Stupid Conversations About MFA Programs

I waited so long to have a blog that it turns out I actually have a lot to say about MFA programs, so I’ve divided this into two posts: one about the legitimate conversations we might be having about MFA programs and what they can and can’t do, and one about the stupid conversations that get in the way.  This post got longer than I intended, so part two, Smart Conversations about MFA programs, will probably go up tomorrow.

A lot of complaints about MFA programs start with the assertion that writers should be “living,” instead of going to school.  Understandably, writers with MFAs tend to get defensive when the conversation is opened this way. Most people, I would venture, tend to get defensive when the conversation opens with “how do you feel about the fact that you’re not a real human being?” If going to graduate school was supposed to provide me with some kind of injunction against “real life,” against emergency phone calls from friends and family, physical and financial threats and challenges faced by people I love, money worries, racism, heartbreak, and the uncertainty of living in a world that seems constantly on the brink of large scale disaster, then the Iowa Writers’ Workshop has some serious explaining to do, because I never got my exemption paperwork.  I know a number of people who got married, divorced, or had kids during their MFA programs, I guess they’ll be disappointed to find out that these weren’t “real,” life events from which they learned things or by which they were changed. A number of people in MFA programs have full time jobs while they attend; it’s too bad the fact of their being in graduate school negates whatever else they are doing in the world.  

Certainly, there are a handful of shallow, petty people in MFA programs, and people who can’t see outside of their own experience or empathize with people unlike them. That’s because there are handfuls of shallow, petty, narcissistic people in the world, 22 year olds and 40 year olds and 80 year olds, writers and doctors and homemakers. If you are 22 years old and it has never occurred to you that most of the world lives and thinks differently than you do, the problem is probably not your MFA program. In any case, it’s not like the alternative to an MFA is  going to be forced humanity training that will make you a different and better human being.

In college when I told someone I was attending an MFA program, she looked confused and said “If you want to be a writer, why don’t you just travel for a few years?” I had, at that point eleven dollars in my bank account. The farthest I could have gotten from campus was New Jersey. In all honesty, though I got much more out of it than money, money was probably the biggest factor in my initial decision to get the degree. I knew I didn’t have a publishable book yet (I had no idea how far from publishable what I had was, but luckily workshop broke it to me gently), and my alternatives were not “travel and write” or “MFA and write,” they were “get a full time job and hope you still have time to write,” “go to some other kind of graduate school and hope you still have time to write,” or “go get paid to do nothing but write for two years, and walk away with a potentially useful credential.” Unromantic, I know. But the notion that our art can and should be completely separate from our need to sustain ourselves is a bourgeois notion. It’s a directive that only people who don’t need to worry about how their rent will be paid should be artists. It’s also a fundamentally sexist notion: our romantic ideal of the traveling artist for whom the world is a training ground almost always centers on a male artist who can pick up and go as he pleases.  In a culture where women, as mothers and daughters, often bear the primary cultural responsibility for taking care of other people, that model is not any more universal than the MFA model. Women are less likely to be able to pick up and spend a few years wandering, without social pressure or responsibility to take care of someone other than themselves, and even women without these kinds of family or romantic pressures have to contend with the reality that rolling up in strange cities and drinking yourself silly in the interest of your art has different consequences for women than it does for men. Again, an MFA program can’t promise anyone safety. It can, though, provide a bare minimum of security, and a space in one’s life where the work can be self-sustaining.

That’s not to say that the function of an MFA workshop is to serve as an extension of the marketplace. In fact, it’s often a way to take some of those pressures off of the writer. Post workshop, if you are freelancing, everything you write has a direct relationship to your bank account. If you have an academic job, you need to contend with a publishing clock that may or may not line up with your academic clock, and worry that your must please both a commercial audience and the people who will vote on whether or not you get to keep your job.  In workshop, either you are being paid to attend the MFA program, or the program already has your money, and while in the aggregate your workshop material may affect your future funding or lack thereof, in the actual space of workshop there’s no immediate practical risk or reward attached to what you write. At its best, workshop is a space to encourage risk, because the consequences of failure are comparatively minimal. In the publishing world, there are writers whose careers never fully recover from a bad or badly received first book (yeah, I knocked on wood, or whatever IKEA coffee tables are made of, when I wrote that.) In the workshop world, almost everyone has turned in one piece of embarrassingly sloppy work (to the point that stealing your own MFA thesis is apparently a fairly popular activity), and lived another day. Workshop is the only place that I ever got editorial advice to make a thirty page short story longer, when until recently, novella was something of a dirty word in publishing. (As it turned out, the final version of that story was 17 pages, but I needed all 40 pages there before I could see what to cut.)

There are lots of ways we might talk about what workshops need to do better, or stop doing. There are very important ways that we need to talk about how to make sure that writing spaces continue to exist outside of the MFA model, which certainly has its limitations, and very real ways in which we need to talk about the challenges of an industry that, in both academic and publishing contexts, runs to some degree on connections, which although rarely put to deliberately nefarious use, exclude a lot of people who are disconnected. Most of the MFA students and instructors I know would be glad to have these conversations, if they’re not already having them, but they probably won’t talk to you if you start out by calling them frauds.

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