Monday, December 31, 2007

Who Needs an MFA?

I have an MFA, and I enjoyed almost every single second of getting one. Yes, even living on $600 a month and teaching freshman comp. I loved that. Beans and rice was, and is, my favorite meal.

That said: an MFA ain't worth the paper it's printed on. (And it's not much paper, either: of my high school, college, and MFA degrees, I think the MFA is the smallest, like 4 by 5 inches, as it should be. The high school one is the largest, and God knows I earned that one.)

When I was an undergraduate, my teachers told me, "Whatever you do, do NOT go into debt for an MFA!" More sage advice has never been given. All you potential people who might want an MFA: do not go into debt. It's not worth it. Only get one if they pay you to go.

If anyone really claims that the possession of such a silly degree means that a person is in some way a better writer than anyone else, well, they're lying, deluded, or working for a university with a brand new MFA program. All an MFA means is that someone in a writing program somewhere liked your submission enough to let you in, and that you cranked out enough stuff to stay in. That's all.

Most writers show up at writing programs already knowing how to write. That's how they got in. And once they get there, they're totally resistant to being taught anything. Ask most writing teachers and they'll tell you that undergraduates are MUCH more fun to teach, because they're open to learning a thing or two and trying new stuff. Not so true with the graduate students.

So why are they there? Many reasons, but "learning to write" is rarely up there. They want the two years of concentrated writing time (a dream come true for me, really), they want to reorient their lives toward writing, they want the teaching experience so they can become college teachers one day.

But CAN you learn to write in an MFA program, if you want to? Of course! You can also learn to write in a community college, or by reading Orwell during breaks from your job at the tomato-packing plant, or just by writing a shit-load and giving it to your best friend to read. There are as many different ways of becoming a writer as you can think of. All are legitimate. No one is born knowing how to write.

If a writer with an MFA has an easier time getting published than one without, it has little to do with the degree or the school and EVERYTHING to do with the people she or he meets there. Editors and agents are much more open to reading stuff that comes with a personal recommendation. They don't, and can't, give every submission the full, impartial attention it might deserve. This sucks. It really, really does. If I were to change ONE thing about publishing, I would wave my wand and allow agents and editors to see every single piece of writing with a fresh, energetic and unbiased eye.

That said, the "connections" that one might get with an MFA are usually not much more than a name and an address. The connections are a way to get out of the slush pile. But there are lots of ways to get out of the slush pile. Going to conferences is another way. Entering contests, publishing in small mags, and meeting other writers are all other ways that are every bit as effective. Sleeping with a published writer works really well!! Take it from me!!

I'm kidding!!

Also, and maybe this doesn't need to be said, but I don't think you have to be from a privileged background in any way to get into an MFA program. No one on the admissions committee cares if you went to Fredonia Central High or if you went to Miss Emily's Country Day. All they are about is if they like your stuff. And that's a complete and total crap shoot.


TIV: the individual voice said...

Well that was certainly honest. It's still my impression, however, that you had at least one very kind and helpful instructor who made a difference in your life. I had a writing teacher like that in an evening program at NYU back in the 1970's. That was my first and last great writing teacher. The graduate MFA program I attempted was such a terrible waste of money I would have been better off donating the cash to Al Quaida. (Only kidding).

rmellis said...

Actually, TIV, I'll tell ya. My very best and most influential teachers -- Stuart Friebert and Diane Vreuls -- were at my undergraduate school, Oberlin.

While I liked my MFA teachers a lot, I learned more from the other students. Our teachers were pretty hands-off, which we appreciated. One exception: Ann Patchett, who was at UM for half a semester. She kicked our butts. My hair still stands on end when I remember what she said about my run-on sentences. She remained a good friend and contact afterward, though.

jrlennon said...

Ann was brutal. Best teacher I ever had.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I'm in a great MFA program right now, and the only thing I would disagree (sort of) about is the idea of people coming to an MFA program to learn to write. A number of people in my program want to do just that, but I don't think they have the best approach. What I mean is that it can be counterproductive to expect an MFA program to teach you to write the same way a math class teaches you calculus (and there are people who want just that). Many people just want to know the "right" answer, how to "fix" their stories. I think this is actually a dangerous attitude. Sure these people are more open to what the profs have to say, but it doesn't seem like they're actually learning if they're looking at writing this way, because this is not a hard science; there are no right answers. You just have to listen to what everyone says and know how to filter out the advice that doesn't apply, the advice that doesn't ring true with you. And at least 90% of what people say in workshops, I've found, can be dismissed (not because the people giving this advice are dumb or misguided but because in critiquing a story, we all try, consciously or not, to make that story our own ["how would I write this?"] and that usually doesn't resonate with the author). The hardest part about being workshopped is being able to filter out what doesn't apply. Even if that advice comes from a Pulitzer Prize-winning prof. This is why I wouldn't say I'm here to "learn to write" so much as just write. Of course I'm open to anything anyone has to say, but I also understand that this is not a science and the best thing I can do for my writing is to know what advice I can dismiss. When people don't know what to dismiss, they end up writing a story that is no longer their own. Anyway, enough of this post -- it's way too long; I'm being redundant. Speaking of writing teachers, Gordon Lish needs to take a red pen to this over-long post of mine.

