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5 Alternatives to Getting an MFA

Recently, Jason Boog at GalleyCat ran a feature on 5 alternatives to a creative writing MFA, which made us consider the costs and benefits of investing in a degree that may not be worth the paper it’s printed on. Back in 1999, Sarah Gold wrote about the dilemma in Salon: “It wasn’t just that we’d chosen to pursue a calling we all knew was elusive, risky, and about as defensible a career aspiration as selling Venezuelan sweaters from a blanket on the sidewalk. Now we were also running up huge student loans and spending our precious evening hours back in the classroom — for what?” Anelise Chen writes something similar in the Rumpus, “Am I going to get a job after this? (Probably not.) Will I have to go back to food service? (Probably yes.)”

Sixteen of the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 this year have MFAs. That means that 20% do not (Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, David Bezmozgis, and C. E. Morgan). This has to be of some comfort to those reluctant to borrow tens of thousands of dollars in student loans.

So what are the alternatives? Galleycat lists five:

1. Start a writing group.
2. Take online courses (Galleycat obviously suggests Mediabistro)
3. Join a low-residency creative writing program.
4. Enroll in community college writing courses.
5. Join an online writing community.

But we at Flavorpill would like to present you with five more interesting options.

1. Get a benefactor

A “Daddy Warbucks” type could give you the money you need to take a break and write that dystopian sci-fi novel about a dumpy, balding Russian Jewish dude from Long Island and his young, attractive Korean-American girlfriend which in no way resembles Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. (I wasn’t insinuating anything.) Or a retelling of Tender Buttons through a Marxist lens. Someone has to unpack that, right? It could be you, if only you’d get your act together and find a benefactor. New York is full of them! Try on that Orphan Annie costume and head to the Upper East Side as soon as possible.

2. Become a journalist or academic

Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, John Steinbeck, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson all worked as journalists at some point in their lives. With the implosion of the newspaper and magazine industries, it’s less of an option now then when they were writing stories from the field, of course, but it’s still something to consider, right?

In the London Review of Books, Elif Batuman complains of the “oversophistication combined with an air of autodidacticism” present in the writing of MFA grads which creates “the impression of some hyperliterate author who has been tragically and systematically deprived of access to the masterpieces of Western literature, or any other sustained literary tradition.” In other words, “workshop stories” are, frankly, boring, and maybe you should try your hand at academia like Batuman, Nicole Krauss, and countless other fiction writers instead of writing a carefully constructed, peer reviewed story which is ultimately soulless.

3. Get real world experience

Do you want to write a novel but think you are lacking the requisite experience? Why not get a job and then base your debut novel on your daily observations as a lion tamer, circus clown, salty sailor, or IRS auditor? There are many exciting careers to follow as you become a member of the working class. There may even be health insurance!

4. Sleep your way to the top

If working life is not for you, then try what many others have done and start sleeping with editors, publicists, and anyone else you think will help you get your novel published. The older the better!

5. Start going to literary parties


Christopher Hitchens at a literary party with Martin Amis and Tina Brown, courtesy of The Daily Mail

In order to sleep with all of these editors and publicists, you’re going to have to start attending literary parties. Crash a Paris Review issue release fête this summer in their airy Tribeca loft space and mention how much you prefer early Ian McEwan to late Ian McEwan, or attend an n+1 party and show off your dance moves. Get out there and network, PYTs, or you’ll never get the impetus to start that novel, much less publish it.

Main image courtesy of The Onion.

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