Despite their popularity, Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programs have long been a favourite subject of criticism. Critics have written numerous books and articles on how these programs have homogenized a generation of creative writers and continue to amplify primarily white, wealthy voices. Others have argued that MFAs are oversaturated, expensive, and rarely lead to viable careers.
While MFAs offer invaluable resources — such as workshops, writing communities, and opportunities for fellowships and publishing deals — these resources have now become even less accessible for those who can’t afford these programs, some of which require students to go into debt. An MFA in creative writing from Columbia University, for example, costs 71,040 USD per year.
Despite the criticism, the number of MFA programs has more than tripled between 1994 and 2015, according to a New York Times article called “Why Writers Love to Hate the M.F.A.”
During that time — in the 2004–2005 academic year — U of T launched its own MFA-esque program: the Master of Arts in English in the Field of Creative Writing (MA CRW). This program works similarly to an MFA, but, unlike MFA students, MA CRW students earn a Master of Arts (MA) in English literature, giving them the opportunity to pursue writing or academia.
Unlike American universities, which mainly offer MFA degrees, several Canadian schools offer a creative writing MA instead.
As an English master’s student myself, albeit in a different program, I was interested to speak with three students to challenge the common criticisms of MFAs through their own experience in the MA CRW.
Criticism one: why can’t you just write on your own?
“It’s true that you can write on your own, and people should!” Isabel Yang, a first-year MA CRW student, wrote to The Varsity in an email. “But I do think there’s value to honing your craft in a structured setting.”
Tamara Frooman, a first-year MA CRW student, agreed with Yang. “I think it’s really easy to say ‘I’ll just write,’ but I think most writers don’t actually do well with that,” Frooman said in an interview with The Varsity. “Twitter writers are always joking about, you know, ‘I’m a writer, which means that I just sit around all day not writing.’ ”
Antonia Facciponte, a first-year MA CRW student who has a book of poetry forthcoming from Black Moss Press, wrote to The Varsity in an email, “There will always be reasons not to write. Writers write about life, but life is a constant distraction from writing. Workshop-based coursework forces me to create on a regular basis, and, as a result, teaches me to always, always be writing.”
“Poetry demands to be an integral part of a writer’s everyday life,” she added.
Criticism two: doesn’t the academic environment stifle your creativity?
On the contrary, Frooman said that her schooling holds her accountable to a higher standard of writing compared to when there is no academic context. “I’ll certainly write a lot, but I rarely will bother to go through and edit things and make them polished unless there’s a grade on the line,” Frooman explained.
Facciponte added, “By expressing my artistic processes in words, I become more aware of, and learn new things about, my writing craft. This skillset of expression is incredibly important when applying for funding, as artists must defend and advocate for the purpose of their work.”
For Yang, the academic setting informs their creative process in a helpful way. “I was drawn to this program specifically because my writing, which wrestles with identity, aligns with my academic interests: posthumanism, queer theory, and critical race theories,” they wrote.
However, Yang acknowledged that a university setting may not work for all creative writers. “I think the structure of the university setting, the workshop, and grading can limit the kinds of writing that people produce… experimental work that works against literary conventions doesn’t always benefit from the institutional gaze.”
Criticism three: if it doesn’t lead directly to a job, is it really worth it?
Yang urged aspiring creative writers to consider the value of the program beyond economic gains.
“I have to believe that art and creative work has value, and I think most people also do, if sub-consciously,” they wrote. “If people insist on imposing the terms of capitalism, I do think that studying creative writing has those values in that it teaches the synthesis of large ideas, rhetoric, and logic, which are skills that are relevant to most jobs.”
Frooman added that she doesn’t expect creative writing to pay the bills, but she said “this program is nice because it gives us two years where we can focus on what we love to do and not worry about other things.”
All three writers emphasized that for anyone who loves writing, the program is absolutely worth it. Yang summarized their thoughts on the matter: “A world without writing would be pretty awful.”
Criticism four: MA programs can be expensive!
Frooman told The Varsity that everyone in her cohort receives some form of funding. “We all got a $7,000 scholarship, which almost covers tuition.”
She added that many students in the cohort are funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council fellowship, which totals $17,500, and that all of them are employed as teaching assistants for both years of the program, providing an extra source of income.