The DIY MFA: How I Got an Arts Education Without Massive Debt

When I was on book tour recently, someone in the audience asked me what I thought about MFAs. I didn’t have much time to answer, but I told her that I have mixed feelings about a university arts education, and that I like the idea of a DIY MFA. That’s what I did. I’ve spent some money on my arts education, but I’ve done it over a thirty-year period and I’ve been selective and intentional about what I studied and why.  I promised to post a longer answer about what I did (and what anyone can do) – so here it is.

I’m not categorically opposed to MFAs. I’ve taught in an MFA program, and found my students to be hard-working, diligent, curious, and committed. A few have gone on to publish books or find work in their creative field. But an MFA isn’t for everyone. Here’s why:

Who Has the Money?

Have you been offered a scholarship or grant? Great! Go for it.

But nobody, in my opinion, should go into massive debt to get a fine arts education, unless they already have a career (or a spouse) with a steady paycheck and can comfortably afford the loan payments on their regular income. (Even then, think twice. Anyone’s career can take a hit. Anyone’s health can take a hit. Anyone’s marriage, for that matter, can take a hit. Don’t put your future self in an untenable position.) An MFA at a prestigious school, including room and board, can run to six figures.  Attending a local public university or taking a low-residency program could set you back twenty or thirty grand.

Even if you can pay cash for an MFA—think twice about that. Maybe you’re better off putting half in your retirement account and using the other half to fund your DIY MFA. (More on that in a minute)

Who Has the Time?

The burden on your time is another consideration. Most people working toward an MFA are juggling schoolwork with other obligations, namely jobs and families. If the only way to get through your MFA program is to put in fourteen hour days and marathon, late-night homework sessions, you’re probably not getting the full benefit of the program.

Learning a new skill takes time and attention—and by time, I mean chronological time. You need silence, empty moments, and opportunities to ruminate, tinker, and practice. It takes weeks, months, and sometimes years for a new skill or concept to really sink in. That can’t be rushed. If you’re going too fast, and worried about a hundred different responsibilities, it’s possible that a good deal of your expensive arts education simply isn’t sinking in.

What Are You Actually Going to Learn?

There’s no guarantee that an MFA program will teach you what you want to learn. Every painter I know complains that they weren’t taught to draw and paint in art school. Writers are rarely given more than a perfunctory overview of the publishing process.

You might be taught how to teach in an MFA program—but is an adjunct faculty position really the best way to make a living while you pursue your art? Would you be better off working as an electrician, a pharmacist, or a dog walker—any kind of gig that doesn’t make a demand on your creative energy?

Why not do it yourself?

For all these reasons, I propose the DIY MFA. Take half the money you would’ve spent on an MFA—and by “take” the money, I mean either set it aside, if you (miraculously) already have the cash sitting around, or set up a separate bank account and transfer in HALF of what you would’ve spent on student loan payments. (Or less! You’d be amazed at what you can do with $100 a month.)

With that money, do the following:

Workshops. Find the artists you love and follow them on social media. Sign up for their newsletters. They’ll let you know when they’re teaching. Be prepared to enroll the minute their course registration goes live. Be prepared to travel. Putting yourself on a plane, and renting a place to stay, are worthwhile education expenses.

And if the artist you love doesn’t teach? Email and ask. Offer to host a workshop, if you think you can round up a dozen friends and locate a teaching space. I only teach writing when I’m invited to. If someone emailed me with an offer like this, I’d consider it.

Find the ateliers and art academies that offer courses that interest you, and follow them. Here in Portland, I can take art workshops at the Oregon Society of Artists, just a few blocks from my house. Writing workshops are always on offer at Literary Arts. Consider the cities to which you can easily travel. Do you have friends with a guest room in Santa Fe? Look for workshops there.

And don’t forget that free and low-cost workshops might pop up at the library, the parks and recreation department, the senior center, and your local college’s adult ed program.

And when you get into those workshops:  Ask the instructor to teach you what you want to learn. Most artists who teach are happy to modify their lesson plan, within reason. Just ask politely, and be specific. I’ve said things in art workshops like, “I love the way you show light hitting a surface. Can you demonstrate that?”

