In MFA Programs, “M” is for “Mystery”


MFA: It stands for Mystery For All-time.

Good? Bad? Worth it? Not?

Counting their pennies (or what’s left after countless reading fees and contest submission fees), writers of fiction, essays, poetry, and drama ask these questions.

“I wonder what would happen to my writing career,” they say repeatedly, “if I found, or borrowed, the money to get my MFA in ___________________?”

If success and publication (or publication with greater success) is the dream, you can understand this wondering.

Look at any poetry collection published by a big-time publisher. Check out the acknowledgments page. After the usual thanks to periodicals and e-zines that accepted and published poems in the collection, the poet goes on to thank people.

And oh my, the people! Dozens of people! Many times recognizable-name people!

These are, after a little research, established writers serving as educators in the MFA program the poet was a part of.

Here, then, is a central part of the wonder for would-be big-time writers and poets. Maybe this next thought is sensible and maybe not, but you can’t help but understand when they ask themselves, “Well, shoot. What if I had twenty talented writers reading my work and offering revision ideas? Wouldn’t that make a world of difference? And what if my humble or non-existent connections in the publishing world were enhanced by the connections of all my mentors? Isn’t it who you know?”

Well, yes. It is who you know. And I don’t care whose poetry it is, the quality can’t help but be higher with high-octane readers offering feedback.

So, no brainer. “Mystery For All-time” is worth the money, if your goal is publication with a well-respected publisher. No to buying your own books at discounts. Yes to royalties and reading tours.

Only there’s another voice in the wilderness here. One we cannot ignore. My dad always said that men who play the numbers and announce huge winnings in lotto drawings and on scratch tickets aren’t luckier than you and me.

“You only hear from them when they win,” Dad said. “You never hear about the weeks and months and years worth of money evaporated while feeding their addictions. The sum total of these losings wipe out any big winnings you hear about, rest assured.”

Meaning: For every MFA graduate with the published book and the star-studded acknowledgments page, there may be dozens upon dozens of MFA graduates with nothing to show for the time and money invested in an expensive program. The established writer / educators in these programs couldn’t possibly shepherd everyone in the program to success. Like everything else, it’s a numbers game.

Thus, we can conclude that it is a generalization to say that all MFA writers cash in on their connections and mentors. Like everything else, success stories are probably more exception than rule.

Which brings us full circle. MFA: It stands for Mystery For All-time. And if you think there are easy answers, yes or no, think again. Because, with the help of “who you know,” your talent may blossom to greater heights with the inside track of an MFA program.

Or not.

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