The Writing: Should I get an MFA if...I live in New York City?
The end of summer has finally reached me and I’m here a day earlier than usual because of my moving and new class schedule.
Today, I’m continuing the MFA series. You can read the first installment here: Should I get an MFA if…I want structure around my writing?.
Should I get an MFA if...I live in New York City?
I’d love to hear your take, too, if you moved to a city to “make it” as a writer without an MFA or if you moved for an MFA outside of NYC. Unfortunately I only have the perspective of the path I took.
Answer below. As usual, I’ll be here for the next 45 minutes!
The answer to this question depends on what you're actually asking. If you want to become a writer, that's free to do and you can do it anywhere. But I think we all know: this question should really read "should I get an MFA if...(I want to make money off it and) I live in New York City?"
This Leslie Jamison essay already breaks down how ironic this binary is. In short, she writes that the MFA with its academic machinery and the publishing industry in New York City usually comprise a portfolio of a successful writer's portfolio. I agree with her.
Over the years, I've chosen NYC time and time again over an MFA. I took classes from literary institutions across the city. If I chose well, the content of the classes were not much different than what was offered at MFAs—the teaching artists were the same and their classes just as useful or interesting, with one key difference: there were no office hours, and the classes usually were 4-6 weeks vs. the 12 weeks of the university system. There was also little continuity between those who I was taking class with, both between instructors and other students. That famous writer you're rubbing shoulders with on the street doesn't have a reason to pay attention to you outside of the hours you're spending in class.
Economically speaking, I took maybe 8 classes for around $400 each, totaling $3200 compared to the average cost of, say, a program like Columbia, which was about $65k this year in tuition alone. (This point doesn't matter, though, because you've already taken my advice to never take on debt or pay for a program! ) It only took one class to pay off—one writing master class turned into a small group of friends with whom I navigated and questioned Submittable, cover letters, and workshops together for years.
Access, I think, is the real difference. Access is a class issue and not only on the student side. A writer who's not sure where their next paycheck is coming from doesn't have the luxury of extra time to get coffee with you or write your next recommendation, let alone everyone in the class. It's not personal—it's simply the (messed up) reality of class within the literary community. (If you've met an independent writer who's not working a second job or independently wealthy who's still willing to do work like this, recognize that and at think about compensating them fairly if you have the resources). At an MFA, your professors will, at least, give you some attention, even if it's just 10 minutes a semester. And it matters for recommendations, which plug into a prestige economy that I am honestly too tired to talk about right now (but maybe someone can pay me to, haha).
I felt this lack of access acutely as a teenager in the Midwest; I even felt it when I was working in tech in NYC, treating poetry as my serious "side thing." While I could go to as many poetry readings I wanted, if I went alone, I left events right as they ended to avoid awkwardly standing there while people closed ranks in their friend groups. This stopped only after years of publishing, reading, and curating events in New York myself, enabled by my day job, which enabled my getting mental health support and getting my basic needs met. There's also a class reason behind being able to show up day after day.
An MFA is a professional degree, but don't get one to become a "professional writer."
Here is the non-starter: do not, under any circumstances, go into debt or pay to get an MFA. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. If you're convincing yourself because you were raised to believe that a professional education is supposed to open doors, read my column 'Money Seems More Real Than My Art.'
If your only concern is getting a tenure-track job in creative writing, the only doors it will open are maybe, *maybe,* a university mandating that you have a terminal degree in your field in order for you to teach there. More likely than that, though, you will be applying to adjunct with no guaranteed benefits. Jobs are scarce and you'll also be up against writers who have gone on to get creative writing PhDs, increasingly popular as the market continues to thin out. The professionalization of creative writing programs, too, is a very recent, 1950s-and-onward, development. There's a point when your resume can end up outshining the letters after your name, anyway, as a teaching artist.
To repeat it differently: do not get an MFA (and don't become an artist) to make money. My first publication paid me a respectful, and surprising, $20 for five poems, and that was the most money I made for at least the first couple of years. I was grateful and proud to buy a meal with my first poetry earnings. Fast-forward to now—even in my early successes as a writer, I usually am at a loss or net out year-over-year and mostly live off savings I earned while working in tech.
There's obviously more to say about this, but I'll leave it to this for now, unless someone wants me to commission me to write the essay, haha.