The Road Less Traveled
MAKING IT WITHOUT AN MFA
Making it without an MFA.
WARNING: I do not have an MFA, teach creative writing, or live in New York City. For these reasons alone, you should probably ignore any career advice I offer. Best turn the page to another story, quickly.
Still here? Then I should also note that I’m a novelist, with five published novels so far, and have been a full-time writer for eight of the past twelve years. That may seem like an unbelievable plot twist, but I’m here to inform you that it’s possible to make it as a writer without an MFA. As application season draws near, and you’re debating whether or not to attend grad school, you should know that going without an MFA has serious downsides—but so does taking out big loans for an arts degree in today’s economy. Obstacles abound on either side of this choice.
I never set out to be an exception to any rules. At first I didn’t even realize there were rules to being a writer. Like so many others, I was convinced I would be published in my early twenties. Yet
THOMAS MULLEN is the author of Darktown (Atria, 2016), which was short-listed for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Indies Choice Book
Award, the Southern Book Prize, and two CWA Dagger Awards and was named an NPR Best Book of the Year; The Last Town
on Earth (Random House, 2006), winner of the James Fenimore Cooper Prize and USA Today’s Best Debut of the Year; The
Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers (Random
House, 2010); and The Revisionists
(Mulholland Books, 2011). His latest,
Lightning Men, will be published by Atria in September. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and sons. as my twenties passed and the rejection letters and failed manuscripts piled up, I worried I’d made a fatal error. I realized a little late that MFA programs, once rare, had become commonplace and that a Standard Road for Writers had been blazed: college, MFA, publication, teaching job. I had unknowingly ventured down a less trodden path rife with thorny underbrush, snakes, and occasional mudslides. An MFA had not been an option for me. I graduated college in 1996 with double the average amount of student loan debt. My father’s business had gone under during my junior year; my parents declared bankruptcy and our family lost our house, so I was lucky to even graduate. Given this frightening financial insecurity, I couldn’t consider going into further debt so some writing professor could teach me about irony. While I knew that MFA scholarships existed, I didn’t want to risk the heartache of applying, being accepted, and then finding out I couldn’t swing tuition.
Besides, the prouder part of me argued, as a writer I feel duty-bound to avoid clichés in my prose, and the idea of enrolling in grad school or moving to Brooklyn would seemingly make my very life a cliché. How could that be a good thing, for me or for my writing?
Still, as I toiled on my manuscripts at night and on weekends while holding down jobs that helped me pay off my debt and feed myself, I noticed that the words “attended graduate school” appeared in the bios of all my favorite young writers. They’re learning all this stuff I’m not learning! I began to fear. They’re being given the secrets to success while I type in my apartment alone! My goal had always been to write novels, not to teach, yet the two appeared inextricably linked in a way that felt deeply unfair. The deck was stacked, the game rigged. Every time I sent an unsolicited query letter to an agent, I feared that I was showing up to a gunfight with a knife.
That fear lingered until the day my agent told me that my first novel was going to be published. Suddenly the lack of an MFA didn’t matter so much.
I’m hardly some antiestablishment, academia-hating populist. I attended a New England prep school and a private liberal arts college. I loved being a student. I am the son of an art teacher, and I have many professor friends who love their jobs. What I’m saying is I might have enjoyed an MFA program. I might have even been a natural for grad school and academia. If you’re filling out an application right now, I am in no way hoping to dissuade you.
But I also know plenty of disillusioned survivors of MFA programs who don’t enjoy teaching and are suffering through it—some of them adjuncts locked into low earnings and very little stability— either as a perceived penance for failing to score that big book deal or because they feel that they’re trapped on a certain career path. And I know many people who earned graduate degrees and now toil outside academia, unable to land tenured jobs and nearly suffocating beneath the weight of student loan debt, which forces them to delay other life decisions. As someone who knows what it’s like to literally run out of money, I assure you there is nothing romantic or artistically noble about being broke. Writers should make smart financial decisions about their futures.
If you’re considering diverting from the Standard Road, wielding your machete to hack your own way through the writerly jungle, you’d best brace yourself for blisters on your hands and the