Saturday, August 22, 2009

In Defense of the MFA (and Praise for Low-Residency)

So over at the Rejectionist the other day, a guest post by one Cherie L'Ecrivain (clever!) gave me a little bit of brain rash, and always in search of a topic, I decided to take it on.

First, a confession. I used to harbor my own prejudices about MFAs in writing. I assumed (and unlike the author of this post, had no actual experience to base this on) that most MFA programs were groovy, rich-kid playgrounds, factories churning out pasteurized products every year, each bearing the stamp of the latest trend in literature. I wanted none of it. I would be a unique voice, raw and untamed. It had nothing to do with how those grapes were dangling so high above my head or that I couldn't jump that high and was afraid to climb. There were bugs on those grapes, yuck, phooey.

I dibbled and dabbled and dribbled for years, feeling always the lack of the community that M. L'Ecrivian skewers in her post. I wanted writers in my life. I wanted feedback. Having found a project that inspired passion in me, I toiled and spun in a vacuum for almost a decade.

At the tender age of 48, I finally admitted I needed help. Despite my debtanoia, I applied for student loans. Following the advice of a poet friend, (yes, I had some poets in my life, but I am not a poet, really, and knew no prosers, so) I applied to the University of Nebraska's Low-Residency MFA in Writing. It fit my lifestyle. Five nine-day residencies at Nebraska City's beautiful Lied Lodge, one in the middle of the summer and one during winter break, each followed by four intense months of reading, writing, and regular correspondence with a mentor.

I worked closely with four amazing (yeah, an adjective; I debated, but I'm sticking with it, and if you knew them you'd understand) mentors over the two years, and each of them contributed immeasurably to my growth as a writer. Sometimes I disagreed with their suggestions, but usually I went ahead and tried them anyway. Sometimes I decided I was right (can't think of an example right now so this may be a big lie) but usually these suggestions led to me breaking through a fear.

During the residencies, the days and nights were full of lectures, readings, and workshops. Nine days of hard work and camaraderie, then you go home for more hard work.

The blog post I'm responding to said, in part:

Beyond actually acquiring the physical diploma, it’s difficult to gauge the success of your tenure as an MFA student. It’s not like the degree is meant to help you land a well-paying job.
This I agree with. Sure, we all want to be published, but anybody seeking a fine arts degree because they want to make money is dangerously naive. That's what jobs are for, silly.

Then Cherie swerves off into less informed territory:
Most of the workshops are heavily focused on short stories and then once a semester an agent visits the class and tells you that story collections are completely unmarketable and no one will even consider publishing yours until you have a novel to back it up. At least this way when you graduate without a book deal or salable manuscript it is only partially your fault. However, your time in an MFA program can be considered a triumph if you clock more hours actually writing than you do vomiting up your student loan money in the bathroom of every bar in Park Slope.
I think she's writing memoir here. Speaking of memoir, in my workshops (of eight or nine people, and each residency I was with a slightly different group; the Boss Lady threw our names in a bowl and let her cats fish us out) there were almost as many essays and excerpts from longer works as there were short stories. And let's face it, short stories are a wonderful form and efficient for learning craft. Unless, yeah, you're in it for the money.

Cherie also had trouble with her playmates, and I can see how that could happen in a traditional MFA program, where you workshop weekly with the same people. Especially if you are young and have not yet spent decades paying off that first round of student loans you squandered in saloons all over Montana or wherever.

With low-residency, this is more easily avoidable:
You will also know how well you have done based on who you are still speaking to when school is over. All MFAs are composed of people who are used to being the standout writer in any workshop they’ve ever attended. So, take twelve to forty people who are equally good at something but accustomed to being the best and put them in a situation where they are required to critique one another and compete for praise and prizes. Have fun navigating that obstacle course of loyalties and animosities, particularly when the participants are perpetually steeped in sleep deprivation and alcohol. In any workshop you'll be lucky to find one or two people who are good readers for your “work”—yes, you will call it that, eventually—and that's nice and all.
I do feel lucky. I graduated three weeks ago. I am proud of the work I did, and I'm grateful I had to keep my day job and write when I used to be sleeping. I'm grateful for the discipline I learned and the tools I've acquired. Most of all, I'm grateful for the relationships, both online and face to face, with writers of every genre-- poetry and prose, literary fiction and nonfiction and fantasy, multi-media-melange and memoir. These are people I've watched grow over the last few years, and they've watched me. I have a community now, and I guess that's what I'm defending.

I'm sorry that some people have had such bad, expensive experiences with higher education, but in this brutal business, all I can say, Cherie, is better you than me.

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stephanie said...


And PS - I am glad I am getting an MFA "later" in life rather than right out of my undergrad. It's a whole new perspective. Low residency rocks the house. It's real.

Shreds said...

That's it. The residency provides that escape from the "real" world, total immersion, but then you have to go back to job, families, all the stuff that filled your time before, and you have to learn how to rearrange things to make room for the Real life.

I'm glad I waited, too, btw.

TerriM said...

I'll third the prior two comments that low residency really does make all the difference. It implicitly acknowledges the hard fact that most writers do have to fit their writing in among the more mundane things in life, like, oh, working for a living. Great post!