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.

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