To MFA or not to MFA. That has occupied my mind since learning of the MFA as a young writer and undergrad. To me, the MFA had always held a special appeal for a few reasons.
- Esteem. If you are good enough to get into an MFA program, especially the prestigious ones like Iowa, The Michener Center for Writers, The University of Michigan, Cornell, etc. you have proven yourself to be “good enough,” and some of the best among your peers. Of course, this is both true and untrue.
- Funding. An MFA allows you to write without working cleaning sheets, delivering pizzas, or answering the phones in a sprawling call center. The best programs fully fund their students. And yes you might have to teach, but for many, myself included, this was an added bonus.
- Time to write. This ties in with funding. If you don’t have to grind it out at a job you are not passionate about, like most other writers on the planet not named Stephen King (and yes, at one time he did grind (refer to his gruesome tales of what inspired, “Night Shift” in his book, On Writing), then you can focus on your craft. The MFA is the rare time in a writer’s life where they are placed inside of a protective and nourishing cocoon (of course this is debatable; see here and here and here).
- Connections. MFA programs are highly selective, so they are small. The best ones, in my opinion, offer full funding, plus stipend, plus health insurance. This is not cheap. Of course, we all wish there was more money but colleges and universities are more interested in promoting the shimmering athlete (rightly so, college being a business and not a monastery), since they bring in the money (“follow the money, people”)) than the writer, hunkered down into the silent marrow of life, armed with a pick axe, microscope, and the Oxford Companion to Philosophy in his hip-pocket. So from what I have observed there is a special bond that develops that is deeper than personality (in majority of cases (hopefully)). This connection is priceless and can help open the door to success.
But alas, I didn’t get in. This is the second time I’ve been rejected from every school I applied to. The first time was in 2012. The second time was in 2017. But unlike in 2012, when I was short-listed to get into Boise State University’s prestigious program, in 2017 I did not get an email from Brady Udall letting me know that if the #1 pick didn’t get back to them by midnight, I would be in!
This means I took the GRE twice. This means that I did the most difficult thing for myself, in asking six people (3 professors x 2 application cycles) to write and send out close to twenty letters of recommendation. Again, I can’t stress how difficult this was for me. This also means that I spent thousands of dollars and countless hours researching schools, reading articles, filling out applications, writing statements of purpose, and paying application fees.
Did you know that the acceptance rate for an MFA in creative writing sits somewhere between .86 and 6.5%? In 2013, in a sampling of 26 schools the average acceptance rate was 2.6%. These are steeper odds than being D1 athlete and making it to the pros. This is also nearly four percentage points below the average that is accepted into the Ivy League.
So if you are lamenting, having been rejected, take heart. With odds like these it is no surprise that most writers that apply don’t get in. What’s even more interesting is that most writers don’t apply to MFA programs at all. Why, this isn’t a silver lining at all, but a brilliant look into an alternative universe where having an MFA doesn’t matter at all.
Whether you like the following authors or not, they did not get an MFA and are doing just fine.
- Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom)
- Sherman Alexie (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven)
- Stephen King (It, The Shining, The Green Mile, The Stand, On Writing)
- Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love, The Signature of All Things)
- Lorin Stein (Editor of The Paris Review, former editor for Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)
- J.R.R. Tolkien (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings)
- C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Problem of Pain)
- J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter)
- Kurt Vonnegut (Mother Night, Breakfast of Champions, Slaughterhouse Five)
- William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Absalom, Absalom!)
- Jack London (White Fang, The Call of the Wild)
- Annie Dillard (An American Childhood, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, The Writing Life)
Of course, the thought should not be extended that these people have not received their education. You cannot be a writer without an education. But it need not be formal or have the letters MFA attached to it.
Aren’t I ashamed to tell people I have attempted to get into nearly twenty schools, only to be shortlisted to one? No. I would only be ashamed if I did not try.
Aren’t the rejections proof enough that I don’t have what it takes to write? No. Well, doesn’t it mean I am talent-less? No. I know I have that. But more important than talent in the makeup of a successful author is an indomitable will. What it takes is tenacity when everyone says, no. What it takes is a persistence to sit in a desk, day in and day out, until the work is finished. And I have this. I have earned this. I have pushed and now I find myself outside the boundaries of where I wanted to be. So what do I do now? I push. I plod. I produce. I write.
In 2017 I applied to ten programs. In 2017 I was rejected from all of them. By the time I was rejected I had made up my mind. Both I and my writing has changed so much since my undergraduate days that to be honest, I would not have been an ideal fit in the programs. And while I admit this, I do so not to beat them to the punch. I would still have gone had I been accepted. I have a couple of literary novels to finish. And I would have been appreciative of the time to finish. But since my focus has shifted from fiction to nonfiction, from literature to philosophy, I would have had to put a stop to my current projects. And now I am glad that I don’t have to. And then there are my issues with the workshop model (but I will save this for another post). Of course this means that I have to get creative on how I do things. This means I have to find ways to write while still supporting my living-an-independent-life habit.
So no MFA? No problem. I can finally put that dream to bed. I know there is another way to success. And that my friends, is my own author’s pathway.
I’ve include my Statement of Purpose I wrote for the University of Arizona. I believe it may be helpful to some writer somewhere who is considering pursuing an MFA degree. And of course, I didn’t get in. But I’d take this with a grain of salt. Even those who get in don’t really know what it was about their application that set them apart. Maybe my Statement is crap. Maybe it’s gold. Or maybe it is somewhere in between.
Good luck with your own Author’s Pathway!
Statement of Purpose
My reasons for pursuing an MFA at the University of Arizona are straightforward. I aim to complete my book-length manuscript (currently, 22,655 words) by graduation. If possible, I will complete the first draft of the companion novel (currently at 10,686 words) in that time as well.
The pursual of literature is one of the noblest acts a writer can undertake. My second aim in applying to the MFA program is to further my excellence in this field as a practitioner, and a student. I consider writing a vocation. The need to write is a call I both respond to, and am driven by. I have a goal to support myself as a writer by 2021.
I write literature, from poetry, to essays, to short stories, to novels, to philosophical and theological works of nonfiction. I am concerned with the existential at work within eternal frameworks. I am concerned with the soul behind the matter, with expansive space, with becoming, with truth, and trying to live by the light of intelligence, i.e. genius, either stunted or burning brightly within the bosom of a protagonist. I currently have a book with a publisher and should hear back from them by March of 2017. I wrote this manuscript with no community support, in the mornings before work, on the weekends, and on vacation. It is one thing to write with no support group. It is another to write with the support of a community.
There are very good reasons why I am applying to UA. First of all, it is a fully-funded, three-year program. It is incredible to think that you value writing and writers that much. The encouragement to work across genres fits me perfectly. The awards and pedigree of your alumni are really impressive. And your faculty is superb. Finally, reading Ander Monson’s piece in Poets & Writers has sold me on the fact that Tucson is truly what I call, a city of the book. It is a place where both beauty and brains reside. This gives me confidence that the University isn’t holed away in an ivory tower, but that the city can be an extension of the support and education offered at the University.
I am a student and disciple of many things. And a student’s first job is to be open to the act and discipline of learning. At forty-one, if accepted, I will be one of the oldest students in the workshop. Yet to the writer, age is only a primer. I still have an eternity of learning ahead of me. This is another beauty and benefit of being a writer. When the writer knows all, they cease being a writer. Perhaps it is writing (reading, studying) that is at the beginning of wisdom.
Whatever your decision, I appreciate your time and consideration for acceptance to your distinguished MFA program.
 Writing infused with the hope of permanence, tempered with aesthetic value, intellectual aspiration, and artistic merit.