Perspectives on MFAs and writing education

Congratulations! You’ve just decided you’re going to be a fiction writer! You know there is nothing more satisfying than spinning up a world, developing unique characters to move around in it, and throwing bonkers things at them to see what happens. We get to be a god, and it’s pretty great.

But now that you’ve decided this writing life is for you, you may ask, “Okay, but HOW do I become a fiction writer?”

It’s 2022, so you’re probably just going to jump on Google. And you’ll get back any number of answers, including suggested books to read and even “to do” lists. It’s pretty terrific that with the privilege of internet access, there’s almost nothing we can’t learn to do. That being said, there’s a lot to learn.

The learning part has notoriously had two perspectives. There’s the you-can-teach-yourself camp, and then there’s the you-need-to-go-to-school camp. I think there is pretty good evidence these days that neither camp is “correct” and people have been successful coming through either side. But I wanted to share my experience and perspective, as I think hearing people talk about their opinions can help inform our decisions.


As someone who chose the MFA path and had a good experience, I’m probably biased even though I try not to be. I made the decision to go to graduate school for writing based off a few factors:

  1. I received a scholarship;
  2. I was looking for an accelerated path for my writing education;
  3. I wanted a structured environment with an established curriculum;
  4. I wanted to work with peers that were (roughly) around the same experience level; and
  5. I wanted to study under professors/writers I admired.

I got all that and a lot more in the three-year program. (Please note: MFA programs can vary in length.) I was a glutton for academic punishment and piled on literature classes to augment what I was learning in writing classes. I overdid what was necessary to graduate. (I’m kooky like that.) But in addition to the opportunities the program afforded me, I walked out of there with really strong writing muscles.

There are a few drawbacks to the MFA, however. I am sure the drawbacks vary from program to program. Here are a few I saw…

  1. In my particular program, we focused on short fiction stories. I’m a novel writer, and while short stories helped me learn things and practice, I didn’t get as much knowledge as I needed about novel writing.
  2. While we weren’t explicitly told this, it was clear we were to aim for writing “literature” and not genre fiction. I now know I like writing both General Fiction and in specific genres. While I am glad there are people who can justify writing as an important creative art, there was no one mentioning how well genre fiction sells in comparison to general fiction. So there wasn’t a ton of information about making money as a writer, which is kind of frustrating and sad.
  3. This, admittedly, has gotten better in the past few years, but you might notice an artificial construct of works held up above others in MFA programs. You know, the books students are told they should read and admire. It’s kind of like a reading checklist–and it’s full of books by dead white guys. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with Charles Dickens or Ernest Hemingway. It’s just not a comprehensive list. I went out of my way to take additional literature classes that would expose me to different cultures and perspectives.

Here’s the last thing I will mention about the MFA… I’ve met some really great writers that had an absolute horrible MFA experience. A few I’ve met had such a bad time of it, they dropped out and didn’t complete the program. While I feel sympathy for them, they are still out there kicking ass and writing. Even establishments saying some unforgivable things (I’m not talking about constructive criticism, I’m talking about shitty people saying shitty things) couldn’t stop them from continuing on their writing path. And more than anger at the programs and sympathy for these people, I am proud that writing continues to prove itself, over and over again, as something that is accessible to everyone.

So while I can’t talk at length about being self-taught, what I do know is that it takes a lot of work and dedication–which are must-have attributes for a writer, anyway! If all the nitty-gritty of doing your own research, finding things to read, trying various exercises, and gathering up your own cohort to share stories with sounds like your jam, then it could definitely be the right path for you. There is so much out there these days, that I try to make a point to continue to teach myself and investigate resources I come across. Some of it is junk, but more often than not, I’m finding things that actually give me a fresh take.

But the biggest secret is to always–always–keep writing.