Do You Need an MFA to Write and Sell a Book?

The Vermont College of Fine Arts' College Hall, where I heard many amazing readings during my two-year low-residency MFA program

The Vermont College of Fine Arts’ College Hall, where I heard many amazing readings during my two-year low-residency MFA program

That headline is, of course, absurd. The vast majority of published books are written by authors lacking MFAs, and I suspect that few works of literature we now rank as great were written during an MFA program. That said, Committed: A Memoir of the Artist’s Road was my creative thesis in a low-residency MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and I don’t believe the book would exist as written without that experience.

Two recent experiences triggered this reflection on the role of an MFA in writing of a memoir or novel:

1. While reading a Facebook page for published authors recently I spotted a post by a newly published novelist. She wrote that a friend had suggested she pursue an MFA in Writing. This author said she couldn’t imagine why she would pay $40,000 when she was already published. A number of other authors jumped into the comments section, each decrying MFA programs as a waste of time and money.

2. Over the course of a few days tweets from two different readers of Committed appeared in my Mentions feed:

 

Both tweets refer to the end of Committed’s Part Three: The Southeast, the section of the book in which I travel with my 15-year-old daughter Marisa. The scene itself takes place in a grungy Savannah, Georgia, motel room, at the end of a long and emotional day; a mere seven pages long, it took two years and the browbeating of four MFA instructors to write.

When I wrote the first draft of Part Three in my first MFA semester, my advisor Kurt Caswell grew increasingly frustrated. He said I was holding back from telling my story, that “the narrator was hiding behind a screen.” In a gentle yet firm manner, he finally suggested I put that part of the book aside and skip to something a bit less emotionally intense; in other words, abandon the Major Leagues for a demotion to Double-A. I wrote would become an early chapter in Part Five: The Midwest, a lighthearted interview with two female authors in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He liked that chapter, but cautioned me at the end of the semester that I would have to learn to put myself on the page if I expected the reader to find Committed worth reading.

Fearless Confessions

I’ll confess that at $17.20, purchasing and reading Sue William Silverman’s craft book on memoir writing is a wee bit cheaper than a semester’s tuition at VCFA.

Over the second and third semester of the MFA program I sought to do just that. But I didn’t return to Part Three. In my second semester with Larry Sutin I focused on Writing Part Three: The South, and in my third with Sue William Silverman I finished Part Five and also wrote the first draft of the final section, Part Six: The West. It was with Larry that I first started writing honestly about my family’s history of mental illness and my own diagnosis of bipolar disorder. It was with Sue that I finally forced myself to lay out my own weaknesses and flaws, to truly put myself on the page.

When I began my fourth and final semester I was close to a complete rough draft of what is now Committed, but with an asterisk; Part Three was still dreck. For the first couple of months with Sascha Feinstein I wrote fill-in chapters in all of the sections but Part Three. Eventually there was no other section of the book that didn’t at least have a first draft, so I returned to the Southeast and my frozen-in-time fifteen-year-old daughter. And with Sascha’s guidance the section finally came alive.

In fact, the section took on a life of its own. Now, when I read that scene in the Savannah motel room, I also cry. It’s absurd, I know; I lived it, and I wrote it (and re-wrote it and re-wrote it). Somehow in that rewrite process the words went past myself, to a previously unseen place both vulnerable and pure.

Could I have reached that place without the MFA? Probably. I could have devoured craft books, like Sue William Silverman’s Fearless Confessions. I could have taken classes at a local literary center or online. I could have joined a local or online writer’s group. And I did in fact do all of those things, and they brought real value. But a full-time MFA program was for me what speed-dial is to a rotary phone. My growth as a writer proved faster than I could have imagined.

I will write more books without the direct input of MFA instructors, but I will bring to those books lessons learned at VCFA. Perhaps I will once again transport readers–including this author–to that special place. My MFA instructors will deserve some of the credit.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

24 Responses to “Do You Need an MFA to Write and Sell a Book?”

  1. This is interesting to me, a “creative” with practically no education to speak of. Thanks for the insight into another world.

    • Thank you, Ryan, for the comment. I’m glad you found it of value. I would note that if you read, you’re receiving an education in creative writing. If you like something an author did, try to figure out what it is that you like and see if you can do that yourself. That’s a low-cost education right there!

