Essays

The Value of Writing Programs: On Why I Don’t Have an M.F.A.

By posted at 6:00 am on April 27, 2015 27

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1. Dishwashers
I don’t have an M.F.A. I considered starting this essay, “I am a published writer, but I don’t have an M.F.A.,” but I thought that sounded more contentious, more chip-on-the-shoulderish than I actually feel about not having an M.F.A. I haven’t even ruled out the possibility of acquiring one, but at age 36, I have not earned a graduate degree.

How did this happen? This is a question I ask myself from time to time, usually when I am approaching a period of uncertainty in my writing career — or when the Internet throws the question in my face, as it tends to do, every few months. (More on that in moment.) Rarely does it come up in conversation. The only people who have ever asked me point blank are literary agents and other people’s parents. My own family has, if anything, discouraged me from going for an M.F.A. They don’t see the necessity of a graduate degree in fine arts. They are not alone in this feeling. I am often assured that “no one really needs an M.F.A.” But there are a lot of things in life that you don’t really need but which are awfully nice to have. Dishwashers, for example. Not having an M.F.A., I’ve decided, is like not having a dishwasher. Your dishes are as clean as anyone else’s, it just takes a lot longer.

When I started writing this essay, I envisioned a straightforward personal account about why I did not get an M.F.A. and what it has been like to learn to write fiction without that particular kind of institutional support. I thought I would give the reasons I avoided graduate school at different periods of my life (lack of confidence, lack of money, lack of time) and describe how I educated myself without it (night classes, writers’ residencies, and my beloved writers’ group). I thought my essay would show aspiring writers what a writing apprenticeship might look like outside of academia. And I thought that it would provide an interesting counterpoint to the narrative we so often hear, the one that seeks to professionalize creative writing by emphasizing credentials and career prospects. I also wanted to speak to the counter-narrative that aims to squash any delusions that an M.F.A. grad might have about the worth of his or her frivolous education.

It’s funny, even though I never applied to any M.F.A. programs, I want to defend them. I want them to exist in the world, and I want them to be sanctuaries of reading and writing and daydreaming. It irritates me when people try to tear down that vision with practical concerns, or by focusing on hierarchies of talent, or worst, by doing a cost-benefit analysis, as if everything can be easily broken down in terms of gain or loss. I suppose I chafe because I feel as if my life is being under-valued, my life in which I have held many jobs but have not climbed any ladders; my life in which my 20s disappeared between stints of writing bad fiction and reading great novels; my life in which I did not pay much attention to practical questions.

But as I began to look back on my 20s and early 30s — prime years for M.F.A.-seeking — I realized that my reasons were not as straightforward as I would like to believe. Beneath my sensible narrative is a deep anxiety around the very idea of getting an M.F.A.

It’s an anxiety with multiple strands. The first has to do with privilege. The second has to do with approval. And the third has to do with freedom.

2. Privilege
Every month or so, the Internet produces hand-wringing articles about the worth of creative writing degrees and/or the realistic job prospects for those seeking literary careers. Money is the measuring stick: Who gets paid to write? Who gets paid to teach? Does writing make money? Does teaching make money? Does publishing make money? Does it make enough money? Are there people who will do it for free? If there are people who will do it for free, doesn’t that devalue the work that others expect to be paid for?

I’ve been writing fiction for next to nothing for over 12 years. I’d like to say that I’m completely over the question of “What is the value of my life’s work within a capitalist framework?” But, you know, I’d also like to say that I’m over the question of “Is my body attractive according to Western beauty standards?” Some questions you can’t escape without becoming a full-time monk.

The Internet often operates as a mirror of one’s anxieties and last fall I had a novel under submission at several publishing houses. I was finding out what my fiction was worth and it was scary. I took a lot of articles personally. I got depressed just reading the subtitle of Cathy Day’s article here on The Millions, “Making Sense of Creative Writing’s Job Problem.” (Creative writing has a job problem? I always thought the thing that made creative writing so appealing was that it had nothing to do with getting a job.) The marketplace was also the frame of my colleague Nick Ripatrazone’s well-reported and sensible, “Practical Art: On Teaching The Business of Writing”. There was a warmth and calm to this essay that I admired, but I disagreed with the premise. Why teach the business of writing? Why emphasize to students something the world is going to force them to learn anyway?

Once I started reading these articles, I noticed they were everywhere. The New York Times Book Review questioned the value of M.F.A. programs by asking Can Writing Be Taught? (Consensus: yes). Over at The Atlantic, an article noted the increasing popularity of M.F.A. degrees, despite their increasing cost and poor job placement. This was characterized as “a mystery.” (Just think about that for a minute: an educational choice can be characterized as mysterious simply because it does not guarantee financial gain.) Financial journalist Felix Salmon warned young writers not to pursue careers in journalism if they hoped to have “a good chance at a well-paid middle-class lifestyle”. When a survey in the U.K. revealed that “author” is Britain’s most dreamed-of job, an author countered with a list: 14 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Dream of Becoming a Full-Time Author. (Reason number one: “The money isn’t what you think it is.”) If aspiring writers weren’t sufficiently beaten down by the prospect of their pathetic lives outside of the well-paid middle-class, there was Ryan Boudinet’s much-discussed rant: Things I Can Say About M.F.A. Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One. (Quick summary: now that Boudinet is not in the business of encouraging writers, he can discourage them with relish.)

