To MFA or Not to MFA?

Around 2014, there was hot debate around why the MFA even exists or is worth it in current status. You’ll recall Junot Diaz’ impassioned piece in The New Yorker, MFA vs. POC. And you’ll also make a note he forgot a mad wild mega footprint: MFA vs. POC vs. FemmBods. 😎

But whatcha expect from MFAs—first hatched in Iowa with CIA money and support?

And Look. MFAs have notoriously been anti-black, anti-women, anti-queer. But. Hard to ignore the power an MFA from an elite institution still yields today. Diaz’ career, for one, is a testament to all that.

Deciding between an MFA or going it alone is personal and privilege—most single working moms can’t pick up for two years to go join a circus of creative misfits seeing if they can string sentences together among a row of corn fields. And many MFAs come with steep expectations. That institutions with endowments as engorged as NYU and Columbia ask writing students to pay for tuition should be illegal. And it def colors—haha, 😄😜—who sits in those classrooms and whose stories get amplified. For me, the choice of an MFA came down to a shortcut.

Having an Iowa MFA short-circuits a lot of gatekeeping BS that has little to do with talent.

And as an immigrant writing far beyond America’s margins, plus throw in being a black woman with a sassy mouth, I knew a fancy MFA would come handy.

But the real clincher for me was my actual experience. I had a fcn amazing time! For two years, my MFA paid me and had Zero expectations of me expect that I write.

Hard to understate the gift of those years. And hard to fully grasp how much the leadership of one Asian-American woman stands out in shaping a more welcoming MFA experience for writers from the margins at Iowa.

If you’re considering an MFA or No MFA, here’s my 2cents on stuff to think about:

  1. Funding: I had a zero-debt policy. Writing, even at the highest echelons, is no NBA draft. It’s the rare birds who support herself on writing alone. So it made zero sense to me to pay beyond living expenses. If you’re into MFAs, consider applying to places with full-rides. And consider it may take you applying to same place more than once. I was classmates with someone who’d apparently applied every year for about 5 years straight. And then got in!
  2. No MFA Can Teach You How To Write: Once you understand this, you’re a little freer. Cause you understand you could write and read on your own, there’s no magic formula there. What MFAs offer is community (sometimes), external validation/signaling to publishing and connections–-it matters who’s on faculty and how much they support their students. Figure out what you most need to thrive and find a program that can meet most of that or create ala DYI.
  3. Low Residency: I have friends who’ve loved this model. More flexible with a full adult life. One friend raves about The Institute of American Indian Arts, where the agenda is decidedly more decolonized and faculty include dope AF writers like Tommy Orange, Morgan Talty, David Truer and Layli Long Soldier.

If you don’t MFA, you’re building the ship while sailing. Definitely do-able. Definitely build your writing support squad. See this article on Creating A Writing Starter Pack to get going.

Before writing school, I spoke to a famous writer friend who’s not an MFA. His advice was, You don’t need it. And he was right. But he’s also an international bestseller with a once in a lifetime story. He was going to get that phat book deal come hell or high baby black Jesus. Then there’s folks I know who’ve loved self-publishing, I know like zip about this.

Point is—there is no right way.

MFAs commodify what we’ve done since Human No.Zero—We are our stories.

You don’t need a piece of paper to do that. You don’t really even need to read and write, real talk. Ask my grandma, and the thousands of years of human storytelling passed down from gifted mouths to hungry ears. (and often cribbed without credit by white supremacist agendas…am I digressing? 😝

But, you. Since you’re out here tryna get published—Write.


p.s. On Iowa Writers’ Workshops’ CIA start, read here


The Write Sunday Snack:

  • Go through your work and pick 2-3 of your best stories/novel/book excerpt. About 20 pages each
  • Research 2-3 writing programs that resonate. Go for broke—Dream Scenario only
  • Schedule time this week for recommendations + personal statement
  • If MFA, you have the bones for your application. If not MFA, use same material for fellowships/grants/writing conferences.