Straddling the MFA Divide

Laura Maylene Walter
March 10, 2016
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Whenever I come across yet another article discussing the merits (or lack thereof) of MFA programs, something inside me dies. Or maybe it yawns. Again and again, I’ve read the same arguments about whether MFA programs are ruining literature by turning out cookie-cutter authors or fostering sanitized, overly workshopped writing styles. Most recently, an article in The Atlantic, “How Has the MFA Changed the Contemporary Novel?” attempts to quantify the differences between novels authored by writers with and without the degree. Richard Jean So and Andrew Piper wonder:

Is it really possible to tell the difference between novels that have been through the meat-grinder of the MFA and those that haven’t? What if this is just something that’s been imagined into existence, by both detractors and supporters alike, to satisfy a collective need to believe that institutions can improve anything, even creativity? Or conversely, that institutions ruin everything, especially creativity?

They go on to explain their process for analyzing books written by both MFA and non-MFA authors. While I found their methods lacking, I won’t scrutinize the findings in this space, as I think Cathy Day does an excellent job of that in her response, “My Critique of a Critique of MFA Programs.” Instead, I’d like to look at what MFA programs in creative writing realistically can and cannot offer writers.

First, I should say that whenever I tune into one of these MFA debates, I don’t feel fully at home on either side. While I do have a newly minted MFA, I worked as a professional writer for years before returning to graduate school. I spent a decade prior to the MFA writing and racking up rejections. I wrote full drafts of multiple novels. I wrote freelance articles for magazines like Poets & Writers and The Writer. I won a book prize and thus saw my debut short story collection published two years before I entered the MFA. I attended the Bread Loaf and Tin House writing workshops and belonged to several critique groups. In short, I was building a literary career without an MFA.

I was convinced then, as I am now, that a literary writer does not need an MFA to succeed. No one needs an MFA. So why did I change my status from non-MFA writer to MFA writer?

While a writer might not need a specialized degree, she does need something: time to focus on her craft. We all have to negotiate our writing time in relation to other responsibilities, like our jobs or families. My path to becoming a published writer involved working in the nonprofit and corporate worlds while carving out the time to write. But when everything in my life aligned to allow me to leave my job to take a fully funded spot in a nearby MFA program, I went for it.

I mention funding for a reason. The Atlantic article—and many of the other MFA-debate articles—makes a big deal about how much money universities apparently rake in from their MFA programs. I’ve always had a difficult time identifying with this concern because I’ve long held the established view that an MFA is not a good investment for most writers unless it’s funded. In various online MFA-related communities, the number one issue always seems to boil down to funding. “Do not pay for an MFA!” is a common mantra in such communities.

But it’s true that not every MFA program funds all or even some of its students, and that is problematic. I’d never advise a friend to pay for the degree, except in special circumstances. (To offer just one example, if you’re not in a position to leave your lucrative career, paying for a low-residency MFA might make sense.) Maybe we need to do a better job overall of ensuring applicants understand exactly what the degree can offer (time and guidance to grow as a writer) and what it can’t (the promise of future publishing success). However, considering that quite a number of programs offer full funding, the most sensible argument seems to be, “Only pursue an MFA if your tuition is waived and you’re offered a stipend,” rather than “Don’t get an MFA because it’s useless and won’t magically transform your writing.”

In their experiment, Piper and So searched for “some essential difference” in MFA vs. non-MFA novels. Maybe I’m experiencing a disconnect with their efforts because I don’t believe there is any such difference. Getting an MFA doesn’t add a secret magic ingredient to your writing that makes it immediately recognizable. Of course, try telling that to the reviewer who dismissed my story collection as yet another product of the MFA system, never mind that the collection was written and published long before I entered an MFA.

I believe MFA writers, had they not earned the degree, would eventually publish similar books if they had continued working on their own. Maybe it would take them longer without the guidance and time they enjoyed in the program, or maybe some of them might give up before they ever published. What I don’t believe is that by attending an MFA program, their work was changed on a fundamental level, making it recognizable when plugged into some experiment. I think this is why So and Piper found “no real distinctions at the level of language, themes, or even syntax” between MFA and non-MFA novels.

Because here’s the deal: improving as a writer is a long, slow process. It takes growth and patience and tenacity. Just because someone spends two or three years in an MFA program does not mean she’s going to be churning out Pulitzers or bestsellers anytime soon. Instead, an MFA can be one component of the long development of a writing career. MFA programs offer concentrated time to write, mentorship, reading requirements, deadlines, and the chance to build enduring literary friendships.

Often, they offer even more. Here’s what I gained from Bowling Green State University’s MFA program: experience editing the literary journal Mid-American Review as the fiction editor; experience in event planning and promotion when I served as coordinator of the Winter Wheat writing festival; teaching experience in both composition and creative writing; experience developing and presenting workshops at literary conferences; summer funding through a fellowship; funding to attend AWP as a presenter; and the ability to apply for future fellowships and positions that require an advanced degree.

Those benefits go above and beyond the work I did on my own writing. In that respect, I wrote the bulk of my second story collection, worked on revising my novel, benefited from my instructors’ guidance, and experienced an overall period of growth as a writer. No one tried to force my writing, or anyone else’s, into a particular style or aesthetic. My fellow MFA students wrote wildly different types of stories, and that was respected. As far as I could tell, no one encouraged us to “sound like already published writers,” as So and Piper put it.

I still carry enough of my pre-MFA writing life with me to feel as though I’m straddling the MFA divide. I currently teach writing to adults in community workshops, where I sometimes point out that I don’t think any writer needs an MFA. When I say this, at least a few people are visibly relieved. That’s when I remember that this MFA anxiety strikes too many writers. We spend so much time worrying about whether the MFA is good or bad or helpful or harmful, and it all strikes me as pointless. Pursuing an MFA might be beneficial, but it’s probably not going to transform your work on that “genetic level” Piper and So attempted to investigate.

Get the degree or don’t, I say. Write through it either way.

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