coverThis is but a sampling of the many articles, blog posts, book reviews, and round tables that question the value of writing programs. When I first started noticing them, I wasn’t sure if there were actually an unusual number of articles on the topic or if it only seemed so because I was seeking them out. But just a couple weeks ago, The New York Times published “Why Writers Love To Hate The M.F.A.”, an article that is pegged to the M.F.A. debate:

A graduate writing degree, unsurprisingly, turns out a lot of opinionated writing. Sample manifestoes from blogs and chat rooms: “Why you should hate the creative writing establishment (…as if you needed any more reasons)” and “14 Reasons (Not) to Get an M.F.A. in Creative Writing (and Two Reasons It Might Actually Be Worth It).” In scholarly circles, the boom and its implications have been a subject of heated debate since at least 2009, with the publication of Mark McGurl’sThe Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing.” In it, Dr. McGurl, a Stanford English professor, describes the M.F.A. as the single biggest influence on American literature since World War II, noting that most serious writers since then have come out of graduate-school incubators.

The Times attempts to address both sides of the do-or-don’t debate, but leans toward don’t, ending with a quote from an aspiring novelist who is looking for a job. He is characterized as someone with “no illusions” about the feasibility of a writing career, but the article refers several times to the supposed out-sized ambitions and/or fantasies of aspiring fiction writers. Almost every article you read about M.F.A. programs will mention these delusions of grandeur, but in my experience, apprentice writers have the opposite problem. They’re an anxious bunch, with little confidence in their work. They feel that nothing they write will ever be good enough. They sit at their desks and wonder if deep down, they really are delusional. They interrogate themselves as harshly as the world does.

coverThere’s a collection of short stories by Alice Munro titled, Who Do You Think You Are? (This is actually the Canadian title; in the U.S. the book was published as The Beggar Maid because publishers were not sure that American readers would fully appreciate the shaming implied by the question.) The stories concern Rose, a gifted young woman from a small village who aspires to an intellectual, cosmopolitan life, the kind of life that is usually reserved for young men of a higher social class. It’s one of Munro’s recurring themes, and the story of Munro’s own ambition. Nobel Laureate Munro does not hold an M.F.A., in part because M.F.A. programs were not as prevalent when she was coming of age, but mainly because she was a woman from a blue-collar background. The world had no expectation for her beyond marriage and children — an expectation she obliged in her early 20s, then defied by writing while her children napped.

Who Do You Think You Are? To me, that’s the question that lurks beneath all these M.F.A. articles. So many of them remark upon the proliferation of creative graduate degrees, always noting the cost and time, the debt that so many students are likely to accrue. There is often a tone of annoyance. Who do these students think they are, racking up all that debt? Who do they think they are, taking such risks? Don’t they know their place? Don’t they know that getting an M.F.A. is a privilege?

Sometime in my mid-20s, when I was most seriously considering graduate school, I decided I wasn’t privileged enough to do it. I just didn’t see myself as someone who could afford to leave a salaried job for two or three years. Maybe it’s more honest to say that I wasn’t comfortable taking on that privilege. This is a discomfort that Elif Batuman exposed in her fiery 2010 essay, “Get A Real Degree,” which argues, among other things, that M.F.A. programs are secretly ashamed of the privilege associated with literary writing, i.e. “the anxiety that literature might not be real work.” As a result of this anxiety, writing workshops spend too much time trying “to recast writing as a workmanlike, perhaps even working-class skill, as opposed to something every no-good dilettante already knows how to do.” Batuman thinks this is ridiculous: “Pretending that literary production is a non-elite activity is both pointless and disingenuous.”

Eighty years earlier, Virginia Woolf told a room of female undergraduates basically the same thing when she said: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” In the same lecture, Woolf also described the world’s “notorious indifference” toward creative writing:

[The world] does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them. It does not care whether Flaubert finds the right word or whether Carlyle scrupulously verifies this or that fact. Naturally, it will not pay for what it does not want.

Woolf lays out the impractical nature of creative writing more sharply than any of today’s wet-blanket advice-givers. And yet she is much less cynical. By observing that what all great female writers had in common was a middle-class upbringing, she wants to liberate women, to let them know that the reason the world is full of male writers has little to do with talent or desire or willpower, and everything to do with how much time and money is accorded to them.

For a lot of writers, getting an M.F.A. is a way of getting Woolf’s room — and, if they are lucky, some money too, in the form of a scholarship or stipend. Those who don’t receive financial aid have to pay for the privilege. When I was younger, the idea of paying for the time and space to write really bothered me. I thought becoming a writer would mean more to me if I got there “on my own.” At my most cynical, I saw M.F.A. degrees as something people got to legitimize their desire to write — something to temporarily gain status, or worse, to please their worried parents. What I didn’t understand when I was younger was that there’s nothing wrong with this need for legitimacy, especially if it alleviates anxiety and allows one to write. (And we all know that people have paid a lot more and done a lot stupider things to alleviate status anxiety.) Nor did I realize how much I had internalized certain status anxieties. Mixed in with my guilt over my privilege was the question of whether or not my writing ability was even deserving of special attention; I worried people would think I was ridiculous for lavishing so much money and time on my negligible talent. I think that’s why I get so annoyed by articles (and, let’s be honest, comments on articles) that decry the value of M.F.A.s; they remind me of my inner good girl, the as-of-yet invulnerable phantom who wants every life choice to be approved of by others.

