The Struggle That Comes From Being In Between

If you’re wondering whether or not an MFA in Creative Writing is worth it, consider this:

The majority of my former classmates are now actively pursuing and living out their dreams as I type out these words. They have agents and book deals and book parties and people who love who they are and what they write.

Although a few of my classmates had an agent prior to the program, most got their agents after finishing a manuscript (or two) while we were in school. They wrote and revised constantly, letting chapters from their unfinished manuscripts be critiqued in class and in smaller writing groups outside of school. They read as many books as possible, consuming them as only the best writers do, by studying what worked in books they loved and what didn’t in books they hated, and learning how they could apply such lessons to their own creations accordingly.

The result of all of their hard work is absolutely beautiful. They are now authors, real authors, with books stacked on the shelves of your local Barnes and Noble and a few clicks away on Amazon.

But, if you’re wondering whether or not an MFA is worth it, you should also consider this:

An MFA program also produces people like me.

Those with a bunch of unfinished manuscripts on the hard drives of their computers, those with first and second drafts, languishing, stuck in the revision phase, still trying to figure out the best way to tell their stories, those who are finally done with a manuscript, mostly satisfied with what they’ve created, and bold enough to send queries out to agents, wondering in the back of their minds if their work is actually good enough to be selected this time around.

You see, witnessing someone else realize his dream is one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced. When I’m sitting at my computer frustrated by a plot that isn’t working out on paper, or stressed because I’m not sure how I should fix the pacing of a scene, the success of those around me makes me feel less alone. It gives me hope that I can reach my goals, too.

And I need that hope, that little reminder that it is possible for me to go into a bookstore someday and see my manuscript there on display.

But, hope doesn’t pay your bills. (Or, your student loans.) Nor does it help you buy groceries or music on iTunes.  Hope can’t change the fact that someday isn’t today.

Then there are those who give up entirely. Those who leave the program early on, never to be heard from again, making you wonder what it might have been that turned them away from the precious glow of that dream you once thought you both shared.

One of my professors once told us that some of us would make it, while others would never publish anything at all. It hurt to hear it at the time, but what she said could very well be true.

There are so many barriers that can keep you from seeing your work in print—

Professors and/or classmates that tear your work to shreds in workshop like unforgiving, rabid dogs, making you so self-conscious that you never want to write anything else again.

Agents who don’t ‘get’ what you’re trying to say in that novel you put your heart and soul into for months, maybe even years. Since it’s a subjective part of the business, it can be difficult to find the right fit.

But, the biggest obstacle you will face might just be yourself. Are you willing to wake up early or go to bed late to write at least 500 words every day while working full-time? Are you letting your fear of failure stop you from completing that manuscript that’s been sitting untouched on your laptop for years?

There is no guarantee when you have an MFA that you’ll get published. It’s merely a nice credential, a way to open yourself up to new opportunities and to make important connections in the business. You can become an author without getting a degree in writing. You can devote time to writing even if you don’t have workshop deadlines and you can read widely without a professor giving you weekly assignments. And you may even be able to find a community of writers elsewhere, too, by enrolling in a writing class-not a full-fledged program-or by going to writers’ conferences or just showing your work to that close friend who loves reading as much as you love telling stories.

Basically, at the end of the day, whether you apply and get accepted into a program, or you decide to go it alone, you’re still going to have to grapple with the same insecurities and struggles on the journey to publication as anyone else. An MFA doesn’t promise you success. That’s something you have to try to obtain on your own.

And regardless of which path you choose, if you don’t believe that you can make your dreams come true, then no one else will either.

So, is an MFA worth it?

A better question would be, is an MFA necessary?

The answer to that is no.  But it can help you improve your craft and connect with people who have the same aspirations, which might bring you opportunities that you wouldn’t have had otherwise. Just do your research and keep in mind all of the possibilities. Remember as you make your decision that you could succeed right away, you could end up not having what it takes, or you could, in the end, find that you lie somewhere in between.