I've much flirted with the idea of getting an MFA. I do realize that there is some value in learning some things about the craft from published authors with more experience. And I do realize there's value in having a community of writers who are at approximately the same level as you are. But when I took a class to see if an MFA is "right for me," I realized it wasn't. I didn't quite connect with the community in my class, and I didn't think the faculty was a good fit for my needs as a not-very-established-yet writer.
But I do want to emphasize that I'm not denying the value of MFAs. In Romania, there are writers' clubs called "Cenaclu" - and they are much closer to MFA classes than they are to book clubs, because, first off, they are usually held under the guidance of an established writer, then there is a selection process, then they tend to take themselves very seriously and they are in fact about the craft of writing (and maybe about developing a writer's ego, which is needed too).
Having (so far) abandoned the idea of getting an MFA, I have instead tried to maximize the writers' community where I've been more active, which is LitReactor. I have many writer friends who are also LitReactors, and I have written many short stories there (and started a novel) both in the fun and informal contests on LR, and in formal classes (which are a bit more costly but worth it if you're not in an MFA but want a similar experience, and where you learn a few thing from a published writer in a 4-6 weeks class). I did learn a lot from Mark Vanderpool, Craig Clevenger (author of Dermaphoria) and Chris Bram (author of Gods and Monsters). Chris Bram was particularly encouraging about the novel I'm working on.
And aside from the actual class-like environment, I want to say that there's some value (don't over-rely on that though) in getting feedback from everyone who's willing to read your work. Sometimes the feedback makes you angry and you will blacklist the person who gave it as someone who doesn't get you at all, but sometimes you'll actually realize you were doing something that only made sense to you. I don't see myself as a "beginner" anymore, but I still like feedback.
Many times I've heard the claim that a writer should only write about what he or she knows because otherwise the public will soon oust the fraud. This is very reductive and takes the fun out of writing. What is writing but imagining the world on your own terms? What is imagining but fraudulent reality?
At Dragoncon this year I went to a panel on research for purposes of writing. Most panelists agreed that a lot of research needs to go into writing about something you are not familiar with, because "experts" will always pick on details that you got wrong if you are not an expert. One of the writers suggested that you should try to experience something as close to the experience you are describing as you can. For example, you may not ever hope to train to be an astronaut but if you want to write about it, do at least some bungee jumping.
When I took a class on LitReactor with Mark Vanderpool, the first story he asked us to write was something based on a detail in someone else's life (someone in the class), so I found it tremendously fun to research something as far from my own field as I could think of, which is why I chose to write about a student in nuclear physics. Was that pointless? No, because I had a personal investment in that topic, and I think as long as you have that, then you are not a fraud. First have a reason to write about something, then do enough research to have as much understanding of the topic as the story needs. What was personal to me about the field of nuclear physics was my experience (at 16) with being relatively close to the Chernobyl disaster and trying to understand what it was and how it affected me.
To go back to the purpose of writing this blog. I disagree that the only thing you should write about is what you know very well. We don't live in a box. We are touched by others who live other experiences, and we have a duty, if we call ourselves writers, to investigate those aspects of life that crisscross our own. So, yes, research is needed (I am still looking into what it's like to live in Greenland), but allow yourself to imagine experiences other than your own. Please, don't only write about what you know.