3. Approval
A big reason I never went back to school is that I worried that my good-girl impulses would take over in a school setting, and that my need for approval from teachers and peers would subsume the playful, secret, and defiant impulses that led me to write in the first place.

Like all children, I made up stories before I could read. Learning to write down the stories in my head was a revelation: they seemed real in a way that made me feel powerful. Even as I realized that writing was an approved activity in the eyes of teachers and parents, it was something I mostly did on my own time, outside of school, away from the prying eyes of grown-ups. I wrote for fun when I was child, and later I wrote to understand the world and my place in it. I have no idea when I decided I would one day try to write books, but in high school the idea was firmly in place. It just seemed like something I could do if I put my mind to it. I did not think of it as a career. I did not think of anything as a career when I was in high school. That was part of my youth and part of my privilege.

In college, I met people who thought of everything as a career. And, after college, when I moved to New York, I met people who thought of everything — even their personal lives — as a potential source of income. As much as I love the overall level of ambition of New Yorkers, the constant talk of what things are worth, in terms of marketability, is mostly stifling. For several years, I made tiny little handmade books out of old magazines and fast food wrappers and old photographs, but I stopped after a while, because whenever I showed them to people I was asked if I had ever tried to sell them and when I said no, they were just for fun — that is, a way of enjoying my creativity in the simplest, most childlike way — I was met with a confused, sometimes condescending gaze.

It bothers me that I stopped making those little books. I’m not sure why I stopped. I think I got the sense that if they didn’t make money or, barring that, fit into a “career trajectory,” they were a waste of time. And I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time. Or maybe: I didn’t want people to think I was wasting mine. That’s what I mean by my “good-girl” impulses. Bound up in these good-girl impulses, there is also a desire to be good, and to not spend my time on pointless amateur art projects when I could be helping others or, at the very least, making enough money to ensure that I will not require help from others.

Getting an M.F.A. has always felt like both a good-girl choice and a bad-girl choice. It’s the good girl choice because it imposes order, at least temporarily, on the unruly apprenticeship that every writer must complete. It’s the bad girl choice because it’s expensive and unnecessary. It’s the good-girl choice because it would have credentialed me for teaching. It’s the bad-girl choice because it wouldn’t have credentialed me for anything but teaching. It’s the good girl choice because it would have returned me to the school setting. It’s the bad girl choice because it would have taken me out of the world, away from the needs of others.

I believe every female writer has to contend with her inner good girl. Woolf called her “The Angel in the House.” She was the model of congenial femininity, an inner voice that stifled Woolf’s early days of writing:

She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it — in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others.

Woolf found the voice of the Angel so seductive that she had to permanently silence her: “Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.”

Sometimes I think that not getting an M.F.A. was my way of killing the Angel in the House. It was an easy way to rebel and, in a strange way, it gave me confidence. As much as I complained about the time my jobs took from writing, it felt good to support myself. I could feel pride in finding my own structure and routine outside of school and away from the voices of peers, who might unwittingly sound a lot like the chiding good girl within. Above all, I could write without seeking approval. For me, that was a kind of freedom.

4. Freedom
In his 2010 Paris Review interview, Jonathan Franzen was asked if he had ever considered getting M.F.A. when he was starting out:

Franzen: I got married instead to a tough reader with great taste. We had our own little round-the-clock M.F.A. program. This phase of our marriage went on for about six years, which is three times longer than the usual program. Plus, we didn’t have to deal with all the stupid responses to writing that workshops generate.

We did actually apply to some programs one year, in hopes of getting a university to support us financially, and we were both accepted at Brown. But the money Brown offered wasn’t good enough. In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t go, because it might have smoothed some kinks out of the work that were better not smoothed out. As a journalist, I’m always striving to become more professional, but as a fiction writer I’d rather remain an amateur.

Interviewer: Did you devise another kind of program for yourselves? Did you go to readings?

Franzen: No, we didn’t want to be around other writers. In some semiconscious way, we recognized that we weren’t good yet, and we needed to protect ourselves from depressing exposure to people who’d already gotten to be good.

When I first read this interview, the idea of being an “amateur” fiction writer became a touchstone for me, because I thought I knew what Franzen meant. I thought he was referring to a kind of writing that was free, unfettered by expectation or obligation, and most importantly, not tied to employment.

Rereading the interview, I am struck by Franzen’s wariness. By not getting an M.F.A., his writing retained its “kinks;” his writing was “better not smoothed out.” I think here, Franzen is alluding to the great lit-crit bogeyman, M.F.A. Fiction. We all think we know an M.F.A. Fiction when we read it. It’s elegant and distilled and very cleanly written; there’s little urgency in the narrative or the language; it doesn’t seem to come from the writer’s heart and mind, instead it’s written from ego — a desire for a career, or maybe just a desire to avoid criticism by writing something unimpeachable. They’re what one of the women in my writing group calls “polite lady novels.” They’ve been around forever except in other eras we just called them boring books and didn’t feel the need to devalue an entire generation of teachers and writers.

