November 4, 2010

The Truth About Pursuing An MFA In Creative Writing

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In 2005, responding to an anti-MFA screed on the website MobyLives.com, Steve Almond wrote, “Every few months, some dumbfuck reporter will obediently write a story about how MFA programs have ruined American letters, homogenized the prose, blah–blah–blah.”

Almond was understandably piqued, and recognized the essentially recurrent nature of this complaint: you can’t teach writing. Yet despite the proliferation of institutions dedicated to teaching exactly that, the question (or for some, the negative declaration) remains, as abiding as the seasons.

The latest churn of thought mostly circles Elif Batuman’s provocation,“Get a Real Degree,” eddying out and around, somewhere moving into deeper water, elsewhere shoaling close to shore. Batuman ostensibly reviewed Mark McGurl’s “The Program Era” –  a groundwork-laying scholarly examination of the post-WWII Rise of Creative Writing (his caps) and its effect on American fiction. Mostly, though, she despairs the current state of American fiction and laments what she sees as an ahistorical, aliterate perspective endemic to MFA programs. (For some historical perspective, William Gass noticed the same thing teaching in the mid-1990’s.) “Why can’t the programme be better than it is?” she asks, with apparently exasperated sincerity. “Why can’t it teach writers about history and the world, and not just about adverbs and themselves? Why can’t it at least try?”

I’d rather take this as an admirable cri de coeur than as a personal attack on aspiring writers who’ve chosen the MFA route. (It helps to realize that Batuman didn’t choose her own headline.) But her broad strokes critique spurred a new round of self-examination among the people prone to worrying about the disputable value of MFA programs and Creative Writing in general.

One author, in calling out “the MFA Ponzi Scheme, ” offered a quasi-empirical analysis of The New York Times hardcover fiction top five and The New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40” list along with author credentials (MFA school or “No MFA”), only to then back to a variation of the hoary questions: “A lot of these writers have MFAs. Are they writers because they have MFAs and were taught in that crafty MFA way? Or are they writers because they are writers?”

A quick Googling for “Can Creative Writing Be Taught?” or  “Should Creative Writing Be Taught?” suggests we won’t answer these questions any time soon. Without rehashing the same old (unfalsifiable) arguments about the teaching of writing/creativity/art/soul, what then, can we meaningfully say about Creative Writing and, more specifically, MFA programs (plural)?

First, I think it’s useful to draw a division between the experience of an MFA program and the usefulness — primarily economic, but let’s include self-identification in there as well — of the Master’s of Fine Arts as a credential. Usually it’s that first element that matters most to “the art,” though Gary Shteyngart claims, “Without an MFA nobody will look at you right, so you have to get an MFA,” so the credential can matter, depending on your audience. (In my experience those three letters matter most to other people with letters after their names.)

But let’s table the discussion of credentials for now and try to limn the actual experience of being in an MFA program. What does that feel like? Or, more pointedly, how do people idealize what it should feel like?

To answer this question, one can open almost any issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, a publication of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. This association claims to speak for creative writing professionals across the country, and though the organization has a rocky history, it’s the de facto voice of the creative writing establishment – if such a thing can be said to exist, and more on that later. The issue nearest to hand features an article by Elizabeth Eshelman,

“Where the Arc Leads: What American Women’s Literary History Reveals About the Contemporary MFA Writer.” This article gives you a sense of how many creative writing teachers at the university level conceptualize their programs: the dek declares  they provide “permission to write, community, and audience” — these are “three specific needs that MFA programs meet for the contemporary individual writer who wishes to advance.” (Noting the slipperiness of that concluding prepositional phrase.)

This is not an atypical example – I’ve chosen it simply because it’s closest to hand. These claims might strike you as idealistic or wishy-washy or naive, depending on your disposition. “Permission to write” may have less importance to someone used to regular (paid) writing; McGurl and Batuman, though, both note the sense of shame many writers feel about their  fundamentally “useless” work. A program’s sense of community obviously varies from place to place: some departments are welcoming and nurturing, others cutthroat and competitive. Depending on your goals as a writer, some programs appeal more than others.

