The MFA is viewed as the best way to get a serious writing education, but not all writers can put their life on hold for two years to earn the degree. Luckily, there are fantastic alternative ways to receive dynamic instruction, peer support, and customized mentorship: a build-your-own “Alterna-MFA.”
When I attended my excellent MFA program, I stopped, dropped everything, took on massive loans, and moved across the country for two years. I’d never done any of that before and it seemed dashing, sexy. And because I was in my 20s, it was.
Now, some years later (we’ll just leave it at that), I have a family and a job I love, a mortgage I don’t, and sexy has become a very relative term. Were I to want such an education at this time in my life, it would not be an option.
The distance has given me perspective. It’s clear that beyond the degree, what makes MFA programs so coveted is the rigorous education, consistent support from instructors and peers, and the opportunity to make writing an integrated part of a writer’s life they offer—all of which, it turns out, are achievable through alternative means.
Creating Your Own MFA-Style Opportunity
In a recent interview with R.B. Young, creator of the video series “Write Ideas”, I talked about how I built One Lit Place to offer writers this exact “Alterna-MFA” model. As a full-service writers’ center, we have a solid infrastructure of courses and workshops designed for different levels and interests, provide one-on-one mentorship and editing to help writers realize their projects and prepare for publication, and offer the opportunity for conversation and continual connection with fellow writers, so writers are able- 24/7- to be amongst their own.
However unlike with an MFA where you have to put your life on hold for two years, or make a “radical lifestyle choice,” as chairman of the Columbia University Writing Program, Timothy Donnelly, calls it, One Lit Place’s programming fits organically into a writer’s life.
I have seen over the years how critical it is for all writers- myself included- to have a steady stream of education, community, and support. An MFA offers all of this in a packaged solution; however, recognizing that getting an MFA is not a realistic option for everyone, I created something that would give all writers the chance to have education and support in ways that respect the parameters of their lives and their writing goals in equal measure.
It’s a well circulated idea that a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) is the gold standard of literary education. You spend two or three years living and breathing writing craft, reading mountains of excellent literature, and discussing theory and practice with mentors and other writers until dawn. For that period of time, you’re in deep, living the student writer’s life to a factor of 37.
For a writer, it’s heaven.
But even if you want it, it’s not always feasible to up and leave and/or shut down your normally scheduled programming, and pay anywhere from $20,000-$100,000+, to immerse yourself in a two-year program.
While the degree does indeed open doors, so does writing acumen achieved through practice, productivity, and perseverance.
If you look at a list of famous writers, you’ll see that most who lived prior to the invention of the MFA (Iowa Writers’ Workshop, 1936) were probably pretty OK writers, and nowadays, there are just as many household names who don’t have one (J.K. Rowling, Colson Whitehead, Elizabeth Gilbert) as those who do.
Low/Optional Residency Programs
Still, if earning a degree inside of a very intense two-year period is still what you’re after, there are MFA programs that offer Low or Optional Residency. These provide the full breadth of courses, workshop, mentorship and community, but rather than being a full-time student in residence, you can do most of the work online.
The “low” part typically takes place during summer, spring break, and December holidays when you’re required to fly to the school’s campus and fulfill the residency requirement, and the more unique “optional” recommends students physically join their peers during the residency periods, but it’s not required.
Got Time? In for a penny = in for an 80-hour work week
To be clear, you’re earning that degree. Getting an MFA- whether it’s a high, low, intermediate, or otherwise residency- is a full-time job that takes place both during the application period (researching programs and funding options, studying for and passing the GRE, submitting applications and ancillary materials, applying for loans, then figuring out how to either break from your current life or carve out the necessary time so you can immerse in a new one) and then during the program itself, which as everyone will say, is intense, to say the least.
Value is Relative
Atop the intense time commitment is the financial investment. Given the cost of most MFA programs, it’s a well-known fact that unless a writer were to strike the big time, one can assume the MFA-holding writer will never, not ever, recoup that investment through writing.
