Dudes. MFAs are not that bad.

Why are so many writers so angry at Creative Writing MFA programs?  Do artists of all stripes loathe academic departments where their craft is studied?  Are there a bunch of actors and musicians out there who are really pissed off at performing arts schools?  I am genuinely puzzled at all the vitriol that seems to surround the MFA question when you throw the topic at a bunch of writers.  I don’t understand why I so often run into columns discussing MFA programs as if (1) they are really important and/or (2) they shot the author’s dog.  Chill, dudes.  I went to one so I thought I’d attempt to reply to some of the most common criticisms of this much-reviled but ever-proliferating beast, the Creative Writing MFA Program:

Creativity can’t be taught:  Okay, sure, talent can’t be taught.  But craft can.  Just ask Bob Ross and his happy little trees.

Young writers shouldn’t coop themselves up in a graduate program; they should “go out and experience the world:”  This argument is always delivered with the assumption that graduate programs aren’t part of The World.  They cannot approach the realness of, say, working at an Alaskan fish processing plant.  Okay, lean in for a second while I tell you a secret: writing material comes from people, mostly the fucked up ones.  There are people everywhere, even in MFA programs, and a lot of them are fucked up.  Just watch them.  If you pay enough attention to people wherever you are, they can be used for any piece of writing you like. You could even write a novel set in an Alaskan fish processing plant based on the tortured rich kids in your writing workshop.  I promise.

MFA programs homogenize writers’ voices and worsen the general mediocrity of American letters: This argument always assumes that writing was just better in the good old days, neglecting the fact that the stuff we read now from one hundred years ago is the stuff from a hundred years ago that survived a hundred years.  So, presumably, the best stuff.  It’s been through the strainers of time.  The stuff that’s being published now looks generally crappy by comparison because it hasn’t been vetted by history yet.  (Can you imagine how much poetry must have fucking sucked in Restoration England if goddamn Alexander Pope is the best that came out of there?  Holy fuck.)  Also: if you have the kernel of a unique and compelling voice, an MFA program will not ruin you and make you sound like everybody else, I promise.  It will make you realize what you don’t want to sound like.

MFA programs allow shitty writers to delude themselves that they don’t suck and send them out all fluffed up into a world of disappointment: I think this is mostly false, because there is no way you can make it through an MFA program without thinking that you suck.  Your work will be spreadeagled and pecked over so thoroughly that you will be quite convinced that nobody sucks at writing more than you.  Yes, graduate study is a move towards validating yourself as an artist, but it is also intensely grueling, and may make you decide that you don’t want to do this after all, which is totally okay.  I would argue that the regular beatdowns you receive in MFA programs actually prepare you for the world of disappointment to follow, and that if you get your stuff published, you won’t even blink at being edited because you learned to take your punches like a man in graduate school.

All these domesticated writers in their dinky academic detention centers are ruining the romance of the Author, who should presumably be drinking and screwing a lot and shooting large animals somewhere: Plenty of drinking and screwing goes on in academic detention centers.  If you must shoot large animals, there are a couple of MFA programs up in Alaska.  You can get a huge husky and name him Frostbane, go out into the perpetual snowy night to blow away some bears, and even visit that fish processing plant if you like.

Please don't shoot me. Work on your paragraph transitions instead.

MFA programs are a pyramid scheme, fleecing stupid young people with dreams.  Yeah, kind of.  Honestly, I still feel like a bit of a dumbass having taken out a bunch of student loans to attend one.  So do careful research into MFA programs, and apply only to the ones that will fund you.  If you don’t, well, you will probably feel like a bit of a dumbass for having taken out a bunch of student loans for what is mostly a pretty useless credential.  But, you know, it’s just money.  There are worse decisions you could have made than plunking down a bunch of it to take a couple of years off to write.  If you have made that mistake, take comfort in this List of Life Decisions That Are Worse Than Taking Out Student Loans For An MFA:

  • dating a drug dealer
  • being a drug dealer
  • simmering your whole life in a shitty job you hate without ever trying to go after your dreams
  • tattooing the whites of your eyes
  • meth
  • wearing leggings as if they were pants
  • appearing on reality TV
  • loving someone who treats you badly
  • joining a cult
  • visiting England for the food
  • meth
  • taking out more student loans for two MFAs

You’re welcome.


6 responses to “Dudes. MFAs are not that bad.

  1. Funny, sarcastic, and useful as usual. 🙂 Thanks for this post.

    The main thing I’d be worried about with a writing MFA is kind of a variation on #3. Because judging the value of creative writing is so subjective, sometimes you end up having to write to please the professor. Or, to give an example from the program at my school, a creative writing prof who teaches short stories looks down on “genre” fiction. So, no romance, fantasy, sci-fi, etc. stories will get good grades, no matter how good your craft is. And this is just in undergrad. I plan never to take a class with him, obviously…

    • Yeah, I found that there are two kinds of creative writing instructors: the good ones will try to help you write what you’re trying to write, and the shitty ones will try to make you write what they think you should write. I had a bit of a trial by fire in my very first MFA class. The instructor was frankly mean in her feedback; I was really taken aback. She even made someone cry! But there were a couple of students whose work she praised to the skies, so I took a closer to look at their work, and noticed that it looked a hell of a lot like her work. So for our next writing exercise, I ran a little experiment. I wrote a total pastiche of her style. She told me this was my best work, that I’d had a breakthrough. I said thank you and looked very earnest and then proceeded to ignore her feedback because its aim was merely to turn me into her. That’s also a good skill you will sharpen in an MFA program: detect bullshit, and learn to ignore it. You do not have to write to please the professor.

  2. I love this, Elena. And you had me at Bob Ross (how much longer before the next generation doens’t know who BR is? Please don’t tell me it was two generations ago. My heart will break.)
    If I had taken an MFA program, would I have needed 20+ years to get my writing to a place where it was publishable? Frankly, I don’t think I wouldn’t have. As you say, writing is a craft that can and must be taught (or self-taught for MUCH longer?). But it’s not a poor investment. Hells, no. Education never is.

    • When Bob Ross came on I would watch him in my snarky teenage way, but I also always watched the program the whole way through. I sort of assumed that I enjoyed him ironically. But then when he died in 95, it bummed me out so much that I realized I really liked the dude in a heartfelt way. He is so therapeutic and soothing, and watching those paintings come out of him so easily is a kind of magic. How can you not like a guy who says “little birds gotta have a place to put their foots” when painting tree branches?

  3. I don’t know who Bob Ross is… 😦 But the good thing about this generation is that they can Google him and find out! *Googles*

  4. Thanks to Wikipedia, I now know who Bob Ross is. 🙂 I think I may have seen a rerun or two of his show, but I never watched TV as a kid.

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