‘Is an MFA Worth It?’

What does it represent to you?

‘Is an MFA Worth It?’
[Photo by Yanyi: You're standing in the middle of a path between two rows of tall wood fencing. It has snowed. Dawn breaks through spindly trees and a house in the far distance.]

Hi there,

The first month post-publication of Dream of the Divided Field has felt like an absolute whirlwind. I had interviews come out last month in Keep the Channel Open, Electric Literature, wust el-balad, and Poets and Writers. And I got to meet some of you in person for the first time!

I’m trialing comments! You can now log in to comment on posts like today’s letter. Let me know what you think, perhaps as a comment. :)

Calling all Asian American poets: I am teaching a poetry manuscript editing workshop in May for those in the throes of a 40-80 page collection and who need some help. Limited to 15 participants, this workshop is free to all who are accepted thanks to the generous support of my publisher, One World. Apply with a 10-page sample and a personal statement on your current blocks by April 15.

For those in New York City, I am speaking with Rebecca Porte, core faculty member at Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and a dear friend, at the BISR office in DUMBO on April 5. The last time we did an event together, it was like having brunch on stage together!

For astrology buffs, on April 17, the astrologer LiZhen Wang will be giving my new book the birth chart treatment before our conversation on the collective astrology, “nonbinary grief,” and our journeys on making our private selves public.

Thank you to everyone who has reached out to me about the book, and your support for my work both here and out there.

Now, on with the work.

Dear Yanyi,

Over and over I hear writers I trust and respect say that the MFA is a waste of money. And always (at least I cannot think of an exception), these writers have an MFA and are working as writers. Additionally, non-extensive research positions the MFA as a "gate-keeping" - you need it to get noticed, to get read, to get fellowships, to have opportunities, etc. and etc. and etc.

But beyond that, surely the MFA IS a way to work on our craft, no? And no matter what it costs, it is a cost that can be absorbed by student loans, which is not the case for the various (many amazing) writing workshops offered via other methods. And, perhaps even more than the craft aspect - or certainly intimately connected to it - is the ability to be part of an ongoing group/cohort/community - where you have constant access to feedback, response, workshopping, and editing...along with the ability to revise and regroup.

I have more student loan debt than a person should be allowed to have (see everything you've written re: classism)...which leaves me with the "so what's some more?"

I've had a shit couple of years and am in a constant struggle to literally eat and pay bills. And every time I take a writing workshop, I feel a longing deep in my soul to apply for an MFA so I can do that All. The. Time. Besides, graduate student loans usually include some money to live on...relieving some of that pressure as well.

Obviously having missed the regular cycle, I'm now 99% sure I'm going to apply to a few low-residency programs. Maybe I'm looking for your validation? Maybe I'm just looking for your reaction to my various thoughts and perspectives.

Sincerely,
Dreaming-of-a-Writing-Community

Dear DWC,

First off, these past few years you’ve had sound really tough, both financially and emotionally. I’m glad you’ve gotten a chance to take some workshops and, as you’ve said, to discover that deep longing you feel for writing all the time.

I can’t, of course, give you any financial advice, not being an adviser or privy to your real situation. It also seems that you’ve already decided to apply to some programs, given the end of your letter. I offered thoughts about getting an MFA in the past. But your letter struck me, still, and I wanted to speak to you about your reasons for applying and your opinions, in hopes this letter will be useful to you and someone else.

Writing, for me, brings the world closer at hand, but in a way that allows for me to say what it is and what I want it to be. There’s an incredible release that happens in the imaginative act, during which one’s choices aren’t limited by circumstances. Rather than accepting a lesser option when one would prefer another, one can receive whatever one wants, be whoever one wants, in the realm of the imagination.

In other words, my writing has always reminded me that I am alive, and can be, and my desire to do it all the time has been connected to my desire to live my life out on my own terms. Perhaps this resonates with your experience. Perhaps you want more opportunities to materially play out that gift of agency.

Now, it’s interesting to me that in the same sentence you speak of that deep longing, you cast the MFA as the intermediary step to that life of writing all the time. I say this because an MFA is a terminal program by design—if you’re lucky, immersive in all the best ways, but temporary all the same.

Perhaps you’ve already thought about this, and perhaps you’ve told yourself that even if it’s temporary, at least you will have this reprieve from the relentless struggle of your life. I know that you want this enough  to take on more debt, debt that will never be paid back from the dearth of creative writing jobs on the other side.