Ask if you can take process photos for your personal use. Keep every handout. Remember every exercise.  Trust me, you can get an entire semester’s education out of a three-day workshop if you keep doing the work after the workshop ends.

And here’s a bonus: After your workshop, invite some artist friends over and share a bit of what you learned. It’ll help you to make sense of it, and it’s a great way to extend a little arts education into your circle.

Finally…after the workshop ends, keep in touch with those instructors! Follow them on social media. Buy their work and recommend it to others. Send them a thank-you note. These are your professors. It’s OK to stay in touch with them.

Online tutorials. There’s a lifetime’s worth of free and low-cost art education available online.  I love these lively, funny basic drawing videos on YouTube. I learned everything I know about urban sketching from BluPrint. Peter Martin teaches jazz piano online. Shonda Rhimes’ MasterClass on screenwriting looks amazing.

(Pro tip: Take these classes with a friend. Invite somebody over ever Tuesday night and do an online class, or a chapter out of an instruction book.)

Practice with a group. I’m not a fan of critique groups, but I LOVE practice groups. My dad played jazz in his living room with three other musicians for years. They weren’t looking to perform: they were just after a good practice session together. I know writers who make a date to write together, and writers who get together to spitball ideas for stories without ever showing each other a page of what they’ve written. I go out sketching with my local Urban Sketchers chapter. Weekly life drawing groups are available just about anywhere.

Find a walking buddy for your art. It’ll get you out of your rut, keep you accountable, and expose you to fresh ideas.

Create your own retreat. Renting a studio space is part of your arts education.  Escaping to a cabin in the woods is part of your arts education. Hiring a babysitter is part of your arts education. Taking unpaid leave from work is part of your arts education.  All of these things take money, but remember, this is the money that you saved by not getting an MFA. If it allows you the time and space to practice, explore, and make work—do it.

Buy subscriptions, memberships, and season tickets. Get a membership at your art museum, at the tier that offers you invitations to lectures and admission to partner museums around the country. Buy season tickets to a literary lecture series, symphony, or theater company. Subscribe to lavishly printed photography journals. Pay extra for online access to all of PBS’s arts programming. Support the groups that support artists, and go see great work.  (Hey, maybe you can persuade family & friends to give something like this as a gift instead of that sweater you won’t wear!)

Buy experimental materials. One of the great benefits of a university education is that you’re required to take courses outside your area of expertise. A painter might have to take a printmaking or sculpture class. A novelist might take a poetry class. A violinist might learn a little percussion. In art school, you are forced to experiment. So do that!

Recently, I saw a Richard Dibenkorn exhibit at the Portland Art Museum. I fell in love with his big, loose works on paper, and longed to go out and buy an enormous pad of paper and a bottle of ink. I just wanted to make big, loose, swirly, inky marks all over everything. If I was in art school, I could just run over to the studio and mess around with a bottle of ink or a lump of clay. But I wasn’t–so I ran over to the art supply store, bought some ink, and made a big glorious mess at home.

Turn yourself loose at the art supply store. If you have a sudden hankering to turn your novel into a screenplay, download Scrivner and give it a go. If you’re a classically-trained actor and you find yourself longing to make silly video shorts, go get a tripod and give it a try. Students approach their work with a spirit of experimentation, because the curriculum demands it, and because nothing’s set in concrete yet. You can do the same!

And even this can be done on the cheap. Don’t forget that musical instruments, easels, and unopened tubes of paint turn up regularly on Craigslist and eBay. Some artists hold swap meets to trade lightly-used gear and tools. Libraries are now making everything from 3-D printers to welding equipment available to their patrons.

In conclusion…None of this is free. It’s just cheaper than an MFA.

It’s also not over in two years. This is a blueprint for a lifelong education in the arts, paid on the installment plan. I’m three decades away from college and I’m still taking classes.

It still takes commitment, curiosity, community, and a lesson plan. It just happens to be a lesson plan of your own making.