The MFA is not the problem…
It’s also not the solution, and I’m not sure there’s a problem in the first place.
It seems to me that in nearly every generation of writing, one group of people is convinced that no one has ever done it as well as they are doing it right now, while another group is convinced that it’s all dead, sucks, or is having the life sucked out of it by some outside force. Obviously, I think both of these positions are ludicrous.
The latest form of this debate, it seems to me, surrounds the Creative Writing MFA program. I’m a graduate of the one at the University of Arkansas, though I finished
3 7 years ago (I have the math skills of a poet) and the poetry side has changed considerably in the intervening years (for the good, as I understand). But just because I was in one doesn’t mean I’m a knee-jerk apologist for the idea of the Creative Writing MFA program as a whole. Not all MFA programs are created equally, and the academic value of the MFA has been diminished of late by the creation of the CW PhD by some institutions. (I think that’s unfair, by the way.) And frankly, too many CW departments do their students a disservice by not pointing out that the academic job market for creative writing has been depressed for quite some time, and that one’s chances of landing a tenure-track job fall somewhere between unlikely and “hope you didn’t lose your bartending skills while you were a TA.”
But the argument in opposition to the MFA which drives me the most around the bend is the one which ranges from “you can get everything you need from life that you can from an MFA” to “an MFA will kill your ability to write.” I think the only complete answer I can give to both those charges is “nonsense.” I suppose “bullshit” would do as well.
For example, when I finished my BA, I was about to turn 30, I’d been divorced for nearly 4 years, had a kid and no real idea what I wanted to do for a career other than learn more about poetry. I’d gotten a taste as an undergrad, but little more than that, and I knew that if I wanted to write poetry and be taken seriously, I needed not only instruction in the craft of writing, but in how to read, and in what else was out there to read. Could I have gotten there without being in an MFA program? I suppose, just as I could get to the Yucatan Peninsula by walking through Texas, but it wouldn’t have been as efficient a trip.
Here’s what an MFA program can provide an aspiring writer–time to read and write and learn more about the world of literature. It can provide a group of writers and teachers who take an interest in your work and in making it better (warning: it can also provide the polar opposite of this). It can provide useful knowledge that will help you hone your craft. Notice all those italicized “cans” there? I did that because there’s no guarantee that an MFA program will provide you with any of that, and if you’re in one and you’re not getting that–particularly if you’re not getting the first set of things I mentioned–you might want to consider leaving, because if you’re not getting time to read and write and learn, then you’re getting hosed.
Here’s what an MFA program will not give you: talent. But MFA programs don’t promise that, at least not reputable ones. MFA programs also won’t give you the drive to keep writing even when it seems no one likes what you’re doing, but again, they don’t promise that. And they won’t promise you a book contract or publications or a job teaching a 2/3 load at a Research 1 university either, and if they are guaranteeing that, then get it in writing and sue their asses once you’re finished.
Is an MFA necessary to become a serious/successful/good writer? Not at all. And if it’s not right for you, then don’t do it. If you feel your creativity is being stilted by the academic world, get out and find your own way, and best of luck to you.
But it can be useful–as long as you let it be. Don’t expect it to be some magical program that will wave away all doubts and turn you into a MacArthur Fellow. It won’t do that either. If anything, it’s likely to make you question your ability in ways you never thought imaginable. The only reason I got through my first semester at Arkansas was because I kept telling myself “they liked you enough to let you in, so you have to be doing something right.” And I came out of it okay four years later because I made the most of my degree.
One final note to all the people who are complaining that MFA writers are killing or have killed writing today. Do me a favor: either keep looking around until you find something you like or that you think is good, or write it yourself. Writing’s not dead–it’s as alive as it has always been. Just work a little harder.