But I also want to emphasize that the working writers you’ve talked to, the ones with the MFAs already, probably aren’t writing all the time, and they certainly aren’t making most of their money from it.  It’s been humbling for me to learn in the past few years that despite outward achievements and even fame, the nitty-gritty of writing income is still precarious and unpredictable, and it’s best not to rely on it for a very long time.

Most writers nowadays who are considered “successful” have some sort of day job unrelated to their writing, a category in which I include teaching. Beyond money, you can have an MFA, the accolades, and even the tenured professor job, and that still wouldn’t mean anything in terms of whether or not you’re writing.

This is all to say that the writing life is not an all-or-nothing game. I don’t know the full picture of your past few years or your class history, but I do think scarcity can have a profound effect not only on fulfilling one’s basic needs but also on the attitude with which one thinks about every resource in one’s life. Scarcity creates a destabilizing see-saw between having and not-having. Every abundance that comes your way may feel like a fluke—so living well becomes about doing so when you can because the resources probably won’t be there for very long.

Has it been hard for you, DWC, to keep the things and people you want in your life? Perhaps, for you, it’s not just been food and bills, but also family, friends, and lovers. Perhaps you’ve had a harder time than you’ve even let on in your note to me. Perhaps your debt came from paying for your way through college when family couldn’t afford it or wouldn’t support you. Perhaps you’ve made your way alone, with no help, and survived.

I hope you can be proud of whatever you’ve accomplished, because debt’s not only financial. Debt is the material manifestation, as wrong as it is, of how you are not enough—it’s a reminder that you’re started at a deficit, and that no matter how much you’ve given, the weight of your burden is always bigger than the power you have to slough it off.

If a writing program seems a narrow door through which you might squeeze out of this cycle, with some careful planning, it’s not a bad idea, so long as you don’t equate an MFA with the writing life. It’s not, and you’ll probably be disappointed if you go into one with that expectation.

But where could an MFA fit into this vision of the writing life, if at all? At its best, an MFA can offer craft, community, and professional legitimacy as you desire in your letter. You will, at the very least, be able to teach at the college level. It can also relieve your financial burdens—the funding out there is real, if you are intentional about getting it—and it can provide a loose structure from which you can transition, as I did, from one version of your life to another.

I will offer three quick pieces of advice for the journey: do not take on more debt, go to a program that fits, and create the experience you want when you’re there.

Whatever you do, do not go into more debt to get an MFA. However, don’t self-reject just because there’s no clear messaging on whether a program has funding upfront. There are enough programs with enough funding out there that you have a decent shot of getting paid to study writing. This note applies to even low-residency programs, which did not seem to have funding in the years I was looking at them. Apply to the programs you sense are a good fit, and you may be surprised by a full scholarship or work-study funding.

To ascertain program fit, ask yourself where you feel “stuck” in your practice right now. Have you maxed out on writing workshops? Don’t go to a studio program that emphasizes workshopping—you may be better off in a program that features a critical track, or the one-on-one attention that many low-residency models are built on. Read the work of the faculty on staff to see if there are any affinities, but also allow yourself to be surprised by who might read your work in the ways you need. It’s better to choose mentors who are kind but honest than mentors who promise to make you as great as they are. Do you want to experiment with other genres or deep-dive into your own? You may prefer programs that give their students genre flexibility in their classes.

For better or for worse, an MFA program is only as good as the people and the experiences you are open to while you are there. Ask yourself carefully about what you want from the program and then set out to make it happen. Ask your peers out to lunch, join as an editor at the program magazine, and take conference and fellowship opportunities as they come along.

If you’re serious about this dream of writing all the time, an MFA would just be a pit-stop on the way to getting that accomplished. It’s not a panacea and, in the wrong program, may actually hinder your creativity and voice and create specters of competition in your imagination rather than give you a community. Writing is not a noble goal, but a humble truth about who you are. And if you’re prepared to aim for it and act for it, in that doing so would be acting for the life you wish to have, I wholly support whatever way you might want to achieve it. Good luck.


Postscript: A few different paths with the MFA


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About

Yanyi is the author of Dream of the Divided Field (One World 2022) and The Year of Blue Water (Yale University Press 2019). To find out more, go to yanyiii.com.

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