5 Red Pandas said...


The reason I got the impression that lit journals care whether you have an MFA is because about two years ago my friend (the workshop partner) and I went to listen to some editors speak about the submission process. This meeting was held at the Asian American Writer's Workshop in NYC.

Anyway, at this meeting, there was an editor from the New Yorker, an editor from the Paris Review, Open City and One Story. They all talked about how they choose stories, but most admitted that they rarely take unsolicited and un-agented stories. Then they tried to backtrack and said that they LOVE it when they find something in the slush pile, but rarely do. They also admitted to sometimes just chucking the entire slush pile, unread, to clear the decks. Granted, I wouldn't want to be in their position, so I can understand all that, but to writers without connections, that can be hard to listen to. THEN a few of them said that while they don't think MFA's necessarily make for better writers, they like to see that someone has an MFA because it makes them feel that the writer is serious and dedicated. So, that's where I got the idea that MFAs were important to editors because these four editors said that an MFA meant something to them. Possibly this was colored by the fact that almost every one of them had an MFA from somewhere.

They also told the people in the audience that they should totally name drop, and include the fact that you have an MFA in your cover letter. So, I don't know about all the other journals out there, or maybe times have changed, but I got the impression that these 4 heavy hitters certainly care about your credentials.

I'm still curious to know what lit mags other writers think are good places to submit to. I'm always looking to add to my list of places I have in mind when submitting.

At this point I am genuinely not hung up on the MFA thing because I know I made the right decision to go for the MLS instead of finding an MFA program. I like the idea of having a day job I actually like, and having the summer off. Pretty sweet! I feel like I came up with a good solution for the writer-who-needs-a-day-job conundrum.

rmellis said...

Pandas -- That panel sounds totally excruciating. I'll tell you how I found magazines to submit to: I looked in the back of Best American Short Stories. Another good resource is the CLMP guide, though I can't remember what that stands for.

The chances of a new writer (or even an old writer) being published in any of the mags you mentioned is pretty small, anyway. I still think they were talking out their asses, though. I still read sometimes for lit mags and contests and I know that the people I do it with, and I, push the cover letter aside as quickly as possible. Don't look! They're always embarrassing!

It's easier, actually, to get a novel published than to appear in a magazine that pays anything. Really!

ed said...

I wouldn't trade my MFA experience for anything, unless you have something really good to trade. I went too young, abused the privilege having so much time to write, listened either too much or not enough to my teachers, drank too much beer, and made no preparation for the future. But the friends I earned there, and our general sense of a shared commitment to the labor of writing among nine or ten of us, have kept me writing through the dark and boring moments.

I advise my high school students, who are all very serious about writing in one way or another, to keep taking workshops in undergrad, but only to major in english if they're attracted to the scholarship of it, not just the writing.

Freedom's the issue, and debt & bad jobs will stop some people from writing much. Wealth and comfort will stop some other people. The MFA/teaching path is very conservatizing for some people--whole okay careers of acceptable poetry and fiction are built on it. But it's not the bravest way.

On the other hand the braver ways seem to lead to even worse writing than the safe path. I suppose good writers find a way.

Much of the argument about MFA programs seems misplaced. Publishing, and reading, are where things have gone wrong.

rmellis said...

Yes, Ed, I didn't even mention the friends part, which was the best. About half of us married each other. It was craziness, and I can't think it was typical, but maybe it was.

jrlennon said...

It's true, those were good days. I remember the first night we went out with Ed, to the tacqueria, and he fell backwards out of his chair onto the floor. The way he picked himself up seemed to say: friends for life.

Happy New Year, all--it's our one-year anniversary and we'll be commemorating it with a post shortly.

ed said...

Happy New Year indeed. I think things are looking up. Although 2007 was full of its miseries, it was the first year since 2000 that I didn't feel, you know, screw you previous year & good riddance. 2008 might be an okay year, and building on that, 2009 might be a great one. Hope to see y'all in 2008.

And happy anniversary Ward Six.

rmellis said...

Ed, I was thinking the exact same thing about this year. Last year, I couldn't wait to see the screen door hit 2006 in the behind.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree that one can learn as much about writing at a community college as at an MFA program. As I live in an area without a university, I've taken writing workshops at a community college. I do not feel they were rigorous. They were taught by an English PhD who was not a writer and who was more concerned with correcting the grammar of the less experienced students than with getting any of the stories to work.

I'm an MFA applicant this year, and I've been offered spots at some selective programs. I expect that studying writing with peers who were in the top 1-5% of applicants to a graduate program will be a bit different than studying at a community college that has no admission standards. As well, the opportunity to study under well-regarded writers is sure to have value.

I may be going into my MFA having written stories that have passed a rigorous selection process, but that doesn't mean I feel like an accomplished writer, or even someone who has found their voice. I expect to be challenged, to expand my knowledge of both the canon and contemporary fiction, and to have the gift of time.

Will I be "taught" to write? Probably not, but I will be given the chance to make use of whatever talent I have, in an environment where people actually care about literature.

I know this may all come off as a little naive.

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