Should you go back to college if you want to be a writer?

This post by Gabriela Pereira at Jane Friedman’s site caught my eye because I recently saw the above question posed as a possible topic for a panel at a convention.

My immediate response: This doesn’t need a panel. The answer is short and unambiguous: No.

Then I thought, well, maybe some people would find it helpful for some reason? So, as I say, this post caught my eye. Here’s how Pereira starts off:

Most writers want an MFA for one of three reasons: They want to teach writing, they want to get published, or they want to make room in their life for writing. It turns out these reasons for doing an MFA are actually based on myths.

Pereira then goes on to provide a more extensive answer the the question about whether you should go back to college in order to be a writer. The whole post is easy to summarize: No. No, you shouldn’t. You may improve your writing by going for an MFA, and that’s fine. But you can certainly can improve your writing in other ways, and you definitely shouldn’t think of it as a shortcut to a traditional publishing deal.

Pereira does add:

MFA programs are not a bad thing. In fact, they are exceptional at serving a small and very specific group of writers. If you write literary fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry, and if you thrive in a formal academic environment, then the traditional MFA is a great option. If you can afford the tuition without taking out loans, and if you have the time to make the most of the experience, then you are one of those ideal candidates for graduate school.

Yep, that sounds perfectly sensible. If that description suits you and you happen to want to pursue an MFA, go for it. Otherwise, good heavens, just read widely and then sit down and write a book. No need to go to college for that.

Of course I’m probably a bit biased since MFA programs are not known for cheering on would-be writers who lean toward genre fiction.

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7 thoughts on “Should you go back to college if you want to be a writer?”

  1. When I told one of my professors that I was going into the college’s Masters program in English, she told me to go for an MFA instead. I guess my essays were too creative :(
    You might have enjoyed the Children’s Literature graduate seminar. 90% of the students were HS teachers, and there were fierce arguments. Many of these teachers thought students should only be pointed to books that were about things they could relate to, e.g. Sweet Valley High, or whatever those books were called. They got angry at people who said children deserved to at least be introduced to fantasy. These teachers thought the students would be turned off reading if forced to pollute their innocent eyes by looking at fantasy. (Slight exaggeration, but alas only slight.)
    I mentioned once that I had not only read LOTR (as a child) but enjoyed it. Dead silence in the room.
    I could’ve written a great paper on Black Dog, if only you’d been considerate enough to have written it twenty years ago. Just saying.

  2. Rachel Neumeier

    I would have LOVED that seminar. I’m laughing just thinking about it. That bunch would have been pretty startled at the list of book most important to me when I was on middle/high school.

    Hopefully in 20 years someone will write that paper using Black Dog…

  3. Man, I really don’t know how they could have come to think that. Not only was I reading books like LoTR as a child as well, but pretty much every other kid I knew who read liked fantasy. Or if not fantasy, then maybe historical fiction. Something that they couldn’t relate to, at any rate.

    There’s a reason why Harry Potter started so many kids reading.

  4. Yeah, the best thing about reading is that it could put me in a place that WASN’T HERE. Which is probably why I gravitated towards fantasy (and some SF) as a kid and never left.

    Biggest turn-off to reading was being forced to sit through classics where every character was aggravating and yet the story expected me to care enough to follow them for hundreds of pages.

  5. I’m glad that I wasn’t the only one who read fantasy as a child. I wasn’t kidding when I said these teachers were fierce. They were MILITANT on this issue. From their perspective, they were protecting their students and helping them succeed. Many of these people taught in low-income schools (and Oakland has some very low-income neighborhoods indeed) and the students came from homes where no one read, or no one spoke English, or no one went far in school. These teachers were adamant that their students wouldn’t want to read anything that didn’t mirror their reality.

    Geez. It’s been 20 years and I still find myself getting militant myself on this topic. I really felt they were shortchanging their students.

    It’s like when Harry Potter came out, and parents were upset because they didn’t want their children to think it was “real” and try the spells themselves. I think adults need to give children a little more credit.

  6. Evelyn, I wish I’d been in that class with you! Shoulder to shoulder, we would have faced them all down!

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