Monday, June 06, 2005
Guest Post: An MFA Student Ponders His Navel and Life After the Degree
Towards the end of this month, I will complete the final requirements for my MFA in creative writing (a 45 minute lecture on the use of dual points-of-view in short fiction, focusing on the Andre Dubus story “Townies”; and a brief reading from my thesis, a 300 page novel-in-progress). On the occasion of this most momentous and horrifying milestone, our fine editor, John Holbo, has asked me to step out from behind my administrator’s mask and to pontificate for a few paragraphs. I shall endeavor not to make this Holbonically long, but I do have a few things to say as I stand with my peers at this precipice, waiting, like so many lemmings, for our chance to plunge into the icy depths of the so-called real world.
In this country, where literary reading is in dramatic decline and where first novels are “slamming up against the chain bookstore barricade right out of the gate“, it takes a certain breed of lunatic to pursue an MFA. Investing upwards of $24,000 to learn a trade which many presume you could, with just a smidgen of dedication and self-reliance, learn in the privacy of your own home, for free, would seem to require the same sort of psychosis that in the mid 1980s convinced George Lucas that executive-producing a film adaptation of Howard the Duck was a wise financial investment. (Really, George—two million for a duck suit?)
Michael Cunningham, Iowa graduate and author of The Hours, argues in a recent interview that, “not one publisher of any kind gives one shit where a writer in question got their MFA, or if they did at all.”
Why then, is the business booming? The number of MFA-conferring programs rose from 15 in 1975 to 99 in 2002. What continues to drive people, despite their better judgement, and despite the publishing industry’s apparently declining interest in MFA graduates, to programs nationwide? It’s certainly not the promise of a teaching position, not anymore. As far back as 1999, Julie Checkoway, then president of the Associated Writing Programs, was quoted as saying that there were, “more students than there are jobs.” And, in a profile of the program at the University of Arizona, published earlier this year, the news was equally grim:
Fifteen years ago, according to the Associated Writing Programs, a writer could get an MFA, publish several stories or poems, and with the promise of a first book on the horizon, he or she might find an entry level job, sometimes at a large university or a community college, and in this way start a career. Dozens of writers have done this. But this situation has changed drastically in the last ten years. Partially through the proliferation and success of so many fine MFA programs, that same entry level job now might have over a hundred applicants; many of these applicants have published one or two books. In fact, people who receive those jobs will probably have published two books. They will be in their mid- or late-thirties, usually having spent over ten years writing after receiving an MFA, being rejected, succeeding, failing. In some instances, the MFA is not enough of a degree, and the search committee is looking for someone with two books and a Ph.D.
Why do we put ourselves through it? Why not simply find a writer’s group to join and save ourselves the money? After all, if an MFA student can’t expect a teaching position upon graduation, and can’t reasonably expect to sell a few million copies of his or her first book, what can one expect? $24,000 worth of debt? Well, that isn’t really enough to sell most rational human beings. It wasn’t enough to sell me.
What did sell me on the MFA program at Lesley University, back in 2002, were two things: First, the Lesley program devoted three credits a semester, for the first three semesters, to interdisciplinary work, which would allow me to gain valuable experience which might more easily translate into food on my dining room table and money in my bank account, even if it wasn’t a teaching position; And second, the program was of the low-residency variety, which would force me to learn how to negotiate a careful balance between real life and my writing life, something an intensive on-campus program could never properly do.
The future of the MFA in creative writing is in the low-residency model. Sure, a two to three year sojourn into a world where all you do is write sounds nice. But, practically speaking, when are most writers ever going to have that much time to devote to their writing again? Upon graduation, upon reinsertion into the real world, there are going to be obstacles to overcome. There will be children to feed, dogs to walk, spouses or partners who demand, rightfully so, a weekend or two spent together in some place more relaxing and potentially more glamorous than a cluttered office. The low-residency model, which requires students to be on campus for only a small portion of each semester, forces a writer to learn how to write while also living life.
And I am willing to argue that this is what many writers are looking for in an MFA program. One of the questions most frequently asked of faculty members during our week-long residencies has been, “How do you do it?” Students want to know when writers write, how they find time, and what their techniques are for coping with distractions. I think anyone who applies to an MFA program is at least moderately confident in their talents. They don’t necessarily need to be patted on the back (though a little of that never hurts). What they really want to learn is how to keep at it. We’ve all stared in the face of despair, been mesmerized by the blinking cursor on the blank screen, and what we truly want to learn, moreso than if we’re any good, is how do you do this and stay alive?
I have had the opportunity to work with remarkable writers over the past two years (Tony Eprile, The Persistence of Memory; Michael Lowenthal, Avoidance; and Rachel Kadish, From a Sealed Room, among them), each of whom had a unique take on this question. And one can only hope that students in other programs, across this country, and throughout the world, are as lucky as I have been. After all, even though our work might gain more recognition were we dead, as seems to be the popular trend, I think I speak for most writers out there when I say I would much rather be here, alive, and continuing to work.
No need to sound cynical. I got my creative writing master’s in 1989 (at the tender age of 23), and it didn’t ruin me. The same will happen to you. Publishing is always in decline, but there’s always a demand for storytelling; you just have to figure out what kinds.
