To MFA or Not to MFA by Jill MacKenzie


Photo credit: dabravo on Flickr

I had never planned on going back to school to obtain my MFA in Creative Writing. To be clear, I used to be one of those grass-roots writers who thought that while writing could be helped through conferences and critique groups, it couldn’t be taught; you either “had it” or you didn’t. But after an author I greatly respected painted a gleaming picture of what an MFA would do for my career, the idea hooked inside of me and wouldn’t let go. If I wanted to be a good writer—instead of just a decent writer—an MFA was imperative.

And here I am, smack dab in my second year inside of a respected MFA program.

And here I am, still not knowing if it’s worth it.

Don’t get me wrong. For the simple reason that I am, on a daily basis, surrounded by accomplished, talented writers, I know that doing my MFA isn’t hurting me, per se. But what I don’t know is if it’s helping my craft any. On one hand, reading others’ work far superior to my own should, in turn, help the quality of my work increase. The problem is, I’m spending so many hours reading my classmates’ work each week that I barely have time to work on my own stories anymore. I miss my muse. And until now, I’ve never written at this snail’s pace, one chapter a week if I’m lucky. Usually, by the time I do sit down to work on my own novel-in-progress, my mind blanks and I’m so burnt out on stories in general that I can’t remember why I began writing stories at all.

Sometimes I feel as if I’m paying huge amounts of money to read and read and never write again.

Sometimes I feel as if I’d never be as good as I am right now if I didn’t enroll in my program.

My school is a special one. Unlike other MFA programs, mine requires each writer to study three areas of Creative Writing. Though my specialty has always been YA Literature, through my courses, I’ve also studied adult fiction and poetry and, this summer, I’ll be studying playwriting as well. Branching out like this—something I wouldn’t have done if my MFA hadn’t mandated it—can only be good for my craft, right?

But what about my novel? I haven’t worked on it in weeks and that fact alone is making me fidgety. But I’m trying to adopt a long-term view of this process. In the immediate now, I’m frustrated at the reduced time I have to work on my own stories. But—I try to remember—it is only the immediate now. Isn’t it?

I can’t honestly say whether I recommend doing an MFA—and that fact scares me. But what I do know with utmost certainty is that if you’re considering taking your MFA, consider these points and questions thoroughly before you do:

  1. What is your goal in obtaining your MFA? Is it to improve your craft or is it to, perhaps, one day teach Creative Writing at an academic level?
  1. It’s no secret to anyone that grad school is expensive. But how will the loss of funds you will experience in paying for grad school affect you? How will it change the amount of time you need to work in order to pay for it?
  1. If you have settled on applying for a MFA program, do your research. Find a grad school that fits your needs. Are you looking for minimal or optional residency? Are you looking to focus on one area of study or are you hoping to branch out your interests?
  1. And above all else, put some thought into it! Don’t jump in and make decisions about going to grad school without taking the time to visualize how it will affect your writing and your time.


Jill MacKenzie is the author of YA read SPIN THE SKY, which will be released by Sky Pony in Fall 2016. Because Jill is currently completing her MFA at the University of British Columbia (which is kicking her a** so far she can’t even see straight), Jill spends every single second of her time writing and, of course, reading banned books.


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