MFA programs have proliferated not only because universities yearn to launch more excellent books into the world and foster a brilliant, glimmering literary canon (surely, they must). But also, these programs make serious bank for their universities.
One such high-end example is Columbia University’s MFA program. While it features top writers such as Paul Beatty, Dorothea Lasky, and Phillip Lopate among many notable others, and it is located in fabulous New York City, its tuition is now $132,616 for two years (not including living expenses).
(Yes, you may pause to read that again AND do the math. I’ll wait).
For some people, spending $265,232 + NYC living expenses for two years is no problem, but for most normal mortals, that falls outside of the realm of the possible. Most of the big name programs listed as among the Top Ten MFA Programs all fall somewhere inside of that sum, causing art critic Jerry Saltz to call Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) degrees “straight-up highway robbery”.
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Of course, there are exceptions; for example, Canadian MFA programs are much more reasonably priced than their U.S. counterparts. The University of Guelph Creative Writing MFA is approximately $12,500 for two years (CAD), or just over $30,000 for International students (which, with today’s exchange rate, is about $23,000 USD) and the University of Saskatchewan is about $8,300 CAD with teaching stipends available (or approximately $13,000 CAD for International students).
Fortunately, in the U.S., many programs do provide stipends, scholarships, and in some cases, full tuition reimbursement in exchange for teaching and mentorship. The Rutgers-Newark MFA program does this as does the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the oldest and most commonly ranked #1 writing program in the U.S. Johns Hopkins, Cornell, and many other U.S. schools offer assistance as well. (Here is a good list of mid-priced programs, some of which offer tuition assistance).
Low-residency programs are also somewhat cheaper than full-residency programs ranging from $37,926.00 for a two-year program at Antioch University in Los Angeles, or $41,000 for two years at Bennington College in Vermont (or what the heck, spend a bit more and do a two-year low-residency through NYU in Paris for $55,000), and Canada’s UBC’s “Optional-Residency MFA” is approximately $21,305 CAD.
Lastly, thank goodness, some programs are fully funded (you heard that right!) such as Syracuse University, Vanderbilt University, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan (and here are a few more).
While this is fantastic, amazing news, it also means that to receive such funding, you must still live close to the university, teach courses, attend and perform at peak in your program, and contribute actively to the greater literary community through mentorship and other duties.
Is It Worth It?
It goes without saying that having an MFA from an accredited university carries great street cred, and the intense and exciting education and literary opportunity that comes with the period of time spent earning it is undeniably valuable.
Yet there’s also no guarantee that shifting your life around to spend all of that time and money will launch a career. Or even a book. When you’re young and untethered, it may be just the thing. A mature learner, however, may need to ask: at what real cost is the MFA?
The DIY Alterna-MFA
Getting access to community, constructive critique, mentorship, and skill building through dynamic, personalized instruction is fortunately entirely feasible on a schedule that works for people with jobs and families, and at a price point that is for most much more … not bat shit crazy. (Sorry; I could have said “fiscally reasonable,” but the former felt more appropriate.)
One Lit Place was designed to integrate writing, learning and connection with writers into writers’ lives; after all, all of our smart, interesting instructors and editors are working writers themselves.
Our courses meet online, which enables writers to integrate them into their lives and always have the education and conversation available, and our mentors work with writers to create a tailored schedule that both pushes and respects the writer’s boundaries. Our Writers Lounge is available 24/7 for conversation, ideas sharing, or break-out groups to exchange work, talk shop, or just hang out.
Whether you want to bring more writing and connection with writers into your life or are craving a more immersive Alterna-MFA, we are here to help you DIY a program that will join you to your goals.
Check out our upcoming writing course & workshop line up, our writing coaching & editing opportunities, and feel free to be in touch any time. We would love to chat with you about your writing ambitions and projects and help you make them a reality.