The Creative Independent New here?

Question: Do I need to go to grad school in order to be successful?

FROM : Anonymous (via Ask TCI on our homepage)

Question: I am an aspiring writer who is contemplating the benefits of graduate school. I am a voracious reader and a hard worker when it comes to my writing, so I’m wondering if I really need graduate school, especially if it’s gonna put me in debt? Can I be successful without it? Do you really need an MFA to be a successful creative writer these days? And what is grad school gonna give me that I can’t potentially try and figure out for myself? What is the best education for a writer?

You definitely do not need an MFA to be a writer, or to write books, especially if you already have a reading and writing practice. Actually, I have seen many writers become paralyzed in competitive and normalizing workshop environments. I did not get an MFA—I went for a year to an MA program where I studied puppet theory and wrote a messy thesis on sadomasochism and avant-garde performance. The master's degree did allow me to be hired to teach, which allowed me to have a less conventional schedule so that I could try to write books and do the things it seems like you're already doing. For years I went back and forth over getting an MFA as well—ultimately I think I'm glad I didn't get one—I still think every single book I've published would be ripped to shreds in a workshop. I would advise you to try not to get into debt, if at all possible, or at least not a debilitating amount. If you decide to get the MFA, apply only to places where you admire the writing of the faculty, where you hear they are generous, exceptional teachers, and where they work one-on-one with the students. Also make sure you will actually have time to write when you are there, and to work on a specific project—then I think that could be a really positive experience.

Kate Zambreno, author of Green Girl and Book of Mutter

You don’t necessarily need to go to grad school. The only reason for it is to study with a particular person you admire or for contacts. Sometimes it helps just as much to form a writer’s group so you have deadlines and feedback.

Edmund White, author of A Boy’s Own Story, Our Young Man, and The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading

Graduate schools have an abundance of benefits—from building a network of good early-readers of your writing (not everyone in graduate workshops will be that, and some may be quite the opposite, but grad students tend to find two or three people that become life-long first-readers of their work), expanding your concept of an audience, learning about the etiquette of publishing and critiquing, and learning skills and gaining professional experience that can be marketed to support your writing. Above all, though, the best grad school offers is non-self directed reading. All writers can benefit from learning the traditions that precede them—even if they rebel against those traditions in their writing—and from encountering a variety of tastes and expectations. It allows you to find out what others value in both traditional and contemporary literature. If you only read what you want, know, and what attracts you directly—or feel there is no impediment to quitting if it doesn't grab you—it limits your ability to really think and create, and limits the possibilities of your writing.

Related note: For what it’s worth, nearly none of our incoming graduate students expect to become instructors and professors when they enter graduate school, but most of them do afterward.

Rita D. Costello, Assistant Department Head (of the English and Foreign Languages Department at McNeese State University)

Debt. That word changes my answer for you. If you are independently wealthy (few writers I know are) and the tuition for an MFA wouldn't set you back, then for heaven’s sake why not spend two years learning from established writers and mentors while working on a solid draft of a book? Writing, especially in the early stages, is all about learning from other writers, and MFAs do a wonderful job of providing access and connections (many of those connections will later be useful for blurbs—it seems to be a tacit industry rule that your MFA professors will be your first blurbers.) But, do you NEED to get an MFA? Absolutely not. Sure, you’ll have to scramble a bit more to make connections (and connections DO matter when it comes to getting published), but you can do that by going to readings, working the rooms at parties, and submitting to journals. Make friends with writers, old and young. I’m confident you can build the career you want on your own. And in terms of becoming a stronger writer, all you need to do is work on your prose and read, read, read. Take a job in publishing and journalism. Those fields will hone your sentences. What I mean is, you *can* make your own MFA that doesn’t put you in debt for the next ten years.

Christopher Bollen, author of Lightning People and Orient

I didn't go to school or anything beyond barely graduating from high school. College seemed like a scam and was out of my reach anyhow. I learned to write by doing—mostly through auto-didactic pursuit—though my primary teachers have been failure itself, and editors who truly gave a shit about my work. The people I know with MFAs have remained ensconced in academia either out of interest or necessity, due to their writing or poetry being the only thing they have the temperament for—and that is all I know about that. The most useful thing I did for myself, as a young writer, was to live in a cheap apartment ($250/mo, it was quaint but decrepit), away from the competition and costs of the coasts, where I could get by with fairly minimal work (the only kind I was getting). This gave me ample time to be both dedicated and free. I could read, discuss, listen, watch, and digest things endlessly and pursue my curiosity deeply. I took on assignments that required skills I wanted to acquire and humbly submitted myself to edits. I wrote everyday. I don't know what model you are using for "successful creative writer" here, and I would suggest caution with the term so as not to weaponize that yardstick against yourself or your work. I don't know of any particular formula beyond merely "do the work."

Jessica Hopper, author of The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic and Night Moves