And yet, there is a strain of fussiness in workshops, of talking about writing as if it’s something that can only be done in a certain way with a certain precision by a certain kind of special, talented person, when in fact writing is something that everyone learns to do as a child and many can learn to do quite well. Writing is democratic. This is something I have always felt, intuitively, but I wouldn’t have thought to describe it that way until I heard Jamaica Kincaid speak at a Q&A a couple years ago. The writer Ian Frazier, one of Kincaid’s oldest friends, moderated the discussion, and he asked Kincaid to elaborate on something she’d said to him when they were teaching together:

Frazier: One evening we were sitting around talking with people and we were talking about writing and you said, “writing is not an art” and I thought, Writing is not an art? And you said, no, it’s not like painting, it’s not sculpture, it’s not architecture, it’s not music, it’s not an art. You said, “it’s deeper than that.” Can you explain that? Because I wrote that down. I thought, Writing is not an art? Part of the point was that it can’t be taught, but another point was that it was something that everybody does — that speech is something everybody does.

Kincaid: Yes, everyone can do it. There are things that people who are involved in it like to make precious. And um, exclusive. And I suppose I say things like that because someone like me is not, uh, there’s no reason, there’s no example for me to follow to be a writer and I don’t want it to be exclusive and special and I want me to always be able to participate in it.

The phrase “writing is not an art” reminded me of Franzen’s amateur ideal. Perhaps the main reason I avoided graduate school was that I was afraid of being paralyzed by self-consciousness. Like Franzen, I worried about trying to compete with people who were better writers, or just plain more sophisticated. I was afraid of feeling like I wasn’t good enough, and I was afraid that feeling would spoil the naïve pleasure I took in making up stories. In retrospect, I don’t think a couple years of workshops could have spoiled something so deeply rooted and, you know, I might have learned something, too. But I understand why I felt such self-protective instincts. Writing is the one area of my life I have always felt is my own terrain, separate from anyone’s expectations about whom I should be and what I should think.

I think a lot of people feel this way about writing, that it’s a free and open space, that anyone can do it, and that’s why the elitism of M.F.A. degrees bugs the hell out of people. For some writers, getting an M.F.A. is simply not an option, for financial reasons or because they are occupied in some other way, e.g. full-time employment or caregiving. The more standard the degree becomes, or at least, the more it is perceived as standard, something a writer needs in order to be published, the more privileged creative writing becomes. From this perspective, I can see why people are grossed out by the rapid growth of M.F.A. programs. At the same time, the M.F.A. system has the potential to be a lot more meritocratic than the publishing world, simply because anyone can apply; you don’t need an agent or an introduction. The question shouldn’t be whether or not getting an M.F.A. is a worthwhile for those privileged enough to agonize over the cost. Instead we should ask: how can we better support people who want to write?

Support isn’t only about money. (Although more academic funding would certainly help a lot of writers.) Support is about making people feel as if their voices are important, as if it’s worthwhile for them to take the time to seriously engage with literature, to add their own stories, essays, dramas, poems, and novels to the conversation that’s been going on for hundreds of years and is thus far dominated by white men.

The literary world’s overwhelming white-maleness is well known and now, thanks to VIDA, well-documented. Things are changing, but not fast enough, and whenever I read an article that attempts to give a dose of “reality” by reminding would-be writers that what they want to do is really, really hard, in addition to being financially unsustainable, I hear condescension and defensiveness. Compare the “practical” advice of your typical M.F.A.-bashing article to the guidance that Kincaid gave, off-the-cuff, at her Q&A:

I was saying to some kids the other night, that among the things I find writing is, is it’s very dangerous. Sometimes you unexpectedly might be called upon to die for it and you should be able to say this is something I must say and know that after you say it, you will lose your head. And if you don’t feel that way, then you shouldn’t do it. I really do think that. It would be better to be dead than not to be able to write what it is I want to say.

Often as a writer, a certain kind of writer, you do feel people would like you to stop it, and in a way sort of kill you for writing this difficult thing, or for saying these unpleasant things, these things they call unpleasant, but I think you must just as some point, you know, you uh — hmmm, I have to be very careful — I’m willing to have my head cut off for saying something but on the other hand I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. But yeah, uh…if that was all writing was about, well, I’d rather have just kept to the thing that I was consigned to be, which was a servant in somebody’s house, that was what I was meant to be, but I thought, this is the self that I want, the self you see before you is not the self that someone wanted me to be, it’s something that I made, and I made it happen through writing.

To me, the most significant part of this speech is the pause when Kincaid searches for words and then says, somewhat vaguely, if that’s all writing was about... There, I think the meager “all” she’s referring is not only a sense of decorum, but the sense of writing as a job in the world. If writing were just about making a living, about writing the words that will please other people and bring in a paycheck, she wouldn’t do it; it wouldn’t be enough for her. And maybe that’s what a lot of these cautionary articles mean to say: don’t try to make your living by writing. Try to make a life.

5. A Long-Winded Justification
I began this essay shortly after submitting a final draft of a novel to my agent, but then faltered because I feared it was too motivated by my fear of failure. There was also a part of me that thought that if my book didn’t sell, I would just be writing a long-winded justification of my stupid life choices.

Well, my novel did sell, but I still worry that this is just a long-winded justification of my stupid life choices. I would never recommend for anyone to live my life the way I’ve lived it and yet, the older I get, the fewer regrets I have. That’s maybe the central paradox of maturity.

