still use a lot of what I learned there when I write, not just when I teach.

And I didn't pay $40,000. That's a bit ridiculous.

But everybody's got a different path and as long as you get where you're going, who cares how you get there?

By Blogger Emily Blake, at 12:58 PM  

I agree with what Alex says here.

I think more important, even, than the money surrendered to a grad school education, is the loss of time incurred.

If you go into a three year grad study program, by the time you get out and attempt to get into the job market, you're already three years behind the guy who decided to skip on the program. And you're thousands of dollars behind, too.

Though I did complete undergrad, I decided it was a ridiculous prospect to go through a grad program. Less than two years out of college, I've moved to LA, worked on multiple film sets and TV shows (currently a staff member of a comedy series now), and I've completed a number of scripts that I hope to show when the opportunity presents itself.

I don't point this out to boast (my accomplishments aren't even particularly impressive), and certainly I'm by no means a success yet by my own standards. I like to think, however, that I'm waaaaaay ahead, and will be further still, than the guy who remains stuck in grad school with over a year to go.

..And I find that 'Professor Alex' has been much more helpful than a large majority of my undergrad professors.

By Blogger aldentre, at 7:20 PM  

For fiction (I don't know about screenwriting programs), a top MFA program is a good investment, because people can get A-list agents through the connections/recommendations. An abnormally high percentage of touted literary novels (the kind that are impossible to publish without a top agent) are by Iowa MFA alumni. (For that matter, so are the glowing reviews in the NY Review of Books).

By Blogger Lisa Hunter, at 10:33 AM  

"An abnormally high percentage of touted literary novels (the kind that are impossible to publish without a top agent) are by Iowa MFA alumni. (For that matter, so are the glowing reviews in the NY Review of Books)."

Sounds like a system that's far from being a meritocracy. How are the sales of those "touted literary novels"? I'll tell you who's reading them--English majors and damn near no one else.

By Blogger David, at 6:03 PM  

After I posted that last comment, I regretted its sarcastic tone. It comes from the frustration I described in earlier comments and not meant for Lisa. So please accept my apologies.

(As the browser was spinning off those comments, I said to myself, "What am I doing?" Too late.)

By Blogger David, at 6:10 PM  

It would be an interesting experiment to see how many of the Top Grossing writers went to MFA programs, and furthermore, to Iowa. I suspect a degree from Iowa does more for your ability to get grant money, fellowships, and major prize nominations than it does for your actual sales. A reader doesn't care where or if you went to school. Sure, a publisher might, if they think your book is good enough to win one of those awards. But what are the chances of that happening?

By Blogger kristen, at 8:50 PM  

I have an MFA in Screenwriting.
Once you get an MFA you will have it forever, unlike a job. I'm proud of my education. When I taught a screenwriting course it suddenly occurred to me how much I had learned and how much I actually knew about screenwriting and film, when forced to answer tough questions from precocious undergrads. I learned even despite spending a lifetime in the arts and feeling I knew everything already... I actually did LEARN quite a lot, not from a b.s. perspective but a professional perspective. The MFA gives you time to write and forces you to get your work up to par. That said, the debt is ugly. However, almost every writer I've met and respect has gone to graduate school. Some professional screenwriters I know who have not gone to graduate school seem stuck artistically (and it shows in their work). Liberal Arts undergrad degrees teach you to think critically and MFAs teach you to think professionally, at a scholar's level, about the art of narrative storytelling. Sure you can work as an assistant or reader or whatever but most MFAs do this anyway. Also, this is a competitive business and it gives you a huge edge over everyone else in LA with a script (everyone has one). It's not the be all end all and there are times when I agree with you that it isn't necessary (practically speaking). I mean, if you don't want to go the MFA route there's always the stripper pole route! but then there are times when I look back on the in-depth study I did of all the great films on the AFI list and know that gave me something special and if nothing else... I may be obscure, I may pine away for years on my little masterpieces, I may teach but at the end of the day, and this may be my insecure fear talking, I feel the MFA is my insurance against ending up as just another... hack.

By Blogger bluestocking, at 12:10 AM  

Iowa always pops up on these kinds of forums. You can argue about the pros and cons of any MFA program, but it's hard to beat the fruit that has come out of the University of Iowa's MFA program, known as the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Heck, just look at two Iowa graduates who only got their BA there; Tennessee Williams & Diablo Cody.(Just for the record, Cody did say it's easier to get a film made in Hollywood than to get into the MFA program at Iowa.)

To read about the many writers that have come from the Univ. of Iowa check out this blog:–iowa-connection/

Scott W. Smith
Screenwriting from Iowa

By Blogger Scott W. Smith, at 4:20 PM  

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