Over at my previous home I began a series to look a little at the aesthetics of writing. Rather than try to explain things everyone probably already knows, it was primarily to get my own thoughts straight. As a writer, it’s good to feel like you know where you stand—are you writing art, entertainment, or shit? Or some wonderful combination of all of these?

Some exploratory posts led to comments, and sometimes the issue of the Master’s of Fine Arts came up. One was a teacher in the same program I attended, at Emerson College, while some from outside the academy had harsh words for the assumption that all those MFA dollars go to anything worthwhile.

My own experience was, overall, very good. I’m still in debt to the tune of…well, something very big…and I haven’t touched the principal yet. But I don’t regret the debt to and major degree. Because it was in my program that I finally felt like, yes, I’m a writer.

Now, I’d never suggest that an MFA makes anyone a writer. In fact, I can confidently say that less than 5% of the people in the program were both any good and had any chance of making a career of writing. But the virtue of it is that, for 2 years, and perhaps the last time in your life, writing is your central occupation. It’s what you’re expected to do, and unlike NaNoWriMo you’re faced with a crowd of people at the end who’ll tear it to shreds.

Of course there are real-world problems with the prevalence of these MFAs. The book market is oversaturated as it is, and the review column inches aren’t getting any longer.

Before the MFA, I had nine or so years of writing in a void. It was important for me to find out if I was actually any good or not—my family and friends had their opinions, but those were only so dependable. So I immersed myself in my peer group and realized I was all right. I’m not saying this was worth the price of admission, but it was valuable nonetheless.

But did I learn how to write? At first I was naive enough to expect this. Soon, though, it became clear there was no hidden secret passed down by hooded men from Dan Brown’s imagination. Writing isn’t about knowing secrets. Yet some things can be taught, and a good professor can help you spot what not to do in your writing.

To me, teaching or learning writing is about percentages—that is, lowering the probability that you’re going to write shit. There are occasional rules, but largely it’s about practice, and a good teacher can shepherd you in a straighter line and help you to not wander down errant paths.

Which of course makes a degree program difficult to quantify. You can’t put grades on this stuff. Lousy writers who nonetheless show the desire to improve—even if there’s no physical evidence—can get fine grades.

Something you can get—but it’s not assured—is confidence. I had a few professors who convinced me that, despite my insecurities, there was some talent bubbling under the surface. And, with time, it could be cultivated into something decent.

My advice, if there’s anyone reading this who’s already decided to enter a program, is to ignore the grades and remember at all moments just how much you’re shelling out for this. Make sure the professors are earning what you’re paying—ask them what you feel you need to know.

And listen. While the professor’s assessment generally trumps what students say, listen to everyone. Just learn to translate criticisms into something you can use. If people have problems with what you’ve written, it’s usually rooted in a real flaw—but beyond that be wary. Solutions are your problem, nobody else’s.

I’m sure other people reading this have their own opinions, so let it roll in the backblog.

(Originally posted at the Contemporary Nomad)