      • I agree. I actually meant to write “formally” educated because I am always learning. I wanted to use the pronoun “we” in that last clause but thought otherwise because, unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there stuck where they are and content to be.

  2. Wonderful post, Patrick. Thank you for sharing this part of your journey.
    I was admitted to an MFA program this year and offered a generous scholarship. Even with that, the expense of tuition and logistics was far beyond my means. It broke my heart to say no, but I couldn’t risk breaking the bank or putting us in debt.
    I’m pleased to say that one day last week I signed with a literary agent just after breakfast and had a publishing contract on the table by dinnertime. So, this writer says, “No, you don’t need an MFA.”🙂
    However. A big however. My dream is to eventually teach writing, offer workshops, and speak on writing. I hope to pursue an MFA someday, not only to continue my scholarship as a writer, but to shape and hone my skills as a teacher. I will always be a student of the craft and an MFA offers opportunities to be challenged and to engage with other writers in ways solitary study does not. Bravo to you for completing that degree!

    • OK, Julie, I think you just set a land-speed record! Everyone else reading this comment (including me) is envious right now!🙂

      So as for teaching, I was teaching through two literary centers before earning an MFA. I’d also note that in a low-residency program, since there aren’t “classes” that meet regularly, there isn’t as much focus on teaching per se. You definitely learn how to run a workshop, however, and the courses I teach are workshops. Yes, between the book and the MFA I now have the credentials necessary to teach at a university level, and that is good; it’s on my to-do list to pursue.

  3. Great training, coaching, education – how could it be a waste of time and money? Way to make it work for you Patrick!

  4. It’s always interesting to me how passionately people argue for or against MFA. Surely it’s different for every person at various times in our lives and depending on the school, the professors, the classes, etc.. I think it’s possible to get nothing out of an MFA program or, like you did, to really use the experience to its fullest. I also think it’s possible to do the work outside of a program, like you said, or to… well… not. Everything really does yield depending on what we put in. It sounds like you put in everything you have and got out just as much. Good for you, Patrick.

    • The degree of intensity in a debate is often inversely proportional to its importance; there really is no reason to debate the MFA issue because it truly is situational, on the person and where they are in life. Now I’ve heard that there are MFA programs that essentially try to mold each writer into some kind of clone writer for that program’s style; VCFA is very student-driven, in that you come in knowing what you want to focus on and select a semester advisor that will work with you on that. I liked being able to tailor my program to meet my needs, but I also took advantage of skill sets of my instructors to learn things I otherwise wasn’t seeking.

      In Committed there is at least one “if-only” reflection on what it would have been like to have done a residency MFA in my early 20s (I think there is, anyway, there’s so much I wrote that I later cut!). But I don’t think I would have really made much use of that then. I was in a place in my life in 2011 where I knew what I needed; I knew how to balance my life to make time to pursue it; and I knew how to maximize return on investment. I didn’t know myself well enough in my 20s to have been able to do that.

  5. Thanks for the heads-up, Patrick – I will ready myself for a good old howl accordingly. I’m just into Part Two of ‘Committed’ right now and I’m already arguing with ‘Narrator You’ – “Noooo, you did NOT fail at Knoxville!”… “Don’t believe your mother – I bet you could sell that novel if you gave it another go!”

    I completely understand the reluctance – even horror – of laying yourself bare on the page in that way. You’re definitely braver than me, that’s for sure. In my current w-i-p there are events that mirror ones that actually happened to me, but they’re buried under the cloak of the science fiction genre I’ve written them in. And even THAT was hard enough. I can’t imagine how you broke through the barriers to put that stuff in as your real self, rather than hidden under the disguise of a fictional character in some future-world. Like you say, perhaps having people pushing and encouraging you in equal measure was the key.

    Thank you for sharing this post. Now I would love to do an MFA (or UK equivalent) even more than I did before. Maybe one day…

    • Yes, Wendy, “breaking through the barriers” is every writer’s challenge, it seems to me. We’re all struggling to break free of conventional and safe thinking. I would think that the intensity of an MFA could provide that needed push. We need to be confronted. Even at my ripe old age I sometimes imagine submitting my limitations to the fire that an MFA is meant to be. And don’t you think that there are always more of those barriers to break through. Why, Patrick might even be thinking of a PhD.