There’s no one way to become a writer or to measure the success of a writer. That’s a good, even beautiful thing, but I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a situation that generates a lot of mixed feelings: uncertainty, regret, loneliness, and a whole family of selfs: self-pity, self-loathing, self-involvement, self-aggrandizement. I’m pretty sure writers are most tempted to give advice in the midst of mixed feelings.

I write to you from a place of mixed feelings, too. But I want to complicate things. Or maybe I just want to have a conversation about writing and life that exists outside the marketplace, outside whatever role the world has assigned to you. People will tell you that such a conversation is a privilege, and maybe it is, maybe you shouldn’t make any life decisions based on it. Then again, maybe you should. You’re allowed to imagine a life for yourself that has nothing to do with your finances, nothing to do with success or failure, nothing to do with what’s sensible or expected or practical or needed. It doesn’t mean you’re delusional. It’s doesn’t mean you’re spoiled or narcissistic. Writing and reading and speaking freely are the basis of any democratic society. We need more people, from a greater variety of backgrounds, to exercise that right. My one piece of advice is to ignore anyone who makes you forget that.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.





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27 Responses to “The Value of Writing Programs: On Why I Don’t Have an M.F.A.”

  1. Christine
    at 10:12 am on April 27, 2015

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Hannah. So much resonated for me here. As the child of a post WWII immigrant, I was constantly told that it made no sense to be a writer. Now that I’m a published author, there are still family members who “would like me to stop it” (thanks, Jamaica), but I’m too far gone now. What I was unprepared for was the jealousies that emerge after that book came out, even among those with no avowed interest in writing. Here’s to the Quixotic adventure of the open room of our own.

  2. priskill
    at 10:21 am on April 27, 2015

    Hands-down, the most thoughtful, sensible, and least combative piece I have read about the MFA question. I keep wanting to quote bits and pieces. How wonderful to remember Woolf and Kincaid and Franzen. Not to lambaste the academy but to consider it (as well as not-it ) beyond discussions of privilege or “class” or right or wrong, but as options, just that — options devoid of judgment, but worthy of consideration.

    Excellent piece — can’t wait to read your novel

  3. Sharpei Ideogram
    at 1:30 am on April 28, 2015

    What gets missed in all the crazy butthurt surrounding MFA programs, and more accurately people’s idea of MFA programs, is that mostly what they are is a means of funding writers for 2-4 years, nothing more or less. Writers and artists have always had to hew close to whatever means of institutional support they can find, and MFA programs are where the money is now. Why this is such a vexing idea for people, and worthy of constant thinkpieces and angry commentariats, I’m not sure, though I suspect it has something to do with the existence of a professional hierarchy in a realm most people (with no real horse in the race other than fantasies about finally getting that novel they know they can one day write published) fervently wish there was no professional hierarchy (thereby holding writing to a standard that as far as I can think of literally no other pursuit is held to). But as MFA thinkpieces go, this was an evenhanded and well-considered one, Hannah, so thanks for that.

  4. Sharpei Ideogram
    at 1:32 am on April 28, 2015

    To clarify, I’m talking about the top 30 or so MFA programs that waive tuition and provide livable stipends. All the others should die in a pit of hell.

  5. justaphotographer
    at 7:16 am on April 28, 2015

    Perfectly said Sharpei. The MFA as a form of patronage is far more meritocratic (and democratic) than the kind that comes via your parents/spouse. Writers need time and the MFA gives it to them, no less than a grant or inheritance would. What happens after that depends on the program/writer/trends but literature is not created in a socio-economic vacuum.

  6. Sharpei Ideogram
    at 10:21 am on April 28, 2015

    justa,

    Yes, exactly. I think one problem in the entire (mostly unnecessary) internet dialog regarding MFAs is that many people seem to be under the impression that the MFA is an arts degree people go into debt for. This misconception is embraced because it reinforces people’s cherished notion of MFA writers as precious, trust-funded egotists who will gladly shell out 200k to sit in a room with Junot Diaz. This is true of exactly one program (Columbia); again, all the rest of the top programs: Iowa, UM, UW, Cornell, UVA, Brown, UC Irvine, Washington STL, LSU, Florida, Oregon, and dozens more, waive tuition and provide stipends of varying sizes. The best of these are very livable, the less good may entail picking up a couple of barista shifts, but for the most part no one is taking out student loans to do this–that, in fact, is one of the main points of doing it.

  7. M Morgan
    at 11:41 am on April 28, 2015

    I agree that it doesn’t make sense to hate on MFA programs when they’re mainly paid for by the school, or when you can cover most of the costs by part-time work. Also, I wasn’t aware that the top schools offered so much coverage (aside from Columbia). I guess people would take issue with maybe many of the lesser programs which would require students to pay large costs for the degree, which has kind of the whiff of a scam – at least from where I sit, for practical purposes. But if you get paid to attend an MFA program, more power to you. It’s probably a solid way to spend your time.

  8. Benn
    at 11:57 am on April 28, 2015

    Robin Wood says: “Junot Diaz is the Return of the Jedi of MFA teachers.”

  9. il'ja
    at 2:28 pm on April 28, 2015

    Sharpei Ideogram writes:

    “…mostly what they are is a means of funding writers for 2-4 years, nothing more or less. Writers and artists have always had to hew close to whatever means of institutional support they can find, and MFA programs are where the money is now.”

