MFAs – Necessary? Desirable? Elitist?

I’ve always been ambivalent about Master in Fine Arts programs, which have mushroomed since the 1980s into something many writers feel is essential to their success. But is it? I was lucky to begin my career at a time before MFA’s achieved the elitist status they enjoy today.  Here’s a letter from Ed Southern, executive director of the North Carolina Writers Network, written just before the pandemic closed everything down.

From the North Carolina Writers Network Newsletter,  Spring 2019

A Letter from the Executive Director

by Ed Southern

I was talking some time ago with a representative from a major grantor, who let slip their surprise at the importance some of their grant panelists have placed on whether or not an individual applicant holds a Master’s of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in creative writing. Some panelists, this representative said, reject out-of-hand any applicant who does not have an MFA, feeling that those writers must not be truly serious about their art and craft.

If you feel as those panelists do—or if you are one of those panelists—I invite you . . .  to take a look at some of the outstanding writing you’ve been missing and dismissing.

I am not anti-MFA, and neither is this column. Some of my favorite writers and people hold MFAs, teach MFA-level classes, and/or run MFA programs. I can’t imagine the circumstances in which I’d be against anyone furthering their education.

What I am against is elitism—or, more accurately, credentialism: the notion that the only path to “serious” writing runs through an MFA program.

This notion is not only rank snobbery, but like all forms of snobbery, it is lazy, callous, irresponsible, and cowardly. It is a dodge, a crutch, sparing those who hold this view from the work—sometimes hard, sometimes joyous, always necessary—of reading with fresh and humble eyes, mind, and heart. They’re letting admissions committees do their thinking for them.

I don’t hold an MFA: I tried graduate school, and found it wasn’t for me. So I found a job in a local bookstore, beginning my twenty-four years (and counting) in the literary world as bookseller, publisher, author, and director of the North Carolina Writers’ Network. I don’t think I’m wrong to feel that this proves and reflects a rather serious commitment to the art and craft of writing.

But never mind me, since I’m just in charge of the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, not an inductee.

Of the last eight writers we have inducted into the NCLHOF, though—Dr. James W. Clark, Jr., Clyde Edgerton, Randall Kenan, Margaret Maron, Jill McCorkle, Penelope Niven, Carl  Sandburg, and Marsha White Warren—none of them hold MFAs, either.

Some writers would love to pursue an MFA but cannot for any number of circumstances. Some writers choose a different direction.These different circumstances and directions enliven and enrich the stories.

I’ve heard some members suggest that the Network exists for those writers who couldn’t or didn’t pursue an MFA, but I reject that suggestion. The Network exists for all writers, for all who love the written word, whatever degrees they may or may not hold. We exist to encourage excellence, not elitism; creativity and critical thinking, not credentialism (as well as, apparently, assonance and alliteration).

If you earned an MFA, congratulations on your commitment to writing, and welcome. If you did not, congratulations on your commitment to writing, and welcome. Here, all we ask is that you keep writing, as well as you can.

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