Further Considerations of the MFA/Not to MFA soliloquy

One point I wanted to get at in my last post was that I think some of the MFA program objections come from a sense that the degree, in some ways, might be perceived as credentialing the quality of someone's writing. I think non-MFA graduates fear or worry that without an MFA, their level of artistic merit might be perceived by others as subpar or at a disadvantage.

Of course, you can't credential quality, I don't think that has ever been the purpose of advanced study in creative writing. The only thing the degree credentials is someone's ability to teach at the college level or below or elsewhere; and even then, it isn't a hard and fast requirement outside of academia. At The Writer's Center, for example, we made a choice to avoid requiring an MFA in our pool of instructors, instead opting for significant publication, generally a book with an established national press, as the main credential, along with demonstrated ability teaching or facilitating groups. This allowed us to welcome in workshop leaders who may have cut their teeth outside of academia but were exceptional teachers and mentors to developing writers. It also meant that having an MFA alone wasn't enough to lead workshops with this, and I still stand by that standard.

The balance between the artist and the professional is one writers who strive to exist in the uncomfortable world of the writer-teacher must learn to live with. Those of us who lead busy professional lives in cubicles or office towers sometimes fantasize about the freedom the writer who has no full time work must feel, while the full time writer, from the familiarity of his or her home office, sometimes shops in the internet and fantasizes what he or she could do/buy/visit if only they had a larger or more steady income.

The MFA is not a key, and it is certainly not a gate. It's also not a ticket to ride, a seal of approval, a merit badge, or a trophy. It's just a description of some time spent doing something important, devoting thought, energy, and time to craft, study, writing, and revision.

The MFA is right for some people. It is wrong for others. It can be particularly wrong for writers who end up, for whatever reason, in the wrong program, for writers who have a unique, experimental, or unpopular aesthetic, or writers who don't play well with others. None of these traits bar those people from having strong and fulfilling careers, but the MFA--the wrong choice for them--might make them feel that way.

Other writers can't devote the time or expense to such education. This is also not a problem. But every writer will tell you that a writer's life is often full of complicated, uncomfortable, and difficult choices, from how we manage our time to how we earn our money to how we care for the people we love. Being in an MFA program (or outside of one) has no bearing on your chances for success if your partner or spouse is left out in the cold while you sit typing away night after night or, conversely, while you devote all of your free time to your family instead of to your writing. For people who have difficulty balancing, though, the MFA can provide a brief, concentrated opportunity to develop the focus, habits, courage, and wherewithal to make those decisions and relationships effective--and, as I've seen all to often, it can also evacuate your life of anyone and anything that doesn't suit or support your writing lifestyle.

Writers who can (somehow) afford to live artful lives in NYC are doing something right. I don't know what it is. Certainly, writers there have access to a rich, diverse, and supportive community of writers, editors, publishers, and the like--including workshop groups, community centers, famous folks, and lively reading series. Those are all wonderful resources to help a writer at any stage--MFA or no--grow and develop.

But for the other 304 million Americans who live outside NYC, the choices can be a little more scarce, a little more clandestine, a little scarier. Is there hope, then, for the writer without an MFA who chooses not to live in New York?

I have an idea.

Let's stop criticizing the existence of MFA programs and focus more on how we can collectively support the development of writers before, during, after, or in spite of those programs. This false dichotomy--the MFA writer against the non-MFA writer--is useless to all of us.

One thing that was so wonderful about starting to blog back in 2004 was that it felt like being part of a movement, writers taking to keyboards to connect with each other and exchange ideas. Of course, this was before Facebook, before annual conferences became huge and numerous, before our world decidedly changed. But what I miss most about that time is the openness--we were all in this together, creating together, encouraging each other.

In the end, isn't that what this whole debate is getting at? How do writers make friends with writers and become linked colleagues? The MFA is one way. NYC is another way. But there are many paths. No path is better than another. The path can only be more right for us as individuals.


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.


Writing and Revising Poems: A Romantic Comedy

Scene 1
Boy meets poem.

Boy: Hi, I'm writing you.
Poem: Hi. Thanks for that.

Scene 2
Boy and poem get closer.

Boy: I don't know why, but I can't stop rereading you.
Poem: I get that a lot. I like it when you look at me.

Scene 3
Boy and poem fall into deep infatuation.

Boy: I think you are the best poem I have ever written!
Poem: Probably I am!

Scene 4
Boy and poem fall in love.

Boy: I don't just like you, I understand you.
Poem: You make me feel accessible. You had me at "like."

Scene 5
They disagree.

Boy: One thing I think you could change is that adverb in the third line. It's too flashy.
Poem: Oh, really? One thing you could change is your face!

Scene 6
They reconcile.

Boy: Thank you for changing that adverb.
Poem: You're welcome. You really should change your face, though.

Scene 7
They discover they take each other for granted.

Boy: I think all you're interested in is being loved, not giving love!
Poem: You make me feel dirty and accessible! All I am to you is just another notch on your CV!

Scene 8
They part.

Boy: I think we should explore other poems.
Poem: You mean all this time you haven't been? Was it just me? It was just me. Well, I saw this coming.

Scene 9
After some time, they encounter each other again, older, wiser, changed by the world.

Boy: Poem. I didn't realize you'd be here.
Poem: Well, I am.
Boy: It's nice to see you. You look good.
Poem: Thanks. I've been hanging out with the sonnets, getting into shape.

Scene 10
They cannot fight their love.

Boy: Poem, I know we've had our differences, but I can see past your potential to your reality now.
Poem: Like how they can X-Ray through your clothes at the airport? I feel so naked now. I feel...free!
Boy: Poem, let me revise you!
Poem: I will let you touch me. For five minutes.

Scene 11
They live happily ever after.

Boy: Poem, this book was made for you.
Poem: Yes, I basically am the centerpiece here, aren't I?