No MFA, you say? Not so, Dr. Magnuson

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Last month the director of the Michener Center for Writers, James Magnuson, spoke to members of the Writer’s League of Texas. Magnuson began with a bit of errant information, a fact that suited his talk, “Graduate Writing Programs: Worthwhile Or Waste Of Money?”

“Did you know,” he asked, “that no Nobel Prize winner in Literature ever has come from an MFA program?” He went on to add that he wasn’t even sure if a graduate writing program had ever produced a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Well, the Pulitzer part was easy. I reminded Magnuson from my front-row seat that the Pulitzer Prize has gone to Michael Chabon, who wrote The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay for the 2001 award. Today I was researching a novel from the syllabus for the Novelist’s Tools seminar on my schedule at Iowa this summer. The 12 of us in the class been assigned The Bluest Eye, the first novel from Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, who’s been through an MFA program. Morrison won her Nobel Prize in 1993, 38 years after she took her MFA from Cornell.

There’s bound to be other MFA prize winners, but Magnuson was making a larger point with his errant report. An MFA will not ensure your critical acclaim or commercial success. Writers who judge themselves ready for the rigors of an MFA program sometimes look for such confirmation, usually as a result of what they learn about their writing. They also seek a secure place in life with a teaching position. But the advice from the Writer’s League audience assured us that even an MFA doesn’t automatically lead to a teaching job. “You really need a book as well,” offered one of the Michener grads in attendance.

So the MFA is only one means to the end: writing the book. And Magnuson said that an MFA program had better give you time to write that book, or you’ll be better served by avoiding the massive loans and years out of your life. “If you really have a life, there’s a question of whether you should take the time out of it” for graduate writing, he said. “If the program demands 20 hours a week teaching writing, plus three classes, there’s a question about whether it’s better to work for the post office and get up early every morning to write.”

He added that there’s a good alternative in learning from your peers, by sharing books. “There’s too much emphasis placed on the MFA in the culture,” he said. “We teach, but only to a degree,” he said — meaning not only that the MFA’s object is the degree alone, but also that much of what makes a writer succeed can’t be taught in a classroom.

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