To MFA or Not to MFA: That is the Question (that will not die)

This week, we saw yet another essay debating the merits of seeking graduate-level education in creative writing. It's starting to feel like this writings are on some kind of cycle. Perhaps we'll be subjected to one every semester from now until the obliteration of the academy.

It got me thinking about what's underneath all this concern. For the rest of this essay, I'll be using poets/poetry as my nouns, but consider there a place for the fiction writer in this discussion as well.

The arguments generally tend toward the familiar, lamenting the poet/writer's retreat into the academy, where lackluster teachers receive tenure in exchange for roping in the mindless-but-monied chum in the form of paying students whose tuition supports the university as a whole. Or that we are suddenly creating more poets than we know what to do with. Or that American poetry itself is in some kind of vast existential crisis of readership/of content/of expertise/of relevance.

All of these things may be true. Likely, they do not matter much in the greater scheme of things, though.

We are still reading essayists describing the difference between now (the MFA mill) and "before," the time when that model didn't exist, when aspiring writers either wrote blindly and alone or were fortunate enough to catch a famous writer on a good day and then engaged in several years' thoughtful correspondence, during which time the famous one coached the soon-to-be-famous one. For we can be sure that all writers who engaged in the correspondence-apprenticeship model became famous, right? Because we have no existing correspondence of any writer who ultimately did not become famous. Let's be reminded that even Emerson wrote enthusiastically to Walt Whitman upon reading the second edition of Leaves of Grass. "If it worked for Walt..."

And today, aspiring writers pay to be in a room with a famous (?) one, who may or may not care about them, who may or may not be sober, who may or may not be a person one would want to spend many hours locked in a room with.

Clearly, we are in a crisis.

Clearly, we should return to the earlier model. With fewer poets mucking up the publishing world, surely my book would win the Yale/Whitman/insert prize. Let's also remember that, up until the mid-1950s/60s, most poets were white upper class men with Ivy League educations who had generally traveled or lived abroad, and had both the wherewithal and the resources necessary to devote one's life to the monastic existence of one who makes the poems.

But I'd say that model might be best left to the Modernists. Just as Ezra Pound cried that it was time to make it new, it is time for us to make the making of it new.

With that in mind, let's agree on some stuff:

> There ARE a lot of MFA programs. My God, there are. You see this either two ways, really. You either think it's fine or you hate it. Yes, we are producing a lot of writers these days. Yes, we are credentialing a lot of people. Yes, we are creating experienced literary magazine editors and community program teachers and composition teachers.

Composition teaching used to be called the "faculty wives job." Perhaps it's a good thing that credentialed teachers are in those classrooms! They are also teaching in community centers, prisons, libraries, living rooms, hospitals, war zones, assisted living facilities, and arts centers around the country.

I've always thought that making more poets was a good thing, since it created more readers of poetry (theoretically). If more people are reading poetry, then more people are reading books, talking about poetry, thinking about poetry, supporting poetry readings and events, creating reading series, founding journals and magazines, and generally working to widen the reach and impact of poetry. This is a change from the former model, where only the highly educated, wealthy, and/or pretentious elite had access to "literature."

I'll also say that it doesn't matter if we're making more "good" poets. Do photography MFA programs worry they are creating too many photographers? While some MFA graduates will go on and become literary superstars, some will go on to write in their diaries. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that.

For some people, the teaching credential is valuable. For others, the time to write. For still others, the community of writers with whom they work. These are all valid and valuable reasons to pursue an MFA degree. An MFA degree is also only required in the case of the first concern.

That some people think there are too many MFAs circling the waters at AWP might mean they are concerned that there are too many people gunning for the same job openings. And some of them are right to be concerned because the economy + highly competitive job market = some people turned away. And sometimes, the wrong people are turned away. But that's life. There are other options.

There is a whole nation of people who are writing right now. Writing and reading are not dead. In fact, our culture is entering an era when it seems like arts engagement is at an all-time high. Never has art been more accessible, more available, or more necessary. People you'd never expect have novels-in-progress in their drawers, furtive poems scribbled out on cocktail napkins, and memoirs in their heads. People want to write. There is no reason why they shouldn't try.

The world is already full of reasons why people shouldn't write. Let's not be part of creating another one.


  1. I'm afraid the MFA is becoming as inane as the Communications major. The most important trait of a successful writer is to have something to say. If you don't have something to say, go get a PhD in Biochemistry or something else interesting. Or use the money you'd save on tuition to travel the world. Seriously, you'll have more to write about if you buy one of those Around the World airline tickets.

    Then write a book about a subject of interest.

    An MFA for the sake of an MFA is wasteful as a degree, and the manuscripts produced under that direction are clogging up the desks of the publishing industry.

  2. I don't know if you've noticed this, but in the program I teach in, and the program I attended, many of folks getting MFAs are already teaching English at the high school and community college level, and they are there to learn more about fiction or poetry so that they will be better teachers. Which I think is a fine reason for getting the MFA. I don't think many MFA students even plan to be "great writers" - they're just looking to become more educated. Nothing wrong with that!

  3. I would say it was about 1/4 of the students in my MFA program who were teaching already but wanted the terminal degree to get on a tenure track.

    I don't know if it's practical, though.

    The best idea came from a woman who was quite a successful writer already, but wanted to attend so that she could get on a tenure track.

  4. "I've always thought that making more poets was a good thing, since it created more readers of poetry (theoretically). If more people are reading poetry, then more people are reading books, talking about poetry, thinking about poetry, supporting poetry readings and events, creating reading series, founding journals and magazines, and generally working to widen the reach and impact of poetry." I couldn't have said it better myself.

  5. I wonder why people have developed the sense that education for education's sake is a waste of time and/or money. Are we that fully enriched that further enrichment has no intrinsic value?

    As for manuscripts clogging up the desks of the publishing industry: good. I believe their job is to separate the wheat from the chaff, not wheat from the wheat. Furthermore, some of that "chaff"--which of course isn't chaff but constitutes niche writing, experimental writing, or writing for specific audiences--can find homes when their writers found new presses, new publishing outlets, and so forth to create access to the work.

    If an editor feels like his or her desk is clogged with bad writing, they may want to consider going back to school to get a degree in communications.

  6. Charlie,

    Best thing I've read all week! I blogged about it, but it was nothing as good as what you said (I'm going to link up your post). Thank you so much for this. Yes--- the world is already full of reasons not to write, let's not add to it! -- yes! Exactly!