Today marks a special stop on my blog tour. Richard Thomas and I have it out a new installment of his dueling columns series which essentially pits two writers against one another to voice their individuals takes on a hot-button issue of the day. Our issue: to MFA or not to MFA. I’ve posted both of our write-ups below, which can also be seen at Richard Thomas’ site.
Click here to read the guest post. Also, don’t forget that if you comment on all guest blog posts, you will get free stuff.
FOR MFA PROGRAMS – Richard
As Caleb mentioned in his column, if you want to teach at the university level, then you must get an MFA. And at many fine universities, you may need a PhD these days as well. In addition to that, most schools want you to have at least one published novel or short story collection (the bigger and better the press, the greater the recognition) as well as many stories published in the best journals and magazines in the country, and some teaching experience as well. But we’re not talking about that today, we’re talking about everything else that comes with your MFA experience and why you should spend the time, money, and effort to get an MFA. Here’s what I think about it all.
Forced Reading and Analysis
I know it seems like a horrible thing to say, but if you have deadlines, and if you’re spending money on something, you will most likely pay attention and work hard at it. If you have to turn in a short story, an annotation (based on a novel or collection that you had to read first, of course) by the end of each month, you are going to do it. I certainly do write stories on my own, and without deadlines, but I can honestly say that having a word count, a book (or two) to read each month, it kept me producing. My low-res MFA program down at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky (where I’m just finishing up my studies) really pushed me—to write, to read and to analyze. I doubt I would have done this on my own. Maybe I would have, but the forced requirements left me no room to play around. And since I did pay for my MFA, no grants, scholarships or other aid, I took it seriously.
Working Outside of Your Comfort Zone
I can honestly say that there are many authors that I definitely would not have read if it wasn’t for my MFA program. While we did have the ability to pick our books to read over the course of each semester (7-11 titles), some of what my professors asked me to read were not up for discussion: the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, The New Yorker, and the Best American Short Stories anthology series. I read a wide range of authors that really helped me to see what the literary landscape is like today, as well as in the past hundred years or so. For our fiction genre lectures as well, we read Poe, Murakami, McCarthy, and many other authors that I either didn’t know very well, had read some of their work, or were totally new to me. Since my undergraduate studies at Bradley University were in Advertising/Communication, I was lacking in my literary studies. Between the work I found on my own (Holly Goddard Jones, Mary Gaitskill, Flannery O’Connor, Ron Rash), the work that was assigned, and the authors that I already loved, and decided to re-read or dig into deeper, the scope of my reading and analysis was much wider than I would have assigned to myself on the outside, in the real world. That’s something to consider.
Mentors, Professors and Peers
I studied under Lynn Pruett my first semester and she really helped me to hone in on the authors I already enjoyed and to write the first half of my second neo-noir novel (Disintegration) which I’m shopping now. But it was studying under Dale Ray Phillips(nominated for a Pulitzer Prize) that I really pushed myself. Or maybe I should say—was pushed. DRP got me away from the crutches and tricks that I used in my genre writing, where I often leaned heavily on sex and violence and the occasional twist ending, exploring fantasy, horror, crime, neo-noir, you name it. He wanted straight literary stories where nobody died at the end. What was his big line to me? Leave the slow reveal to the strippers. It was hard—really hard. I had to focus on the story, and the classic structure of a story, find my narrative hook, explore the conflicts in the lives of my characters, and bring it to a satisfying end. Above and beyond these two professors, I talked to many talented authors, teachers, and guest authors, who really enlightened me on so many subjects, as well as a gifted group of fellow fiction writers, poets, and essayists.
I was talking to some author friends at a recent residency I was awarded (Writers in the Heartland) and I mentioned to the poet that I was constantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the guest poets at MSU. The same goes for a lot of the non-fiction authors. I was always surprised at how talented all of the guests were, from fiction writer Richard Bausch making me cry with his emotional truths, and essayist Heather Sellers making me laugh with her stories of facial blindness, to poets Linda Bierds and Alice Friman showing me the power of poetry, and journalist Nick Reding exploring the haunting world of crystal meth and addiction. The readings blew me away and the craft lectures were always enlightening and educational.
