Thursday, January 04, 2007

Why Not an MFA?

The way I see it, MFA programs have a few important things to offer. Mainly, these are:
  1. Structured time
  2. Motivation
  3. Community
  4. Mentorship
  5. A degree
Before I started AWY, I debated doing an MFA program instead. Taking classes, working with practicing writers, and making new, like-minded friends were all powerfully appealing, as was, frankly, the idea of having a socially acceptable reason to write while not being otherwise gainfully employed for a couple of years. Because I'm not immediately interested in teaching, the degree itself held only limited allure.

As I thought more about what I really wanted, it gradually became clear that these benefits were outweighed by other factors and concerns, including the following:
  • Overall, I'm a little suspicious about how large a role academia currently plays in literature. I believe part of the writer's role is to question and comment on the established ideas and institutions of his or her time, and I think that's difficult to do from an institutionalized context (however benevolent that institution may be). Moreover, I'm interested in writing that appeals to a wide spectrum of readers, and I worry that many MFA programs unintentionally promote a type of writing that is accessible only to a specialist audience.
  • If I were to do an MFA program, I would want to enroll in a good one and study with someone I really respect. For me, that would necessitate leaving Chicago (an expensive and hugely disruptive proposition, at this point) or doing a low-residency program like Warren Wilson's... but if I did a low residency program, many of the major pluses of an MFA program (face-to-face workshops, interaction with like-minded colleagues, etc.) would be effectively negated.
  • Low-residency or not, most MFA programs are expensive. Except for a handful with particularly storied programs, most universities like MFAs primarily because they are cash cows.
  • I'm uncertain about the actual value of an MFA degree; I now have several friends who have completed MFAs, but (as far as I can tell) the degree hasn't gotten them much further along than they already were. I think they would all say they loved the experience and that it shaped them in important ways, but I would question whether they couldn't have achieved similar results by pursuing writing on their own, outside of the program structure.
  • I don't feel compelled to teach writing at the college level, at this point. I could imagine doing a full-time MFA program only to emerge from it looking for exactly the same type of job I currently have (which uses my writing skills, pays reasonably well, and allows me to work from home).
  • Although the MFA has emerged as a kind of credential for writers, that obviously wasn't always the case. To learn about writing, you read a lot of books. If you wanted to write a book, you went out and wrote one. If you were lucky you had another writer or two to correspond with about it. Of the writers I admire most, very few have MFAs.
  • I've already published a couple of poems and seem to be doing all right on my own, in terms of improving my fundamental skills. More than anything else, the chief obstacle to pushing my writing further is having enough time to dedicate to it.
So, it seemed to me that my options were (1) to spend a lot of money on an MFA degree of questionable value or (2) to invest that money in myself (by allowing myself to take time off of work) and try to go it alone for a while. Given the factors I've described above, the choice seemed obvious -- the worst that could happen is that, after a year, I'd decide I needed an MFA after all, but at least by then I would presumably have a lot of material (and hopefully a few more publications) to support my application.


Pete said...

There's a terrific interview with Aleksandar Hemon in the latest Another Chicago Magazine (I'd try linking, but their website appears to be kaput) in which he disparages the MFA workshop approach as teaching writers to play it safe and avoid mistakes, thus leading to technically competent but dead prose, when they should instead be making plenty of mistakes while experimenting with language.

Interestingly, he also says that writers shouldn't necessarily write every day, but definitely should read every day.

Lizzy said...

Glad to see that there are people considering alternatives to the MFA, as I am. The MFA would offer time and community, plus other benefits you listed. But there are days when I look at the entrepreneurial side of the academic writing community and wonder how anyone is getting any writing done. So many cash-hungry workshops touting the hippest best-selling new authors as instructors... It can't be good. I hear more talk of networking thatn I do of literature.

Anonymous said...

I should have read your post before I took my MFA, but you posted this entry just last January and I started my MFA in 2005.:D I've been studying for three years now but I haven't been published on a literary journal yet. I do aim to be published but I feel I am not ready. Which is both frustrating and embarassing.

I'll be keeping tabs on your blogs; good luck and I hope you have huge success with your plans.

Happy Little Atom said...

I love this post! I basically did the same thing last year and finished my novel. It took me two years to write it (and revise it) and then I went to a writer's conference. Now I'm writing queries and sending the manuscript out while also polishing short stories for publication and writing another novel.

I'll have to go to something more recent and see how you did! I'm thinking an MFA this year, but I want to see if I can get an agent, first. Cross fingers.

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viagra online said...

It's good to see people who considerer another options, not the one's who take the first one... even without thinking about it.
Thank you for the information, was very useful for my friend who It's next to me.

Good luck.

Fire Detection said...

I love arts, ha ha iwould take MFA, i don't know why, but i think is interesting, and you can meet new people. and also you can write something good like this post

Nichols said...

I don't know what to think of the MFA situation. Most of the work seems out of touch with most Americans. I have a B.A. and have considered trying for an MFA as long as I get a teaching assistantship and don't have to pay. Workshops online or in your hometown help you interact with other writers. You might consider adding one or two of those to supplement the reading and (of course) writing you will do. Gwendolyn Brooks never went beyond community college, and look at her work!

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