    And then Sharpei Ideogram writes:

    “…many people seem to be under the impression that the MFA is an arts degree people go into debt for.”

    To which I say: “where were you, Sharpei, when I – like the author – was trying to wrap my head around this MFA debate and chewing up precious hours looking for a definitive answer to these very questions? Thanks.”

    And finally, to the author. I am encouraged by your resolve; I can only imagine the thrill (terror?) you feel with your novel finally receiving serious consideration. And while I don’t expect you to speak outside your experience, I think there had to have been a better way to say this: “The literary world’s overwhelming white-maleness is well known.”

    That kind of assertion is loaded with traps and is, ironically, exclusionary. Especially in light of other, later, encouragements you offer: “Or maybe I just want to have a conversation about writing and life that exists outside…whatever role the world has assigned to you,” and “We need more people, from a greater variety of backgrounds, to exercise that right.”

    Does she love me, or does she love me not?

    I am – personally – overwhelmingly white and male, but I ain’t in that privileged group. In fact, you’re much closer to cracking their ranks than I. Whatever role I’ve been assigned, and however microscopically represented my background is in American letters, surely I still have a voice? Despite my, you know, advantages.

  10. Sharpei Ideogram
    at 3:25 pm on April 28, 2015

    il’ja,

    Can’t tell if you’re joking, but thanks, I think!

    M Morgan,

    It’s fair to take issue with the programs that charge tuition, and even fair, imo, to take issue with the programs that waive tuition but don’t provide living expenses. Simply put, no one should go into debt to get an MFA. It can be a wonderful experience on its own terms, and in the top tier programs can sometimes provide access to agents and other lit-world mandarins, but these are not good enough reasons to justify taking out loans–after all, if you write a great book and send it out, you will probably get agent interest, and the same is true for publishing a story in a top rank litmag; neither of these require an MFA.

    While there are certainly legit reasons to dislike the MFA paradigm, the idea of people going into debt for their degree is not one of them, and it’s unfortunate that somehow Columbia’s model (expensive access to star guest profs) has become lodged in the popular imagination as what doing an MFA means, financially and otherwise.

  11. il'ja
    at 4:19 pm on April 28, 2015

    Sharpei,

    no jokes. Clear and to the point (you, not me). I’ve found the question of “but, um, how much does it cost” always ends up with these vague responses about teaching assignments, or the classic “there’s some funding available”. Do people not talk about money anymore? Sincerely, thanks.

    Your “a means of funding writers” explanation (I’m unable, apparently, to stop quoting you – perhaps I could follow you on Twitter and then simply retweet when necessary) cleared up everything for me.

    So, when you have time: is there a God, and if so, why is he ticked at me?

  12. Sharpei Ideogram
    at 4:42 pm on April 28, 2015

    il’ja,

    Thanks! Glad for an internet post of mine to be of some value, a rare occurrence. More info on this subject can be gleaned by googling “Seth Abramson MFA rankings.” Abramson is a gadfly but he’s done some admirable work in Poets and Writers Magazine making the funding for these programs more transparent. A synopsis would be that the best funded ones (e.g. Texas and Cornell) pay around a 30k a year stipend, and the other good ones range down from there, with most of the top tier ones paying somewhere between 15k and 25. Iowa actually funds kind of poorly, unequitably, and based on sketchy TA assignments and preferment, but then, it’s Iowa.

    In other words, no one’s getting rich, but you can limp by eating ramen, which is what you should be doing while suffering for your art anyway.

  13. Trevor
    at 10:18 am on April 29, 2015

    I do think that, rather than invest more into MFA programs, we should make more concerted “grassroots” efforts to support aspiring writers in nonconventional ways. In many ways, MFA programs are a form of inadvertent censorship. How many voices are we depriving our culture of by making graduate programs in writing the attainment of only the privileged few?

    I speak somewhat out of what I have observed and what I have experienced firsthand. I, myself, am thirty and have yet to be published at any level or accepted into an MFA program. Perhaps I’m not the best source.

  14. Greg
    at 2:12 pm on April 29, 2015

    A very thoughtful piece. While I believe a MFA can undoubtedly make one a better writer, Franzen’s quote about wanting to leave the “kinks” in one’s writing sans an MFA is a fascinating premise to me. I am currently struggling with the “to MFA or not to MFA” question. I am leaning heavily towards the former. Sure, an MFA may be somewhat of an elitist, non-utilitarian degree. Sadly, as federal and state funds extended to the arts continue to be cut, the MFA program might be the last bastion of hope for aspiring writers to be supported in their craft if they are lucky enough to get into a fully (or partially) funded program. While they are certainly not a guarantee of securing a book deal or teaching gig, I think MFA programs are an invaluable resource for writers.

  15. Sharpei Ideogram
    at 3:08 pm on April 29, 2015

    It’s interesting how it’s so often people who haven’t gone to MFA programs that are the experts on what MFA programs are like. I need to start writing pieces about how dumb medical school is, how it limits doctor’s thinking and so on. Also, is Franzen’s assertion that in six years of intense writing and revision with his wife, no “kinks” got ironed out? These arguments always seem so specious to me, not to mention precious, as though his little flame of (“amateur”–yeah, right) individuality would have been snuffed out by a weekly workshop.