During my MFA experience, I did find a welcoming community of writers, most of whom I got along with and respected as people. Did three years of having them as an audience improve my writing? Undoubtedly. But to say much more than that risks again falling into questions of, “Can Creative Writing be taught?” and so on, a mise en abyss of pro/con arguments, none of which seem to me very helpful. Performing a close reading of MFA programs seems more likely to produce actionable knowledge.

Looking at what gets taught can suggest what sort of experience these programs provide. I entered the nonfiction track, the ill-defined “fourth genre” which lacks the prestige of fiction, drama, or poetry. At the time, I had two dedicated nonfiction instructors to choose from, though every faculty member listed “nonfiction” on their CVs. (This says to you something about the genre-differentiation at work.) One professor had a background in reportage and literary nonfiction. The other instructor came from a more academic background (MFA from Iowa; PhD from Columbia) and tended toward much more cerebral, essayistic work. He eventually moved out of the program to focus on strictly academic teaching, though he still publishes creative work. He always challenged me to make my work smarter and more ambitious. That said, he wasn’t writing for a general audience, but for a vanishingly small literary audience — really an academic-literary audience interested in formal experimentation.

As I’ve said, the remainder of the faculty all claimed nonfiction on their resumes, generally supporting the widely-held notion that anyone can jump into nonfiction. At most institutions, I’d say, the nonfiction track gets the short end of the stick compared to more established genres. It’s worth looking at the Poets & Writers MFA rankings (as unscientific as they are) for a sense of what schools even offer a nonfiction track.

Back to who’s teaching: at the number #1 school in the country, the nonfiction faculty largely produce memoir and John D’Agata’s “lyric essay.” This seems to me pretty representative of the MFA culture nationwide; the nonfiction track focuses primarily on memoir and personal essay writing. Ander Monson seems to anchor the nonfiction program at ASU, the #2 school; you can visit his website to see the kind of visually experimental stuff he does.  Jonathan Ames and Philip Lopate are at the New School, coming in at #3 with a bullet. (Just to reiterate, I generally find these rankings absurd, in both the sense of hilariously unmeaningful and in the sense of deeply annoying. To paraphrase what Tom Bissell says, nearly all writers are needy monsters, but there’s no need for Poets & Writers (among others) to encourage this lamentable condition. The persistent program ranking – quantifying a pretty nebulous quality – tends to make people who take those rankings seriously, well, crazy.

If you’re looking to work in a more “literary journalism”-style, it’s worth keeping journalism programs in mind. You may have noticed that many of the nonfiction faculty in these MFA programs are not themselves credentialed – at least not with an MFA focused on nonfiction. There is a small window of opportunity there for people who want to try to teach in academia without a PhD. However, it’s a rapidly shrinking window, as universities grow more corporatized (focusing on the bottom line and on “metrics” such as degrees) and more old-school, near-retirement journalists make their way into academia.

However, if you’re really looking for the MFA on your resume, this article from The Atlantic is worth checking out. Again notice the relative scarcity of nonfiction programs; the list, though, gives you another dataset for thinking about time, money, and opportunity (cost). If you believe you have a strong project that given two (or three) years of serious, sustained work you could turn into a book, then I think the on-campus track has its rewards. However, if you’re just looking to get the MFA to open some career doors (teaching, etc.), then strongly consider one of the low-residency programs. As you probably already know, the workshop model on which most MFA programs run has some serious flaws; no sense wasting your (finite) time with students, many of whom, don’t take their work seriously, and who are incapable of taking your work seriously. Get in and get out.

If you do look at an on-campus posting, find one that’s fully funded. The MFA is simply not worth an outlay of your money if you’re not working simultaneously. Other people may tell you differently, running the standard line of “it’s an investment in your future.” Perhaps, but in the meantime, you’re 1) not making much/any money, and 2) you’re paying to go to school, incurring more debt. (It’s also pretty much an open secret that at partially funded schools, the money paid by “borderline” students to attend classes subsidizes the more talented students.) Meghan Daum is always my paradigmatic example of how not to spend money on education. (Meaning: don’t buy a Columbia degree because you think it will make you into the kind of person who went to Columbia. It will, but you will pay for it forever, both economically and psychically.)

