We watch a lot of baseball in our house. We’re Tigers fans living across the street from Dodgers stadium, so conversations often turn to AL vs NL and whether or not pitchers should be required to hit, or if DH’s make the game more exciting, etc. When an article came out the other day that basically says both AL and NL siders have airtight arguments for why their rules and regulations are better, and that unsurprisingly a person who sides for AL will already have been a fan of an AL team, and vice versa, it made me think about how stupid the argument is about MFA programs. Every single time someone writes an article about why people should wait to go to an MFA or forego it completely, a hundred people who went to an MFA and didn’t wait to go have something to say about why the argument is complete bullshit. Here’s the deal: both of you are wrong.
My MFA was both useless and the best thing that happened to me, but my experience will never be the same as another writer’s. Since I started this blog, I’ve had a number of writers who’ve written to me out of the blue asking if they should apply to graduate school. I say, “Why not?” But whether or not you are a writer shouldn’t depend solely on if a few people–who don’t actually even read all of the admissions applicants’ work (This is true; many of you will get rejected only because someone found their first 3 favorites and threw the rest away)–thought you had potential. Same goes for publishing if you’re getting rejections. One of the things I can say for an MFA, however, is it’ll give you a better idea of why you’re being rejected. But you could also get that same education from volunteering as a reader at a literary journal. If you do get accepted to an MFA and you decide to go, I have one piece of advice for you that probably won’t improve your writing, but will improve your life: Do things outside of your program. Do things that matter.
I did my MFA. I also worked a great deal outside of academia before I went, and I had a pretty intense and non-trad childhood that still fuels most of my writing. I know, LUCKY ME! I totally think people should have life experiences, and I don’t think an MFA prevents that, but from watching my peers, an MFA does discourage those “life experiences” by reducing life to a hive mindset of what’s good for your writing, which I could tell was extremely difficult for my classmates with children. But I should also qualify that a “life experience” in this case is something that has to do with the world at large and as little to do with writing as possible.
People are getting snippy about this Atlantic article right now, because the author asserts that you should get some life experience before you write. I have no idea why anyone would get as defensive about this article as some of the people I know on Facebook have been. Look, the guy is largely talking about writing personal essays. If you haven’t written for a magazine before, you probably don’t know that editors give you strict word counts and often change your wording, and you’re rarely allowed to cover all the What If‘s and But‘s you’d like to that would narrow down exactly what you’re talking about. I’m going to take a guess and assume that the writer had originally written in all the exceptions to the rules he’s laying out, but the editor cut them, because editors do not in fact like the “exceptions”–they dissolve any possible controversy that could lead to more page views and more people who are outraged by…MFA programs? Wait, why are you outraged by a guy talking about having rich life experiences? Even if you loved your MFA like me, were you blind to the negatives? I’ll make another giant leap in this paragraph and propose that possibly, just maybe, you may take your writing far too seriously.
I know for many people, suggesting that you may take your writing too seriously goes against everything you’ve been taught. In fact, an MFA teaches you to write everyday, to develop a discipline, to introduce yourself as a writer and to dedicate yourself to this task as though each sentence were your baby (“kill your darlings”). This is good, and this is bad. You should work hard at something you love. You should be dedicated. And if you’re a writer like me, you already do all these things out of a compulsion, because it feels wrong when you’re not. But what I want to do is put things into perspective for you, because despite how important you know your writing to be, your writing is largely self-centered and does not change the world, unless you are one of an elite few. Most likely, you are not.
I’m friends with a well-known author on Facebook, the kind of “well-known” that literary circles know and love, yet no non-writers can recognize by name or book titles. We once got drunk on expensive whiskey together and had a great time, and I’ve read some of his things, and I liked them when I was in graduate school. What I fear about this writer is that his Facebook page is riddled with long-winded aphorisms and advice and thoughts that prompt hundreds of people to comment and converse, and every single post is about his writing. His process, his painstaking editorial work, the delight he feels when a sentence clicks, the agony as a character suffers, the writing, his writing, the writing, the writing. I know, I know. He’s a writer. This is his area of expertise. When he’s not writing, he’s teaching writing, or attending writing conferences, or drinking with writers. Every MFA student who’s passed through his classes has fallen in love with him and his romance. But does it strike you as odd that a person whose sole profession is to communicate his thoughts to a wide audience seems to have very few things to say that are actually about or related to that wide audience? Is there a possibility that the Atlantic article writer is giving a cautionary tale about self-centeredness, about a breed of writer who cannot connect to the outside world, and how–if at all–the MFA industry contributes to this? At least, that’s what I’m taking from it, but my biases are obvious (pitchers should not bat…unless they do).
MFAs…I’m glad I had three years to write. I’m glad. I’m also glad that I worked at a record store and also taught at-risk youth in a local high school, where conversations about writing and how to write took a backseat to the actual real-life people who sat in a messy circle and didn’t ever want to talk about writing, didn’t want to read a book by someone who didn’t seem to know they existed, because it reminded me that there is life outside of writing. I mean, are you really angry about MFA programs and a guy who wants people to get more life experience, or are you angry that no matter how you spin all of it, writing is a self-centered act, and despite the flowery words you use to describe all the wonderful sentences you have written and the anguish and torment it took to get you there, what you do ultimately doesn’t matter. I’m sorry. It doesn’t. MFA programs want you to believe that it does, that your words are powerful, but even the best writers do not actually have that power, and many of them don’t because they have never taken the time to get to know their potential audience or the world at large. (Journalists are the easiest exception to this, because their writing has a very different relation to the world, and they are accustomed to disappearing in their stories.)
At this very moment, and every moment that I write, I need to remind myself that I’m doing this for me, and it will most likely do absolutely nothing to change anybody’s mind or opinion or enlighten them. If you did read this, then that’s great, but I doubt I would change your mind of anything. Either way, I’m happy with having typed something out that helps me better understand why or just reminds me that I have a responsibility to connect with others through means that do not involve the written word (ironic, no?). But if you’re looking for recommendations on whether or not to get an MFA, it’s different for everyone, and no one way is better. No matter what you decide, though, always attempt to keep a wider perspective. Attempt not to get caught up in all the politics. And, really, getting caught up in the politics and losing perspective is something that can happen in any profession. The only difference between falling too deeply into writing and falling too deeply into banking is that writers are masters of finding the most beautiful ways to weave a tale of their own rationalizations. We are dangerous people. We–and our writings–are only as important to the world as much as we are willing to be honest with it and ourselves.