  16. Sharpei Ideogram
    at 3:40 pm on April 29, 2015

    Trevor,

    Short of instituting something like the British dole system (does that still exist?), I don’t know how resources for artists can be allocated except on the basis of criteria that inherently privilege some artists over others, on the basis of the subjectively evaluated quality of their work. I’m not meaning to be snide here, and would be interested in what sort of grassroots support you’re thinking of.

  17. il'ja
    at 4:19 pm on April 29, 2015

    Sharpei and Trevor,

    Crowdsourcing comes to mind as a way of finding work, developing a portfolio, getting referrals, eating. Read a crowdsourced novel last year (?) called “The Wake” – a lot of fun – that found its way on to the Booker Long List. Written in a kind of manufactured-but-made-more-accessible “Old English”, I wonder if that novel gets published anywhere if not for people willing to chip in to make it so.

    But “grassroots” is – to my way of thinking – more about the old school way of doing things. You know, before libraries started closing, newspapers shutting down. A formal social structure existed that helped an aspiring writer do the unsexy stuff like becoming well-read, like getting your hands on the NYTimes 3-days-old in Podunk, Wherever, or seeing the world through PBS when it was only one of four or five channels to choose from and so got chosen more often. But now we have “information” and it’s all become pretty overwhelming. There’s some wisdom hiding here about the toxicity of too much data, which leads me to…

    …again – Sharpei, thank you; what you wrote about the “funding writers” ethos of MFA programs was hugely illuminating. The world is a hard place, and making sense out of a labyrinthine financial system of loans, grants, credits, stipends, fellowships and a bunch of other words I had to look up doesn’t make that world any friendlier. And, saints preserve us, the terminology. Some of the MFA program websites I’ve visited are so poorly organized, so unclear, and so rife with jargon that, well, no thanks; teach somebody else to write.

    And that’s the part of Trevor’s dilemma that resonates with me, if I’m reading him correctly. Should it be this intimidating for a person who’d just like to learn to write from a professional? Programs have their criteria, of course they do. One would hope that those criteria are merit-based, not political. But one is never sure, and so the appeal to the demos.

    So, Trevor: I think some of your “grassroots” answer is still there, just as it always has been: read the sentences and write the sentences. Sometimes, for some of us, that means you have to Do the Cormac: dance alone and rule the world. Sometimes, you need the lessons. Like Hannah Gersen showed us in this article, there’s no shame – real or imagined – in being the autodidact.

  18. Josef Zeko
    at 6:56 pm on April 29, 2015

    Hmm… one could also avoid the deadening same-ness factory of college, get a job at 18, learn a trade or join the military, go to sea, develop a unique worldview, suffer, starve, etc, etc, then begin writing, get good enough to write a book that an agent will read and then say, “yes, I shall print this because people will read it and I will make money, this being the goal of publishers since time immemorial,” or, failng that, self-publish the work on Amazon or one of the many freely available platforms which allow you to do that.

    Or are we talking about a lifestyle here and not art?

  19. Sharpei Ideogram
    at 10:25 pm on April 29, 2015

    il’ja,

    Thanks, nice post. And yes, the websites of some of these programs are abysmally terrible. Brings to mind Orwell’s thing about there being two reasons for saying something unclearly: either you don’t know what you’re trying to say, or you do know and don’t want to be understood.

    Josef,

    I think what you said is more or less what this article is discussing. Certainly not doing an MFA is completely valid and preferable for many/most people. Also, these things aren’t mutually exclusive–you can, and should, as a writer, live a full life making your own way in the real world; part of this life can be at some point availing yourself to the benefits of MFA funding. And I don’t understand the lifestyle vs art question. An MFA lasts for three years and usually doesn’t result in a job, so I don’t see how it could be considered a lifestyle.

  20. Sharpei Ideogram
    at 12:02 am on April 30, 2015

    Another way to put it would be to say that you’re engaging in the same kind of false dichotomy as Franzen in his quote, in which on one side there is MFA-land, a place of unserious non-reality (that somehow in these imaginings is simultaneously a place of aesthetic fascism that imperils the creative identity of any delicate flower lucky/unlucky enough to attend), and on the other side is Authentic Experience. Of course, anyone who is equipped with a few basic facts and has seriously thought about this for five minutes should be able to see the complete inanity of this characterization in either case, yet this argument, in various forms and articles surely yet to be written, persists. It seems insane for anyone interested in literature in 2015 to be against a way of writers obtaining funding and time, but then, I suppose the smaller the stakes, the larger the fight.

  21. Josef Zeko
    at 12:28 am on April 30, 2015

    NYC is the organic muffin of Cash Island dreamland
    MFA is a $25 hormone free steak at Whole Foods when the rent is not due

    MFA is a way to push back for a few years the horrible knowledge that you, like most, will be a loser, will die a loser. You will not be a big-ass famous hero, you will work at the IRS if you are lucky or at Chipoltle Grill if you are unlucky. If you are really lucky you’ll scam onto disability or run some other sort of low-rent hustle. That goes for everyone.

