The MFA Controversy

Funny conversation snippet from last week’s happy hour:

Poetry professor (having just introduced himself and asked my name): I knew you were either a fiction student or a PhD candidate. But you don’t look like a PhD student.

Me: Uh…thanks?

Professor: Trust me, it’s a high compliment.

The creative writing MFA occupies a strange place in the academy’s strata. It may also be one of the most controversial post-graduate degrees offered in the United States.*

This is the dilemma as I understand it:

1. Getting an MFA does not increase your job prospects. In fact, the job market for MFA grads is so competitive, so narrow, that many argue you would be better off not getting the degree at all. As a terminal degree, it does qualify you to teach. However, unless you are very, very, very lucky, you will likely be teaching high school English or freshman comp.

In other words, when an MFA student gets asked that most annoying question, “What do you do with that?” s/he doesn’t have much of an answer.

It’s important to note, however, that the humanities and arts prospects for anyone with an advanced degree are pretty slim right now. Universities are tightening their belts, just like everyone else. So they’re hiring more adjunct/visiting professors. It’s cheaper. The problem of the MFA is more complicated than your average humanities post-graduate degree, though.

2. Creative Writing is not an academic discipline. It borrows from its parent field, straight-up English, but it’s an arts degree. My particular program, for example, is a studio program. I.e. There are academic requirements, but the focus of the program is primarily workshops or the generation of new creative work.

As with all of the fine arts, the pursuit of creative writing academically and professionally is arduous and discouraging. Not in the least because its value and validity are often called into question by the more “serious” academic disciplines. And arts budgets are almost always the first to be cut in an economic depression because the arts are considered luxuries or nonessentials.

3. Many, many people believe that writing cannot be taught. This includes current students and faculty members. It might include this blogger. Within this line of reasoning, the MFA is often seen as an academic rip-off of unsuspecting aspiring writers. And because the economic pay-off is nonexistent, we must ask that question again: what can you do with an MFA?

Or if we wiggle the syntax a bit: what does the MFA do for you?

I’m at the beginning of my program, so I may have a very different answer in two years, but here is my current opinion.**

1. The MFA gives you time to write. I was only away from the classroom for a year and I admit, I found working writing into my daily schedule incredibly difficult. I worked full-time and my commute added an additional 3 hours to my work day. When I got home, I was often physically and psychologically exhausted, which are not ideal conditions for creative production. (Say what you want about the myth of the suffering artist, but I’m with Virginia Woolf here: give me a room of my own.)

Many working writers have full-time jobs, simply out of necessity. Writing rarely keeps you housed and fed. But I would say especially for the developing writer (and I am), a few years away from the hustle and bustle of adulthood are invaluable for developing good writing habits and skills.

2. The MFA gives you a community of writers. I am a ridiculously lucky person in that I made lasting artistically based friendships in undergrad, but that’s a rare thing. Writing is a solitary pursuit, but having life-long readers and friends not only makes you a better writer, it keeps you sane. And those are just your classmates, your fellow alumni. We’re not even mentioning the professors who give you that extra nudge, the program directors who promote your successes and encourage you to keep trying, maybe even put in a good word for you here and there.

This is much more variable than the question of time. I picked the program I’m in specifically because it is tight-knit and unbelievably supportive. I have seen few other programs that promote their alumni as much as this one does. It might sound a little saccharine, but this is a writer’s family. Where once we had salons and writer’s groups, now we have MFA programs.

3. The MFA pushes you to be a better writer. I know there’s this elaborate myth of the “workshop story” or the “MFA novel,” and while I’ve seen some evidence that these things are in fact produced, I don’t believe they’re the product of every MFA program. After two weeks of classes, I can say unequivocally that my classmates have a wide variety of tastes and aesthetics and there has been little pressure from anyone for a workshopped writer to submit to someone else’s aesthetics, even the professor’s.

I said before that writing is a solitary pursuit. Without writing peers, there is only you and the open market. There is no one to hold you accountable for lazy prose or cliché story telling in the market. The publishing market squashes good and bad writers equally because it is a capitalist organism first and a vehicle for the good writing second.

But in a workshop, there are intelligent people whose commentary and talent inspire you to be a better writer. There are professors who demand your very best and possibly crush your soul a little. And I think this expectation, although daunting, is the most valuable part of an MFA. When you can no longer push yourself, your peers and mentors push you.

The question of course becomes, is this process worth $100,000 in student loans? Probably not. But no one gave me an assistantship. I went and found it. Because if you really want something, you don’t give up at the first obstacle. You keep trying. And I for one want this time, community, and inspiration for myself.

It goes without saying, then, that the motivations of the “MFA system” matter far less than the motivations of the individual writer. My final advice about MFA programs therefore is this: Know what you want out of the process before you apply. Don’t do it for career prospects or an “in” into the industry. You won’t get those things. You will get what you make out of it.

*Note: With the exception of Great Britain, writing MFA programs are quite rare outside of the United States.

**Note: Seth Abramson, quite the controversial fellow himself, wrote a fascinating manifesto for the MFA and its future. I’m borrowing a few of his ideas here, but his argument is well worth reading and contemplating in its entirety.


2 thoughts on “The MFA Controversy

  1. I want to know what your poetry professor means by his insinuating that its a compliment to not look like a PhD student(I can understand the long work hours, stress, and everything could reduce the physical look to a blob but I hope it’s not an insult to be a PhD student!)

    I do very much agree that working full time is really having an adverse impact on my writing. It’s a bit disappointing to realize that the only time I really focus on trying to write my novel is when I’m pushed by the QP group to make some writing progress, but most of the time we’re encouraging trying other things or testing our writing boundaries (sometimes these two are the same thing, and sometimes they’re not).

    None-the-less (free time or no free time) I will read your work and applaud your brilliance (and critique if I must) if you ever require another reader. (Just keep in mind my writing/grammar/punctuation skills aren’t quite up to the creative writing professors standards. :))

  2. LOL I don’t think it’s an insult to be a PhD student. More that they generally look haggard and subhuman. 😉

    I often write my best stuff when I’m being held accountable by someone else. If you want, we could always “assign” you a certain amount of production by the end of the year. I wouldn’t push yourself too hard until the application process is over, though.

    You four are precisely who I meant when I said “artistically based friendships” and “ridiculously lucky.”

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