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Professionalization in Creative Writing

On November 21st, I attended Dr. Walton Muyumba’s talk on Professionalization in Creative Writing. This presentation also included a conversation about applying for an MFA. As the director of the Creative Writing program at Indiana University, Dr. Muyumba had extensive advice, counsel, and information for many of us junior and seniors considering this next educational pathway.

            As someone interested in pursuing publication in the future, but not someone with a strong desire for an MFA, I found this presentation particularly interesting. Dr. Muyumba opened his talk with the statement: “Not everyone needs an MFA,” followed closely by “just because you finish an MFA, does not mean you’re going to become a professional writer.” It was refreshing to hear a more realistic approach to an MFA, considering the amount of lectures I’ve sat through that avidly push writers toward that path, with no regard for the expense or outcome. I appreciated his honesty about both the positive and negatives aspects that accompany pursuing a Master of Fine Arts.

            Dr. Muyumba also discussed at length the various types of MFA programs around the country, the most dominant being a combination of literature and studio courses. This program is structured with electives, literature and art history courses, and writing workshops. However, what I was surprised to learn was the extent of teaching that was required of the MFA students. Many programs offer promised funding, and more times than not, that funding is awarded through teaching. This was a crucial element for me because I do not see myself teaching, nor is that something I desire. Differentiating the majority of MFA programs from other models, Dr. Muyumba also spoke about studio-only programs which do not require that teaching component, but are selective, rare, and expensive. The Iowa Writers Workshop is an example of this type of MFA program. Many students will pay for this program simply because of the exposure, agents, and connections they make on the flip-side. It seems the latter of the MFA programs would best suit my personal and professional needs, however, I still do not see myself pursuing one after graduation in the spring.

            Dr. Muyumba also spoke at length about what happens if you choose not to pursue an MFA, which was particularly important to my future plans. He mentioned how, without an MFA, one would have to work harder to create a writing community and find connections with agents—but it clearly can be done. Muyumba provided several examples of highly accomplished writers and authors who never received an MFA, which seemed to maintain the balance of the presentation. It was also a nice reassurance to someone who does not wish to obtain an MFA.

            Claiming ambivalence toward the MFA, Muyumba claimed that much of the benefit has to do with the kind of reader you are. As a book critic, he spoke at length about how criticism and reading provide ways into writing—how the more attention a reader pays to technique, style, and form, the better writer they will become in the end. This makes profound sense, yet I had never really considered the influence of reading on writing before. I’m very thankful to have had the opportunity to listen to Dr. Muyumba speak on topics so pertinent to my own interests, and feel much more confident in my decision not to pursue an MFA.

            Not knowing where else to include his advice, but wanting to be able to pass along the counsel, I thought I would leave them at the end of this piece. Take them as you wish.

            If you ever have the feeling, as a writer, that you know what you’re doing—you’re probably doing it wrong.

            You’re not writing unless you are sending work out.

            Napping is part of the labor. Thinking is part of the labor. 

            If your work is not moving you into complicated emotional states, you’re not pushing enough.


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