      • A PhD? Ugh. I’ve got three more years of tuition for Marisa at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and my son is a year away from college himself. My plan has always been that when I finally retire I will pursue an PhD in History just for the fun of it and to keep my mind sharp.

        And as to Wendy’s notion of sharing through fiction, they always say to write what you know, and every fiction writer I know (including a novelist who appears throughout my memoir) puts their lives and the people around them in their fiction, even when not cognizant of it.

    • Yes, I’m pretty good at revealing some of the knuckle-headed thinking I’m capable of; glad you’re chewing me out! Just FYI, Part Three is my favorite part of the book, but please keep reading after page 109! :0

  6. What a great post, Patrick! The same debate rages within the visual art community. … although a decent percentage see a BFA (or at least a BA) of value, MFAs are looked at as largely unnecessary unless you want to teach within the educational system. But is that really true? I cant speak to that honestly from experience since I stopped at a BFA. I love that you add to the debate by sharing your personal experiences, Patrick. I feel that is always more powerful than dry statistics alone (unless you are writing an academic paper). Kudos!

    • Well, as an undergraduate I was a poly sci/international relations student, with no time in my schedule to take any arts-based classes. Since I already had a BA it didn’t seem to make sense to do a BFA. A lot of my fellow MFA students did not have a BFA, which I appreciated because I didn’t want to be the only one lacking that credential/background. And thanks for the support!

  7. Ah, Sue’s book…I read it once when I thought I was fearless enough (or at least not completely chicken sh!t) to write THE story. Not so much. I’ll go back to it though, Sue’s book and THE story because eventually it needs to get out. There’s always posthumous publication…I can put that in my will, right?

    • Well, posthumous publication was the path that Copernicus chose with his book documenting his theory that the Earth revolved around the Sun; he had good reason to take that path, because he didn’t want to face a papal inquisition. We have to ask ourselves; are the consequences we face as significant?🙂

      In all seriousness, Sue is right, but it is easier to recognize she is right than to actually do what she asks.

  8. Patrick, I regard education as a personal experience. Like everyone, I am a lifetime student. Everyday formally or informally, I am learning and I decide what and how I learn.
    The first lesson that a student should attend is one on understanding the value of the under-taking and it’s uses in the future. The second lesson to attend is how to apply the knowledge confidently.

    Education is never wasted, but should the confidence and utilisation of the education miss its mark, then it shall remain dormant.

    Great writing is done by all and it comes down to desire and confidence. You have learned somewhere to be confident enough to persist and get your book out. I wonder who taught you that?

    Great post Patrick and thanks.B

  9. Hey, Patrick🙂 I was so surprised to see my tweet in there! I wish I knew how you can imbed a tweet that works! Anyway, it’s funny how, just yesterday I met a writer who trashed the Vermont school. I told her I’ve only heard good things about it. She mentioned some teacher whose class they would just repeatedly work on the same ten pages over and over. I’m thinking it was a class she (or another writer) wasn’t looking for? Anyway, I agree that you can get published without that schooling, but the schooling hastens the whole learning process of becoming a much better writer🙂

    • You know, there are a number of MFA programs in Vermont, some low-residency like mine and others on-campus. I never took any classes at VCFA because they don’t have classes; we were only on campus twice a year for ten-day stretches. We’d do workshops when on campus, but each student had one hour in which their piece was critiqued and then we’d move on. The rest of the time was stand-alone lectures and readings. You work with your instructor long distance, by emailed or mailed packets back and forth. And you get to decide what you write each month and how much you want to do original writing and how much you want to do revision. So that would be another program, methinks.

      • Could very well be, Patrick! I met this particular woman/writer the other day at Barnes. She overheard a conversation I was having with one of the many people I know there. He’s a writer, too, and struggling with the craft. Anyway, she became (briefly) a part of our conversation. I got the impression she’s got quite the ego. In my world, that’s a very bad impression! Can’t stand it. I have a friend through SCBWI who’s taking the course like you did, with the 10-day stretch. She’s enjoying it🙂

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