I’ve made the point elsewhere that online forums and local writing groups can be just as helpful as a formal academic program. I took workshops with a Nobel winner and a National Book award winner. Great erudite discussions. But diversity of viewpoints matter just as much as literary credentials. The degree itself doesn’t matter so much as the opportunity to have exclusive time to work on your stuff.
The degree gave me realistic expectations of what was considered “success” in the literary field. Nobody in the real world (even educated people) has a clue.
One of the problems with the “real world” is intolerance for personal creative projects. The 40 hour work week/ 2 weeks of vacation is sacred.
Part of making projects work is planning your time and money along with commitments and family obligations. Grad school can’t help with that.
The creative writing degree is wonderfully vague, and you can package it as just about anything you want. I’ve written elsewhere about it creative writing programs are not a complete waste of time and straight talk about grad school .
One of my complaints about the field is how many of the rungs on the stepladder (fellowships, residencies) have archaic eligibility criteria. NEA requirements, for example, limit applicants to those who have published books or gotten published in a certain minimum number of print publications. These criteria are utterly meaningless in this web-based world, and yet they are the only way to be eligible.
Christopher, do you think Cunningham is right? My inclination is to be very doubtful. Granted, an MFA from anywhere probably won’t open that many doors. But isn’t it still a barrier to entry? What are the chances of getting your ms before an editor or agent if you haven’t passed through a graduate program? I’ve talked to a number of young writers who have been lucky in the racket and have gotten the impression that major agents troll the big name programs looking for hot properties. Is that not happening? If it is the case, then (even as I’m sure what you say about student motivation is true) I wonder whether it’s not also the case for many MFA students that joining a program is like becoming a street level crack dealer in Steven Leavitt’s description--big risk and low initial reward for the possibility of hitting the jackpot. Of course, the jackpot in this case isn’t really financial. But I know a lot of people who would be willing to gamble significant time and money in the hope that someday they’d be the one picked up by Knopf.
The Ph.D octopus also looks something like this (oversupply of talent, parasitic training programs, a wildly unpredicatable employment market) and it’s arguable that the result has been an unfortunate combination of hyperspecialization, intellectual overinflation, and deadly caution. Of course, the arts have always been a gambler’s racket, but I wonder whether there are any comparable effects in creative writing. Career questions aside, do you think MFA programs are all to the literary good?
You forgot to mention networking. One of the best reasons to get a MFA is that you make connections. You work with published writers who have agents and if they like you, they are going to help you out. You also get to know other students, some of whom may do something, and if they like you they will help you out.
The downside to the MFA is having to sit through that many more workshops. Once a person gets somekind of a clue about how to write, I can’t imagine a more detrimental environment that the writing workshop. The jelousy, the clicks, the myriad of misguided and conflicting voices, the infulence of the teacher on your writing. It’s insane. It took me years to recover and now I never show anyone my work and I never comment on anyone else’s.
I think that creative writing would be best taught to undergraduates as a concrete skill. Emphisis should be on understanding elements such as process, voice, form, etc… There should be readings, exercises like you would get in a music class, tests. The emphisis should be on understanding all the possibilities and not on creating. Then once the student has mastered the material, they should be pushed off the edge of the pier to sink or swim on thier own.
Sean, Christopher: Cunningham is absolutely right--publishers don’t care if you’ve graduated from kindergarten. Nor should they (well, unless you’re pitching, say, a physics textbook or other advanced, specialized text whose audience will care--no agent or editor does, except for this). What matters is the quality of the work (and, to some extent, the person: can they give a good pitch, perform well at readings, do radio, write a good op-ed piece, etcetera).
As for the MFAs who come out of Iowa, Brown, Johns Hopkins, Michigan, Houston and other top programs, I think you have to remember, when thinking about their (and is it only seemingly?) higher success rate, is that they’re already self-selected as the most-talented/hardest-working young writers. While they may get a leg up from their advisers, it’s not “Foetry-conspiracy” quality gimme help, but because that advisory aid is lent in generosity to someone whom they admire. Even very good, established writers have reputations to uphold (not least with their editors and agents), and they’re not likely to piss it away on hacks (even if they had the time or inclination to do so--which they don’t). If you guesstimate that the top 10 writing programs graduate 10-15 students each in fiction every year, that makes 100 to 150 newly minted blue-chip MFAs: there aren’t nearly that many blue-chip debuts in a given year… I can’t say for sure, but as a regular book reviewer who sees the thousands of books that come in to my newspaper for review, my guess is that the number of debuts worth paying attention to in a given year is in the low dozens (if not lower), and among those a small fraction are God-kissed MFA-ers. And when selecting for review, I have to choose between those and the newest books by Roth, Murakami, Vollmann, etcetera. A tough racket (for everyone involved)!
Which is to say: while getting an MFA has a certain amount of intrinsic value, it has a more modest instrumental value--and I would severely discount its role in making a career out of writing. A lot of writers (even steller contemporaries, like Lethem) don’t have any degree at all and if I learned one thing from my institutional writing experience (U of MN MFA seminars; multiple Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference scholarships), it’s that a lot of talent fades away pretty fast and while there are a few people who have the “shine,” even among those it’s only the ones willing to stay focused and work hard for a few (or even many!) years who “make it.”
