Jake Disch

Dear Screenwriter: In Defense of the MFA

I see a lot of naysayers about the benefits of getting an MFA in screenwriting. There are a lot of reasons for this. It’s expensive. It keeps you out of the business for two years. It won’t give you the leg up in getting representation and employment that you want it to. All valid enough reasons for some people. But not for me. If your reason for entering an MFA program is to get out to Los Angeles and start raking in the dirty Hollywood money ASAP, skip it. Just go out there, work until you get a foot in the door, and see where it takes you. An MFA program is for writers who want to spend two years relentlessly improving their craft and honing a voice. For the MFA to be worth it, it can’t be about the eventual career but about the art itself (unless your goal is to teach, then it might be about both the art and the degree).

I’m speaking as someone who graduated less than two weeks ago from Northwestern’s Writing for the Screen & Stage program. There were thirteen of us total in my cohort, each talented in their own way. Our professors were, for the most part, playwrights first, with many now dipping their toes into the world of television and film. Over the course of the program, our cohort became very close. We collaborated with each other, read each others’ work outside of class, and hung out almost every weekend. These people know my voice, they know my writing, and I know theirs. I have a supportive community of writers going forward as I pursue a career in Los Angeles, and this is more than worth the insurmountable debt that I have sunk myself into.

So let me lay it out for you: Jake’s Advice on Whether or Not to Get an MFA.

You Should Get an MFA If:

1. You want to improve as a writer.

You’ll spend two years working closely with other talented writers and professors (who… are also writers). They’ll give you (often rough) feedback on your work. You’ll need thick skin, and if you don’t have it you’ll need to develop it. Every writer needs thick skin, especially if they’re going to be a professional, and your skin will thicken quickly in an MFA program. You’ll learn what your strengths and weaknesses are and you’ll be able to focus on turning those weak spots into further strengths without the pressure of industry types breathing down your neck.

2. You thrive on community.

Most MFA’s have a small cohort size. The biggest I’ve heard of is thirty, but I’ve seen as small as four. If you want people who know your voice and who are comfortable giving you honest feedback, an MFA program will set you up for life. Unless you’re a dick and nobody likes you, in which case you’ll probably come out as friendless as you’ve always been.

3. You want to build your portfolio.

Too many writers think that one sample will be enough. It’s not. As a class guest told us a few weeks back, you only need one person to like  your work for that first door to be opened. Why narrow the chances with only one sample? The more work you have, the more likely somebody will like one of your pieces. You’ll come out of an MFA program with a fat stack of samples to send out to reps, theaters, producers, whoever. In two years, I wrote four short films, three short plays, one full-length play, three television pilots, two television spec episodes, and four features. If you bust your ass and do your best work, you’ll have an incredible jump start on your portfolio.

You Should NOT Get an MFA If:

1. Your writing is already perfect.

If you’re one of those (too common) writers who thinks they’ve got it all together, that they have nothing to improve upon and nothing they need to learn, skip it. Your attitude will be poisonous to your cohort and you’ll end up resentful of the amount of money and time you’re sinking into an MFA. What’s more, nobody wants you or your elitism in their cohort. Good luck telling producers, reps, and artistic directors that your work is perfect and needs no improvement.

The other side of this is the writer with thin skin, someone who takes every piece of criticism as a personal attack. You know who you are. Nobody wants a whiner in their cohort.

2. You’re all about the connections.

An MFA won’t get you into Spielberg’s office. It won’t get you anywhere. Maybe you’ll have an internship and meet some cool people, but you’ll still be an intern even if you’re 35. You want to get in that office? Work your ass off. There are no shortcuts (well, except for maybe nepotism). The only way to get your foot in the door, ever, with or without an MFA, is to work until your fingers fall off. I speak not from experience, but from the knowledge that I am facing down a likely minimum of five years of this grind and hustle before everything I learned in my MFA program will begin to pay off. And I’m okay with that. Which brings me to my next point.

3. You’re a lazy writer.

There are many kinds of lazy writers. People who think rewriting is unnecessary, people who refuse to proofread, people who just plain don’t write and then have the audacity to tell people they’re writers. If you’re one of those people, an MFA will do nothing for you. You get out what you put in, and if you put in the bare minimum that’s what you’ll get. Work hard, get the scripts done, shove ‘em in your portfolio, move on to the next thing. The pace of an MFA program should force you to do that if you’re doing it right. Part of your learning may be figuring out how to actually just sit down, get over the fear, and fucking write, which is fine. But if you’re lazy, an MFA program isn’t going to fix that for you.

So…

Should you get an MFA? Shit man, I don’t know. It’s not a magic key to Hollywood or Broadway or wherever you want your work to end up. But it is something that will make you a  better writer, provide you with a community of trusted, talented individuals, and give you confidence in your work moving forward. If that’s worth the money to you, then do it. I already know I won’t regret it.