Another way of looking at the “should I or shouldn’t I pay for an MFA” is to ask where people go once they finish.  PhD programs typically spend time and energy tracking where their graduates end up. They do so because that info can then become marketing fodder, in addition to proving a department’s worth to a dean. Many MFA programs do not do this because 1) the MFA, with no mean irony known as a “terminal degree,” often carries associations of “multi-year quasi-vacation which provides warm bodies for our classrooms” among the administrative staff and tenured research faculty; it’s stigmatized by a perception of fundamental unseriousness; and 2) the data would be horrifying, and perhaps morally damning to those who perpetuate MFA programs.

This brings me to asking what kind of career you see yourself pursuing after the MFA. If you’ve already begun a career – in publishing, marketing, or other writing-based field – you might find it stultifying, and maybe believe you need a credential bump to open doors. OK. But look closely at the kinds of jobs readily available with an MFA. Make sure they are what you want. I will say that, from personal experience, teaching as a lecturer with an MFA guarantees you very little, other than a token (no, seriously, I mean very very meager) salary and no job security. A a single-year lecturer in English might teach a 2/2 load (two courses in the fall, two in the spring, mostly composition but occasionally creative writing) and make $20,000 before taxes. Up that to a 3/4 load and you make about $30,000 b/t. Contracts are then renewed annually, department’s discretion.

While that sounds discouraging, I really feel responsible for underscoring what a mess the U.S. education system is right now, from top to bottom. Academic creative writing is, unfortunately, even more easy prey for all manner of administrative malice, because few creative writing program directors have learned (been disciplined) to effectively communicate their worth. Einstein may have said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted,” but good luck trying that argument on people controlling the purse strings. The impending collapse of the academic system is at least in part enabled by a mass of underpaid, half-delusional contingent labor. (This writer’s career, for example, is horrifying, but not entirely for the reasons she offers. While you’re there, poking around on the CHE site can give you a sense of the academic outlook (bleak), though they of course often try to march on with a painted smile.) There are certainly good reasons for not wanting to enter into the belly of that beast.

Generally, I advise anyone who asks not to go to grad school. I understand part of the appeal is, for some, the structured institution grad school provides: do x, y, and z and when you come out you’ll be a specific kind of person, with a very specific (and not too shabby) life in front of you. In my limited experience, though, this implicit promise is a farce and a sham, and should be called out as such. One can position academia as the last vestige of the welfare state, the only place in America in which one can pursue true intellectual autonomy – “the life of the mind.” That may be true – but only for a very narrow slice of the population, whose “free” time is subsidized by the rest of us. Of course, the promise made to graduate students – less so for MFA candidates, but it’s still there – is that as one of the “smart ones, the people who get it,” you’ll be given entrance to this utopia. When it doesn’t happen, people get very bitter, because now 3, 5, 7, 10 years of their lives – lives conditioned to regard the institution as the only arbiter of worth and value – has vanished. That’s a tough row to hoe, and I caution anyone against falling for any “smart people do this” line, whether “this” is higher education or high finance (see the first chapter of Karen Ho’s “Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street” for an insightful discussion of the Culture of Smartness.)

The cake is a lie. Just ask anyone who finds this video “funny.”

(If for whatever reason you’re interested in the labor economics of graduate school, a good place to start is “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go” and for further reading check out “How the University Works.“)

Basically, finding a good job without an MFA is difficult and exhausting and just plain no fun, leaving you feeling like you have no plan and no obvious path for the future. Finding a good job with an MFA is about the same, only you’re several years older, so it’s better to have a clear-headed measure for the value of that time.

If you do decide to go the MFA route, this is one of the most thorough pieces of advice I’ve seen about the application process. TC mark

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Jesse Hicks

Since learning to speak of himself in the third person, Jesse has written for magazines with attractive women on …

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