So, congrats on that MFA (and hey, it’s cheaper than a car, the books in your library, not half the down payment you’ll eventually make on your house, etcetera) and remember: it can take a long time to find your voice--just don’t let stupid fantasies, egregious assholes, mindless cubicle drudgery or any other of the thousands of distractions take you away from the marathon challenge of finding a way to make your voice work over the sustained distances it takes to put it into a book--and get it published.
Joel, I’ve been meaning to thank you for that excellent post. Completely see your point--especially about the interest mentors must take in the talent of mentees. Nice. But if mentoring is important at all (is it possible to self-select as a talented, industrious writer?), an MFA still probably is more than a trivial factor in a writer’s career, no? Are there really a lot of writers who don’t have the degree at all? It’s surprises me to hear that, but I’m delighted to think it’s true.
I don’t want to overstate the case (or even make one) against getting an MFA--it certainly helps. And, really, it’s not that expensive, in the scheme of things. Only to say, with respect to a career as a writer--that is, someone who can successfully publish three, four, five or more books over a decade or two--it’s not that instrumental.
Publishers and the public who buy novels (or popular history or political polemics) don’t care--and really, before, say, the mid-1940s or even the 60s (a good history, and overview of larger questions around this post is available at AWP site), an MFA in writing didn’t exist or was so rare as to not matter. Neither Conrad nor London, Hemingway nor Fitzgerald had degrees… Faulkner didn’t even graduate from high school. Bellow taught at prestigious universities before he was famous, with only a B.A. (he was at Minnesota in the reign of Beach--back when its English Dept. was one of the greats). And yes, it’s still possible today to publish (even with distinction) without a B.A., and certainly many, many contemporary writers have only a B.A. Which is to say, while an MFA won’t hurt, in the scheme of what it takes to make it as a writer, it doesn’t matter much… because it takes so much more. And it’s what’s in that gap that makes all the difference (or makes the educational difference quite small).
The analogy I would make (sorry if it’s lame) is to the NBA. There are easily more players in the NBA than there are “successful” writers (where “successful” is denoted by the attainment of the multi-book career I stated earlier). To continue, to make it to the NBA, it probably helps to have played NCAA Division I ball… a few players will have played less prestigiously (Devean George played Division III at tiny Augsburg College here in Minneapolis)--but the stars can and will have come from anywhere: and have the talent such that it wouldn’t have mattered where or whether they went to college. Now, some players (like the three Gophers who declared early in recent years--argggh!) would have done a lot better if they’d stayed in school before declaring for the draft--but they weren’t ever going to be superstars anyway. I think the analogy holds for writing…
And this is the crux of the matter: it’s almost impossible to make a living as a writer. To be a star, well… it’s just as hard as becoming the NBA MVP or winning an Oscar (and only exceeded by, say, the Fields Medal). But you can make a damned good living teaching at even a small university. If you add in benefits, agents’ cuts, self-employment tax, etcetera, even a headline-making advance of, say, $500K is only worth about five or six years’ salary as an associate professor (not to mention tech writer [Vonnegut, Pynchon, Edward Jones] or real estate agent [Ford, McGuane]). And if you want to be a professor, while it’s true that nowadays you may well need an additional PhD and one, if not two, books to get a job--if you don’t have at least an MFA, you’re not going to be one of the several thousands of professors teaching in our MFA programs… no matter how many books you write or how successfully (even, I suspect, if you’ve won the Pulitzer or National Book Award).
So, to recast the question of instrumentality: if your goal is to become a professor in an MFA program, then the instrumentality is so strong as to be a sine qua non & the MFA is a good goal(as long as you know that even here, the odds are as long as they are with a PhD in any other discipline, that it’s the same journey to the periphery & not all get on for the ride at that). But if you want to become a great writer, well… you should be clear-headed enough about your own talent & drive & the world to know that what will really matter (and that nothing else will) is whether you can write the book. And then the next one. And so on…
I think it’s this bifurcation that trips a lot of people up (as well as the wild uncertainty of the “great writer” path) when talking/thinking about (and, especially, <em>criticizing</em>) MFA programs. It’s as absurd to think that getting a PhD at Harvard will make you into Wittgenstein (or even Kripke, who only holds a BA) or that playing Division I ball on a Final Four team will get you the NBA MVP as it is to say, “An MFA will help me be a great writer.” But it will probably make you a better writer than you already are… and if you want anything else to fall back on when that National Book Award winning manuscript continues to not write itself year after year after year… well, you’ve not only got the intrinsic value (and there are many, not least the singular achievement of the degree itself), but you may just have something to parlay into a living absent the crazy success you dreamed about when you first put down Pynchon or Joyce or Bellow and said, “Fuckin’ A--I want to be that guy!” And if, for whatever reason, you <em>don’t</em> have an MFA--well, if you’re still buzzing between the ears when you’re done reading that lightening strike book… there’s no reason your lack of an MFA should prevent you from attempting your own genius.