Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Pros and Cons of an MFA: A blogshop with author Karen Neches

I have mixed feelings about MFA programs. On one hand, when I meet writers who've earned their MFAs in writing from Iowa or Irvine, I get a little I'm meeting a rock star. But I've read work from those who've graduated from these programs and many others and guess what? They have their unique set of challenges with their work just like every other writer and are usually more than honest about what holds them back.

Does an MFA get you in the publishing industry's door? Sure, noting to an agent that you've earned your MFA in writing certainly catches their eye and it may even help get your manuscript read in a hurry...but MFA or not, it all comes down to the writing. The proof is in the prose.

Bestselling author Karen Neches shares more about the Pros and Cons of an earning an MFA.

Recently a reader wrote me and asked me why I hadn't written a book lately. I confessed I'd spent the last two years getting an MFA in creative writing.

She replied, "You've already published five books. Isn't that kind of like going to med school after you've performed five open heart surgeries?"

Not the most apt analogy since no one is actually in danger from reading

my novels, but I understand her puzzlement. It seems weird for a seasoned writer to get an MFA. So why did I spend upwards of twenty-five grand to go back to school?

I wanted to improve my writing chops in a serious way. Re-reading "How to Write a Damn Good Novel" wasn't going to cut it.

Everything went sour in the publishing world in 2008 and I decided it was wise idea to have the option to teach.

I'm one semester away from graduating from a low-residency program and finally feel prepared to discuss the pros and cons of an MFA program.


Persnickety professors who hate everything you write. This sounds like a con, but for me it was a good thing. I'd gotten lazy in my writing habits, and I needed someone to slap me around a bit.

MFA programs take writing seriously. A cliche is a personal affront. These folks spend hours pondering word choice, and the use of extraneous adjectives and adverbs will get you horse-whipped. Your style will definitely improve.

You are forced to read and critique good literature when you'd rather watch "Shedding for The Wedding."

You'll form relationships with fellow writers. (If you can forgive them for flaming you in workshop.)

If you're a procrastinator the program will help you get into the habit of writing every day.


You'll learn next to nothing about plot. Do not drink the MFA Kool-Aid and let anyone convince you that plot will magically rise out of character like a genie from a bottle. That might be true of short stories but if you're writing a novel you need to take plot every bit as seriously as any other element of fiction.

Academics live in la-la land. Once an agent came to visit the campus and she lobbed out two uncomfortable truths: literary fiction is a hard sell, and short story collections are almost impossible to market. The air bristled with denial. It was like an astronomer addressing the Flat Earth Society.

It's Elitist. Commercial writers are considered in the same category as used car salespeople. People who aspire to be the next Dan Brown are taken out to the quad and pelted with copies of The Great Gatsby.

My conclusion is this: Commercial writers can learn lots from literary types and visa versa. After almost completing the program, I feel like I'm a much better writer. Would I do it again? You betcha, but it might not be for every writer.

TLC: Your Action:

MFA Students and Grads: Share with us some of the best things you're learning or have learned in your MFA program. Or, what do you wish your program would teach that it's not?

Non-MFA Grads: How have you learned to write? Please share and discuss!

About the Contributor:

Karen Neches is the bestselling author of five books (Earthly Pleasures and co-author of The Sweet Potato Queen series). Visit her website at and her group blog at


  1. Karen and I are in the same MFA program! I agree with her on all points. In fact, a few of us in the fiction department (including Karen) have a secret commercial pact. :)
    I am so glad I am getting my MFA. It has helped me improve my writing exponentially faster than I could have on my own. It has exposed me to the publishing/writing world faster than I could have on my own. When I am done, I will be qualified to teach (which was my main reason behind pursuing the degree). But I think the absolute best thing I have received from this experience is confidence. I was never very confident in my work. Now, I know I am a good writer. I am confident about my strengths. I am very aware of my weaknesses, but I am equipped with tools for how to fix them. For me, the MFA was the best thing I could have done for my writing.

  2. Like Kristina, I am in Karen's MFA program and the "commerical pact". Before starting the MFA program, I knew that I had a passion for writing, but I had no clue how to really do that. I know that I could have figured it out on my own over time, but starting the MFA thrust me into the writing world and forced me to get busy and get to writing. As Karen said, it has taught me how to write every day and has helped me to hone my craft. It has given me the tools and the determination to finally put my passion to paper!

  3. Thanks for the comments, Kristina and Lindsay. You're right, learning to write well by immersion in a writing program can be a very powerful experience. And confidence comes when you've finished the program successfully with an open mind and a solid work ethic.


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