Do you need an MFA to write? No, you do not. You are certainly, if you are driven enough, capable of reading extensively, publishing widely, and studying on your own. But if you want to work with published authors in an environment with your peers, and get that extra push you may need to read, write and publish, then an MFA is a great place to study and create. I really enjoyed my time at MSU, and this program is still a relatively unknown and emerging program. If you can get into a top program, and get some financial aid, and especially if you are still unencumbered by a wife or husband and a household full of children, then I can’t think of a better way to massage your voice and grow as an author.
AGAINST MFA PROGRAMS – Caleb
First, a bit of context. Richard has an undergrad degree in Advertising and Communications with a minor in Psychology. He is currently pursuing an MFA. I have an undergrad degree in English Lit with a minor in creative writing. I am not currently pursuing an MFA. Why is this important? To show that I am coming at this question of education with a different educational history than Richard. Furthermore, as far as I am aware, Richard’s goal is to teach creative writing at a college level. An MFA is a requirement to do so. I do not want to teach. So I must argue this as though he and I are both looking at the MFA as a way to develop one’s creative writing abilities, not as a way to ensure a career in academia. If you want to be a professor, you can stop reading now; there really is no pro vs con debate.
So, with all of those qualifiers out of the way, let’s get into the meat of the duel.
At its core, an MFA program is an extension of the traditional 4-year undergrad program, and in being so carries financial and structure burdens similar to that of an undergrad program. What we are looking at then is cost. Basically, the cost of an MFA includes two things: connections and time. You’ll meet many famous writers and you’ll be forced to write. Both of these things are necessary for a serious writer. But, neither of these things is the sole intellectual property of the MFA program. For any serious writer, MFA or no, connections and productivity are things that will come as a result of dedication. Using my experience as an example (a sample size of one, I know, dangerous), within the first two years of post-undergrad life (2005-2007), I completed three novel-length manuscripts (two of which are to be published in 2011), became an editor at Outsider Writers Collective (where I’ve interacted with some of the best independent writers around), contributed book reviews to a variety of online zines, participated in Write Club (which surpassed my undergrad workshops in many ways, but not all ways), and met Richard Thomas (which ultimately led to my book being published by Otherworld Publications). Roxanne Gay, in a blog post at HTML Giant about this very topic of MFA, sums up my opinion nicely: “I do believe one should never pay for graduate school but that a graduate education is awesome.”
I feel any higher education in the liberal arts should focus as much on the how tos as thewhys. From what I know of MFAs, there is a large why focus, specifically in regards to pedagogy, which is great. A good writer can write. A great writer can think. But again, if you have the passion to be a great writer, you’ll seek out the whys on your own. Does this mean an MFA is essentially a writing desk with a $30,000 gun to your head? Yeah.
I don’t believe that the MFA program offers anything in terms of learning how to tell a story that an adequate undergrad program can’t offer. Continuing with my personal experience as an example, it may be that my undergrad experience was so great that I gained what I would consider the equivalent of an MFA (in terms of education, not in terms of papered credentials). My professor, Amy Sage Webb, continues to be one of my strongest supporters, and without her I may very well have moved right into an MFA program after undergrad. Though ironically enough Amy pushed me almost daily to pursue graduate school; perhaps in a strange Socratic way. What I learned as an undergrad, when weighing the pros/cons of grad school, is what Lincoln Michel, Master of Fine Arts and co-editor of Gigantic Magazine says in his reaction piece to Elif Batuman’s anti-MFA review “bookreview”: “Studying and critiquing an art form isn’t the same as practicing it.” MFA programs train students to study and critique writing. The craft itself can be learned elsewhere. Sure, there’s a thesis/novel to be written during a two-year program, but any writer worth his own cramped knuckles will produce a manuscript in two years.
I have to end by admitting that this opinion isn’t one I intend to keep, unchanged, for the rest of my life. I may want to teach one day. In fact, I’d be surprised if I didn’t attempt to teach someday. At that time, I’ll be in line for my MFA. But professorial aspirations aside, MFA’s just aren’t worth the time and financial investment.
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About Caleb J. Ross
Caleb began writing his sophomore year of undergrad study when, tired of the formal art education then being taught, he abandoned the pursuit in the middle of a compositional drawing class. Major-less and fearful of losing his financial aid, he signed up to seek a degree in English Literature for no other reason than his lengthy history with the language. Coincidentally, this decision not only introduced him to writing but to reading as well. Prior this transition he had read three books. One of which he understood.