Michelle Haimoff has written a series of posts on She Writes regarding her five reasons not to get an MFA. Although I am a graduate of an MFA program (University of Florida) I think there are plenty of valid reasons not to get an MFA. Haimoff is in good company in not pursuing an MFA. That said, I think it's important to make sure the reasons that you think you shouldn't get an MFA are accurate. Here's my take on Haimoff's first reason, privacy.
Haimoff's second reason is perspective. Her concerns are the difficulty of having friends critique your work, and the potential lack of variety in backgrounds of your fellow grad students.
"I don’t know about you, but I would never tell a friend that I thought her work was crap. Writing is personal and it hurts to hear that. There are enough people in all stages of the writing process that will tell you that your work is crap, your friends are supposed to bolster your confidence. But how many times have you torn apart a book or movie written by someone you didn’t know? It’s easier to be brutally honest with strangers."
In my experience, your MFA friends will totally tell you when your work sucks. If they're really your friends, they'll tell you every single thing that's wrong with your piece, down to the comma usage. You can't improve unless you get honest feedback. Your friends are more likely to be positive outside of the MFA setting, but knowing what you're doing well is not going to improve your writing. You need a really thick skin to succeed, and having your work stripped bare is part of developing that skin.
"Additionally, grad school students are a type. They’re responsible (at least responsible enough to submit the application), academically-minded (they’re signing up for more school) and somewhat accomplished (they must have already produced impressive writing samples or they wouldn’t have gotten in). In other words, any old bum off the street can’t get an MFA."
Actually, MFA students really aren't a type in the ways Haimoff describes. In general, I'd say the MFAers were viewed as the least responsible grad students in the English department when I was at UF. Some are into the academics of taking literature classes, while others hate it. So in my experience, they are less responsible and academic then your stereotypical grad student. In terms of accomplishment, some students are and some aren't. They may be published, but very well may not be. Most programs say they accept students based on potential, not based on what they've already accomplished. So you may get in with a sample that's very flawed, but also shows a lot of potential.
The people I went to school with came from a variety of backgrounds. But they were more similar in their way of seeing the world, perhaps, than a random group of people. Imagine that you're the kind of person who likes to lurk in the background at a party, watching people, basically acting like a fly on the wall. Then imagine being at a party with twenty other people exactly like you. It's a little weird, but it's also great.
Continued: Public vs. MFA workshop
"But therein lies the problem. In continuing education classes where all you have to do is pay the fee, any old bum off the street can participate. And that true diversity enables you to glean how the broader reading public will respond to your work."
I think there's some validity to the idea that this is potentially less variety among your fellow MFAers in a workshop than there is in a public workshop. However, who you want to have reading your work really depends on your writing goals. If you're writing literary fiction, then it makes sense to want to be surrounded by other people who are writing the same, in a workshop led by a professor who is an accomplished writer of this type of fiction. Of course, the genre focus can vary from program to program, but I think it's safe to say that the vast majority are geared towards literary fiction.
If you're writing strictly genre fiction, then you probably wouldn't be accepted to an MFA program in the first place. But in a scenario in which you do end up in such a workshop, it won't be helpful to you if your readers aren't receptive to your work. A public workshop will probably be more receptive to genre writing. I love genre writing and am currently working on a genre novel. I probably wouldn't have workshopped it at UF, so take from that what you will.
The problem with seeing public workshops as a litmus test for how readers will respond to your work is that your goals should be two fold in having your work critiqued. You need to know how the work resonates with readers, but you also need input from people who can identify the problems and suggest how to fix them. A non-writer reader often can tell you that they don't like something, but they may not be able to tell you exactly where or why or what to do about it. But ultimately, it's not an either/or proposition. You can get regular readers to read your work while enrolled in an MFA program. It's probably a smart thing to do.
I didn't expect to be a cheerleader for MFA programs when I started writing about Haimoff's posts. I'm hoping, at least for variety's sake, that I will agree with some of her remaining three reasons!