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Should I Need an MFA to Teach Creative Writing?

Updated: Oct 22, 2022

This is me giving a talk at the Univ. of Delaware

Are All Degrees Created Equal?

For the most part, I try to keep it positive on this blog. But today I'm going to vent a little about something unfair and short-sighted in my industry.

It is this: Despite my obvious real-world international accomplishments as a novelist, memoirist, screenwriter, journalist and teacher, most United States universities would refuse to consider me for a position teaching creative writing because I lack a master's of fine arts in creative writing. More than once, I have applied for such a position, only to get passed over in favor of a far less accomplished writer who had the "right" degree.

I can understand why someone might need the right degree and license for something like becoming a heart surgeon. But creative writing is something you can learn to do in many ways, not just by earning an MFA. Also, a bad writer who pays for an MFA and shows up for class and does all the assignments will still pretty much always suck at writing. So maybe that's why the MFA requirement exists - to support the illusion that privileged people can buy anything, even talent and passion.

There's Nothing an MFA Could Give Me That My Other Master's Degree and Career Haven't

In my own case, I have a master's degree in a closely related field - journalism - from one of the best universities in the world: Columbia. There, I majored in print journalism with a focus on writing long-form creative nonfiction - which is to say, stories that were factual but literary. Everything I learned in that program is directly applicable and transferable to writing fiction. A good story is a good story. Solid structure is solid structure. Research and planning are research and planning. Good writing is good writing. Period.

In addition, I have nearly a decade under my best as a staff writer for two of the top newspapers in the nation - The Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. I was the youngest person ever hired as a long-form feature writer at the Globe, and was named the top newspaper essayist in the nation before I was 28. I was nominated several times for the Pulitzer Prize. I also won a national feature writing prize at the Times. Daily journalism taught me to be a strong, fast and disciplined writer, to analyze complex ideas and events and figure out how to distill them into powerful, evocative, clear and easy-to-understand stories. I was known in journalism as a literary writer, a writer's writer.

I left daily journalism when my son was born, in order to chase my lifelong dream of writing novels. My first novel inspired a fierce six-publisher bidding war that lasted three days, and landed me one of the largest book advances ever given at the time to a first-time novelist. The book debuted on the New York Times bestseller list and was one of the top-selling books of that year. It's success led Time magazine to put me on their cover as one of the most influential people in the nation. It led Tom Wolfe to name me the Tom Wolfe Writer in Residence at his alma mater, Washington & Lee University. It led the United States Congressional Hispanic Caucus to invite me to Washington DC, so they could give me a Literary Achievement Award. It landed me a film development deal with Columbia Pictures, with Jennifer Lopez attached to produce and star. It got me named a Latina magazine Woman of the Year. The book went on to be published in 11 languages around the world. It got me interviewed by Katie Couric on the Today Show. And more.

Make it Make Sense. Please.

I've since then written and sold ten other books. They've included more upmarket women's fiction, young adult fiction and memoir. I've had more film and TV development deals for two other novels, including deals where I was attached as the screenwriter and executive producer, working with people like Tyler Perry, and networks including Starz and Nickelodeon. I was named a Breakout Literary Star by Entertainment Weekly, and Kirkus said I'd written "an unbelievable first novel."

Other writing I've done over the years includes grant writing for a civil engineering firm, policy analysis for a state government, white papers for engineers, speechwriting for elected and appointed officials, and the vast array of public relations and marketing materials I wrote for musical artists during the time I owned by own boutique PR firm as well as all the blogging, website and social media management I've done for the past 20 years in my career as a novelist and public figure. I have been an artist in residence as a novelist at Berklee College of Music, and I've taught both journalism and novel-writing for UCLA Extension, Univ. of New Mexico, the San Francisco Creative Writing Institute, the Taos Summer Writers Conference, and given paid academic presentations and keynote speeches on literature at more than two dozen colleges and universities and before countless organizations, from Chambers of Commerce to the National Hispana Leadership Institute. I am also a licensed high school teacher, and was raised by two teachers. My father is a professor of sociology and my mother, believe it or not, has an MFA in creative writing.

Now. Let's look at the courses a person needs to take to earn an MFA in Creative Writing at my alma mater, Columbia. You can look at them here. I will summarize by saying you basically have to attend a lot of workshops and lectures, where you learn pretty much exactly the same things I have learned in countless hours of interaction with agents, editors, copy editors, producers, and in the company of other writers and, most of all, from reading books. This is all in done in support of your final dissertation, which, if you focus on fiction, will be...a novel, which might or might not be good enough to sell to a publisher.

There is nothing I would learn, were I to enter into an MFA in Creative Writing right now, that I have not learned on the job as an actual bestselling novelist, daily staff writer for two excellent newspapers, reader of books and watcher of TED talks and other presentations by some of the world's best writers. That I grasp these concepts and am really good at writing - books, scripts and articles - is obvious at this point. And yet, my application will be thrown out at just about every university in the United States because I lack the degree that some people believe everyone must have in order to learn to do THE THING THAT I DO REALLY WELL ALREADY.

The Deepest Cut Was the Closest School.

Several years ago, I applied for an open creative writing professorship at the Univ. of New Mexico. My father is a retired UNM professor. Both my parents attended UNM, as does my son. I grew up on the UNM campus. I figured that as perhaps the most successful Latina author ever to emerge from this state, recognized nationally and internationally, I would at least get an interview. I did not. And the school hired a white man for the job instead, from out of state, with only two slender obscure volumes of poetry published under his name. He had an MFA. To the robots who do the hiring, that meant, somehow, that he was more qualified than I was - with my very similar master's degree, superior talent and productivity, and decades of superior accomplishments.

Have we as a culture really become this incapable of critical thinking and analysis? Are we really this rule-bound and authoritarian, that we cannot tell when a person like me is clearly qualified for a job like this? In the case of UNM, the school has a higher percentage of Latinx students than any other university in the nation - people who might, you know, have heard of me and my work and been excited to work with me. And still the powers that be decided a less talented white dude with an MFA was the smarter choice. He wasn't, by the way. He hated Albuquerque. He wrote a nasty essay about my beloved hometown, and quit.

Much is made of the "brain drain" in New Mexico. Many of our best and brightest leave this state to seek fame and fortune elsewhere. In my case, I came back after I'd found those things, and still wasn't seen as valuable by the university I most wanted to teach at so that I could give back to the community in which I was raised.

How The MFA Requirement to Teach Creative Writing is a Tool of Privilege and Marginalization

People of color, and women in particular, often have to become ambitious autodidacts and entrepreneurs, precisely because of this kind of stupidity. Latinas are more likely to own their own businesses in the United States than any other demographic - probably because we are paid less than everyone else, if we're even hired at all.

I will never not be astounded and disgusted by the fact that US academia can't see my worth. It doesn't change how I feel about myself or my writing, nor has it slowed me down in continuing to write and sell popular books. But I am acutely aware of the way the MFA is used as a tool of exclusion and marginalization for those of us who were born to write and came to successful careers in writing by different means. We should not be left out of the opportunity to pass on all the valuable knowledge and experience we have, for lack of the right degree. Students lose out, the schools lose out, and, of course, we who WANT to teach and share what we know lose out.

We have to do better than this.

In the meantime, I am offering university-quality creative writing courses on my own. You might not earn an MFA learning to write novels from me, but you'll come away with the skills to do exactly what everyone who enrolls in a creative writing MFA wants: You will learn how to write good novels that you can sell to publishers so that lots of people can read them.

Next class, WRITE YOUR FIRST NOVEL, begins in January! Space is limited. Sign up soon.

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