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Thursday, April 22, 2010

To MFA or Not To MFA?

My rant for today starts with a story.

Last Thursday was the MFA student reading at The New School, which happened to be coupled with a reception for prospective students.  The reading went well.  I read and didn't get too nervous.  Blah, blah, blah.  But the real fun began during the reception.

At one point, I was pulled aside by a prospective student who wanted to know if I thought going to The New School was going to help me get published.  I told her to slow down and then gave her my twenty-five-cent standard response:
"Going to The New School--or any MFA program--has nothing to do with getting published.  I came here because I wanted to be the best writer I can be, and this program did that for me.  If I happen to get published as a side-effect of becoming a better writer, great."
She gave me this look like I had just stolen her golden ticket.  I tried to do some damage control:
"Seriously, if your only goal is to get published: go home, sit yourself at your workspace and write the book.  If you think getting an MFA will help motivate you or improve your writing, then it sounds like a good fit for you.  But if all you want is a 'get-published' card, then just go home and write the book."
She went home.  And I felt like I had given the absolute worst pitch ever.

The truth is, this question of getting an MFA is one that seems especially pertinent this time of year.  As prospective students decide whether they will break open their piggy-banks and sacrifice valuable time and money for the laurels of scholarship, it's important to remember why we choose to go to an MFA program in the first place.  In his recent article, Seth Abramson talks about the lack of attention given by literary communities to this important question.  And according to this account from The Rejectionist, an MFA beside an author's name doesn't indicate whether the writing is even publishable.

As someone who has taken the graduate school route, have come to the following conclusions about the benefits and drawbacks of the MFA.
  1.  The MFA is not an MBA, MD or JD.  There is no series of steps you must go through that ultimately link you up with a job post-graduation.  There is no organized process.  It's not like in law school and if you're editor of Law Review, you're practically guaranteed a job.  You could be the biggest hot-shot in your writing MFA program and still find yourself unemployed come graduation.  I know this seems unfair, but it's the way of the world.  Let's face it; our culture happens to place more value on business executives and doctors and lawyers than they do on artists or writers.  Why?  Because if a pediatrician sucks at her job, small children might die.  If a writer sucks at her job, it's only the writing that suffers.
  2. The MFA does not equal publication.  This sounds like a no-brainer, but I can't tell you how many people seem to think that going to an MFA program automatically means you'll get published when you leave.  The only thing that will lead to publication is improving one's writing.  Unfortunately for many writers, the rate at which they write and improve is slower than the rate at which they age.  They either die or give up before they publish.  Sad, but true.  The only thing the MFA can do for you is speed up that learning curve a little, but if you don't keep writing and learning, no MFA will help you.
  3. Not all MFAs are created equal.  I am lucky enough to be graduating from the Writing For Children concentration that happens to have a pretty strong track-record when it comes to publishing.  Is it the MFA that grants this publishing know-how to its students?  Maybe.  Certainly, we've had countless agents and editors give lectures relating specifically to our genre.  Students participate in a mock-submission process and some even have editors as thesis advisers.  But could it also be that the group of people attending the program are self-selecting?  This may be the case.  After all, a program is only as strong as the students in it so in selecting an MFA I strongly recommend that prospectives speak to current students and alumni.
  4. No MFA can replace BIC.  What's BIC, you ask?  Butt.  In.  Chair.  And if you need me to tell you what I mean by that, then you're not a writer.
  5. What's the Next Step?  Trying to build a life as a writer is not all that different from writing a story or novel.  Just as in writing, you always have to think about what comes next, so it is with life as a writer--whether you do an MFA or not.  This semester, though a thesis has loomed over my head, I've had to step back and ask myself: what's next?  Because if I wait until "next" gets here, it'll be too late.
In the end, the MFA question becomes moot.  It's really a question of what writer wants out of his or her writing life.  If taken simply as a shortcut to publication, the MFA will be a waste of time.  But if the goal is to build a writing community, network with both established writers and professionals in the field or to improve one's craft, then the MFA is a worthy challenge.

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