On Credentials, Being an Autodidact, and Why I Never Got an MFA

Since I’ve started working with the library system in Sioux Falls, I’ve been thinking a lot about credentials.

Before I moved, I was a Teen Services Librarian at the largest library in a rural area. I don’t have my MLS. When I applied for the job, the description said an MLS was “preferred” — not required. Although others who applied did have the MLS, I got the position because I had real work experience with teenagers. I excelled at the job, to the point that even when I moved away, my boss worked hard to keep me in the position.

Things are different in my new library system. Despite having already proven myself in the actual job, obtaining a similar position here without an MLS appears to be out of reach. I’ve probably enjoyed being a Teen Services Librarian more than any paid work I’ve ever had.   So of course, the question arises: Is it time to consider getting an MLS?

For me, the answer is no. I feel incredibly blessed that I had the opportunity to do the things I’ve done without one. But I’m not going to pursue one now because obtaining a librarian position isn’t my dream. Becoming a writer is.

Back around 2006, I started to feel an itch for something different. I’d been in my current job for almost five years and was ready for a change. I applied to grad school — or more specifically, to one grad school, the one that is most competitive in the field of writing. I didn’t get in. I found myself feeling relieved, and I didn’t pursue grad school again. I realized that writing is one of the few fields where your work can still speak louder than your credentials. Writers with MFAs and writers with only a high school education have both been published and successful. While there’s a lot to learn about the craft of writing, what matters most of all is putting in the time. The real reason I wanted to go for my MFA was so that I could feel justified in putting my writing first. And I had to give myself permission to do that — without paying someone else for it.

I still want to put my writing first, and small and big changes I’ve made in my life over the years have brought me closer to that goal. And I’ve done it without going into the debt that more schooling would require — especially since it seems the main reason MFA students might do better than writers without the MFA is because they’ve been forced to actually produce. And I’ve been lucky in that motivation to write has never been as big an obstacle to me than it is for other writers — blame a strong guilt complex. When I read in No Plot, No Problem that NaNoWriMo had produced more writing than the nation’s MFA programs combined, my choice was affirmed.

Even so, I don’t think writing is what I’m most passionate about. When I ask myself what I would do with my time if I didn’t need to earn a living, writing plays a big part in the life I envision for myself. But what I’d really like to do is just devote as much time as possible to learning. To reading books on religion, history, and culture. To taking community ed and online classes. To exploring. To, essentially, “homeschooling” myself.

So if learning is at the top of the list of what I’m passionate about, it again seems counterintuitive that I have no interest in going back to school. I loved my time in college and always thought that eventually I’d miss school enough to return for higher education. But many years ago, I read The Day I Became an Autodidact, and it filled me with longing. I loved the idea of being able to learn because I loved it and taking control of my own education. And although I did go the traditional route to get my B.A., and although I don’t regret it, now that I’m done with formal education, I’m free to pursue learning for its own sake. This kind of learning will get me very little in way of credentials, yet it makes me happier than anything else.

And that’s what brings me back to writing — it’s a pursuit that allows wide exploration of many, many diverse fields, and the opportunity to synthesize what you’re discovering, and somehow make something new to give back to the world. So while I don’t see a Masters or Doctorate degree in my future, I do see piles of books, study groups, online classes, community ed, travel, museum visits, and notebooks full of scribbles. And that future looks lovely.