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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

[guest post: Zachary Jernigan] Should I Get an MFA in Writing? Short Answer: No. Long Answer: Yes.

I get asked this question a lot, and it always causes me to wonder one thing:
Why on Earth would you want an MFA?
Really, I’m being serious. Why does that sound like a good idea?
I’ll tell you why I thought it was a good idea. If you’re reasoning is anything like mine, you’d probably be best off just going ahead and not getting an MFA.

In the beginning of 2009, I’d only been a writer -- and here I mean actually writing stories, as opposed to writing the opening 500 words to an unfinished story every couple months -- for about a year and a half. I’d gotten one short story sale.
Despite how not-all-that-awesome this sounds, I was pretty pleased with myself, writing-wise. I’d never envisioned selling anything, much less one story.
Still, being pleased with this one aspect of my life didn’t mean much when I didn’t know what the hell else I was doing. I hated my job (nothing new), I had no money (nothing new), and in general I was just a depressive (also nothing new).
Hey! I said to myself. Buck up! You’re gonna get your MFA!

It’s not like I thought it would solve all my problems or anything. When you’ve spent your twenties bumbling from one loathsome job to the next, trying to summon motivation for anything, you don’t think about solving the problem.
Nope. You don’t even think the problem is solvable.
You just want something to distract you, and maybe give the illusion of forward momentum.
A MFA, for me, was a way to justify my existence for the next two years.
That’s not to say there was no practicality in the decision, of course -- I did want a terminal degree in order to teach someday; I did want to become a better science fiction and fantasy writer (and sell more stories) -- but I’d be lying if I said my decision to attend the Stonecoast program was not in great part inspired by desperation, the feeling of having no other real options to give your life meaning.

The funny thing? The thing you should not count on if/when you decide to attend an MFA program -- the outcome that feels as unlikely as lightning striking me on a cloudless day?
Going to Stonecoast turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.
Hell, maybe the best decision.
Because of Stonecoast, I now know a crapload of awesome writerly folks. I have friends who care about a lot of the same kinds of things I care about -- something I never had before. Some of these people are creatures I’d known nothing about other than the fact that they had their names on the spines of books.
And that’s pretty cool.
Because of Stonecoast, I’ve sold ten more short stories to markets larges and small. A couple were nominated for awards, and one was shortlisted for an award.
That’s pretty cool, too.
If it weren’t for Stonecoast, I’d never have written a novel. I know this for a fact. I needed pushing, and the folks at Stonecoast were there to push me when I needed some pushing. I now have a book on shelves, available at Amazon and everywhere else. I’m incredibly grateful to have accomplished this -- grateful and shocked nearly out of my skin.
I’m serious. I used to work at this used bookstore, and you know what I’d do? I’d stare stare at the shelves, at all the titles on display, and feel nothing but despair.
I knew I could never write a book, and yet I did.
And that, I tell myself, is pretty much the coolest thing ever. The most unexpected thing I can imagine.

Of course, I don’t want to pronounce my MFA a complete success. Some things worked out as per usual. I have enormous debt, and all of my efforts to get a teaching job have come to naught. I’m seriously considering applying to PhD programs this fall, because...
Well, sometimes you continue feeling desperation. You continue feeling adrift.
Sometimes, you just are who you are, and shouldn’t expect a couple years to make all of your problems -- and their solutions -- come into focus.

Still, I’d make the same choice again. I totally would. Why? You don’t expect decisions made out of desperation to pay off so well. You don’t expect, after most of your adult life feeling no source of direction at all, that a mere $60,000 investment will be enough to discover your path.
Or at least a compass point.

Should you get an MFA?
Well. shit.
Buddy, I hope it’s clear that I can’t answer that.
All I can tell you is this: If you feel like you’ve got no other option but to go, you’re either kidding yourself or you’re on just the right track.

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