    After you accept this TIME IS EASY. I worked ten hours today (a non-romantic union job). I will work ten hours tomorrow. I have TIME to write this. I will shortly close this laptop, pick up a pencil and go off to write long hand, two thousand words by candle minimum before I go to sleep. TIME IS EASY AND MONEY IS AN ILLUSION WHICH MEANS NOTHING. As long as the rent is down. Artists are not owed anything by a society that they should seek to destroy. Society owes nothing to the artists who are seeking to destroy it. In fact the only thing that society OWES the writer is an legitimate attempt to destroy him/her, by which it will make them strong or else destroy them if weak. If you THINK you need three unbroken, financed years in order to get your words down then I submit you are not yet ready to create your masterpiece (I refer not to you in particular but to my younger self and assholes like him). Beautiful ideas torturously arrived at aren’t worth shit. We don’t need another generation of Modernists, we can’t even expect to have one, modernity is set, we are in its rut, we are following it out to the last squeaks of its horrible machine logic. Abjure the walled garden. Above all avoid the internet. The generation is already being born that will reject it.

    The only way that time isn’t easy is when you have a kid. If you have a kid and you’re writing, then I feel for you, and ignore my non-kid-having smart-assness. But if you’re single and childless…??

  22. M Morgan
    at 1:46 am on April 30, 2015

    You a Celine fan, Zeko? Anyway, I think for people who do get financed MFAs, you could consider it like running a long-con against a school. Room and board in return for little actual work – sort of like scamming on disability. No shame in that, make cash anyway you can in order to stay alive. But yeah, the “I don’t have the time to write” argument is, sans children, bullshit. Even working a twelve hour plus shift you can get something finished in your free time, provided you have the drive.

  23. il'ja
    at 3:59 am on April 30, 2015

    Maybe we’ve jumped the shark on this. I don’t know what that phrase means, it just seemed like the thing to say.

    Is the MFA really *only* about time? Is the idea truly, pristinely, merely another exercise in first-world indulgence and angst? To me that’s a stretch. Perhaps I’ve lost perspective living in a society whose continued existence is currently an open question, yet despite the difficulty, despite the Orwellian mindscrew I see everyday on my internet feed, I can’t allow myself the kind of categorical thinking, the kind of hermeneutic of suspicion that would call into question what is – to me – just another form of Teacher-and-Student. Your jeremiad may be absolutely justified Zeko, but man, I’m inside a social structure which is falling apart visibly, not hypothetically, and yet people here are still trying to learn, still convinced that the species will advance itself.

    That’s what the MFA is to me. It’s another chance at tapping into expertise. I’m sure, as with everything, there are better or worse options among the programs. Better or worse students. But I’m also sure that lumping every MFAer and every program into the Entitlement Soup is off base. Do SOME assume they’re bound for Magna Cum Laude Land, and that they’re entitled to it? No question. But do they all? And the fact that the experience, the selection process, and the ethos of the thing is uneven is hardly a reason to disparage the whole enterprise.

    I’ll admit – just the thought (and I know it’s a pipe dream) of sitting in a room with Marilynne Robinson and having that woman say three syllables about something I wrote makes it difficult to sleep some nights. To have her mind and soul invested in my improvement. Jesus. Does that make me needy? Should I just accept it as axiomatic that we can learn nothing from our betters? Or that just the concept of “betters” is offensive? You have your touchstone, re TIME, MONEY. Here’s mine: I’m always ready to be instructed.

    To me, this is about a teacher and a student. The rest is horseshit.

    Yes. Yes. Yes. The MFA is a rarefied atmosphere, even with the “explosion of MFA programs in America”!!!, it is still a treat. A luxury. But where I sit, 90 miles from Chernobyl, clean air is a treat some days.

    It’s not hard to smirk at the preciousness of it all sometimes, and then I go look in a mirror and I’m reminded: Ringo was a Beatle, too, and the world is better for it.

  24. Sharpei Ideogram
    at 10:26 am on April 30, 2015

    Josef,

    I mean yeah, there are lots of lazy writers out there, both in and out of MFA programs. Otherwise, you seem to be savaging this straw man of an effete, precious MFA artiste that in my experience bears little resemblance to the hardworking, serious writers I’ve met in MFaLand. The funny thing is, in these arguments–to me–if there’s a precious/effete position, it’s the one that holds its nose at people availing themselves to the best means of institutional support for their work. I get that your position is more broadly and angrily anti-institution, but that’s another argument.

    il’ja,

    You’re right, of course. I’ve focused on the funding aspect here, b/c it’s the common denominator among good programs (professors and pedagogies aside, you are receiving funding to do your work), and also misunderstood, sometimes willfully, by people with an anti-MFA bias, who think people are going into massive debt for an arts degree when the opposite is usually true.

    But yes, there are wonderful professors in most of these programs, people who really care about the craft of writing, and who love to share their expertise. There is an opportunity to forge relationships with people who can serve as lifelong mentors. For some people, it’s mostly just funding, but like everything else, it’s what you make of it. It sounds like you would really appreciate the experience–circumstances permitting, I encourage you to try it.

  25. il'ja
    at 2:08 pm on April 30, 2015

    “…circumstances permitting…”

    Well, there’s a mouthful. If you write about this somewhere, or if there’s another way to pick your brain on this topic, I’d be obliged.

    The community at the Millions has been a real boon to me; threads like this following up articles like this one are just ridiculously helpful. Well-considered and encouraging. Put a price on that.

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