Given the increased scrutiny on the value of some degrees, the question of the value of an MFA in particular arises from time to time.
Certainly it will come as no surprise to any serious writer that a strict monetary return-on-investment (ROI) cannot be used. If it were, we would all get—momentarily—depressed. A serious writer will ask what is the qualitative ROI for pursuing an MFA? Good writing programs, such as the low residency Rainier Writing Workshop (RWW), ask the same question. “What are you getting out of the program?” is something Stan Rubin or Judith Kitchen (both who run the program, if a writing program can be said to be run. Herding a group of writers makes cat herding look easy) ask the students all the time.
The question Stan and Judith ask is one of the qualitative benefits of an MFA. A good MFA supports the growth of the writers as its focus, not the growth of its reputation. The latter usually follows, but that reputation will be one of fostering the growth of the students, the writers and their craft. Not their career, not their reputation, but their craft. This requires both the students and the instructors to, as Doonesbury once said, “check your egos at the door.”
With that focus on craft, how do I answer the question of “what do you get out of your MFA?” As with many things, I look for patterns and one that occurs to me is my circling back to needing 10,000 hours to become really good (even great) in anything.
With finite lifespans and the need for a means to survive in 21st century America, many of us have not had the time to focus 10,000 hours on creative writing. I believe that an MFA helps focus the number of hours you devote to creative writing and makes that focus more effective. Could you learn everything at an MFA on your own? Certainly. Could you learn it in 2 to 3 years, without stops and starts and dead ends? Maybe: if you’re lucky, driven, and more focused than I am.
I have no scientific analysis to back me up, but I feel a good MFA shaves 2,000 to 3,000 hours off of the time you need to spend getting really good. It shaves that off in an elapsed time of 2 to 3 years, rather than the 5 years it would take many of us who have a “day job.” Combined with the actual time you spend on the MFA, which is about 2-3,000 hours, you are about half way to the goal of 10,000 hours. For some who enter an MFA program, they have those 5,000 hours already under their belt. For others, this means there is plenty of work left. For everyone graduating an MFA it is a reminder that even with your 10,000 hours, if you stop practicing, the clock runs backwards.
Many RWW students have well in excess of 10,000 hours of writing, but they want to shift their focus in their writing. The concert pianist who has 10,000 hours of classical piano playing will not become a jazz pianist overnight.
This is why the last residency of RWW has multiple reminders on what a writing life is all about. Continuing your writing.
To answer Stan’s question as to “What are you getting out of the program?” the answer is “a lot, but only as much as I put into it—but when I do, it gets multiplied at RWW, so its all worth it.”