First, check out the essay by Arielle Greenberg: “A (Slightly Qualified) Defense of MFA Programs: Six Benefits of Graduate School.”
It’s too long to quote, but here are those six benefits:
1. MFA programs are where you find out what to read.
2. MFA programs are where you find out how to read.
3. MFA programs can make workshop wonderful.
4. MFA programs are where you find community.
5. MFA programs are where you make connections.
6. MFA programs are where you find yourself.
What’s troubling (though not surprising) with this list of potential benefits is the conspicuous absence of the primary reason for attending a writing program: time to write.
The decision to attend a writing program also serves as a declaration: a way of announcing your intention to devote yourself to the writing life.
In all seriousness, I’m not quite sure why you need someone to tell you what or how to read. Or why you should trust them. (If you really don’t have any idea where to start, perhaps take a look at Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why.) Most advice I’ve gotten from various instructors was largely superficial. Few exceptions. Part of the problem is the brief involvement: learning about someone requires considerable time and effort. It took three full semesters working with one of my instructors at grad school before she had any sense of what I was doing, and could actually speak to my work. Dominance, submission…
Either the primary reason is so obvious that it didn’t warrant any mention—or it simply never occurred to Arielle Greenberg. The motivation to enroll for a couple of years…that unlikely opportunity to make writing a full-time occupation, one’s main focus and activity, rather than trying to squeeze in fifteen minutes here and there. What luxury.
These six potential benefits to me rank secondary at best, achievable without the financial burden.
Remember, the word “program” suggests a tendency, a nearly insurmountable urge for conformity, inherent in one of its definitions: “to train or regulate (the mind or the senses, for example) to perform in a certain way.” Just as an alarm is programmed to go off at the same time, in the same manner, day after day.
Proliferation of writing programs and literary magazines doesn’t automatically correlate with increased quality. Anyone considering a writing program should start off by reading Donald Hall’s essay, “Poetry and Ambition.”
Seeking a career? Writing programs can be a plus, especially for the meek and compliant. Your résumé will appear fit. If you want to be a writer—read, write, listen.
If you aren’t reading out loud, you’re missing at least half of the action. Robert Frost: “The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader. I have known people who could read without hearing the sentence sounds and they were the fastest readers. Eye readers we call them. They can get the meaning by glances. But they are bad readers because they miss the best part of what a good writer puts into his work.” Exactly.