Post MFA Let-down?

“We live in an exceedingly crass, stupid, vulgar culture,” said [David]Fenza, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and author of “The Interlude,” a book- length poem. “To devote two years of your life to writing, books, studying authors, that is a wonderful oasis in anyone’s life. You take that study of literature with you through the rest of your life.”

81% of all Americans say that they have a book in them. I read this wee factlet in this morning’s Chronicle, in an article written from the perspective of one who has gone the MFA route. What does this prove? Not much – except that there are more of us with something to say (and sometimes no real skill to say it) than we’d maybe assumed. Can everyone write the book that is within them? Should they? Will an MFA really help?

In the past few years, more and more people have gotten involved with MFA programs, which should be a positive thing, yet the tone of this article was fairly depressing for me. Not because there are so many would-be writers in the U.S., or even so many degreed writers, but because, even while I was in grad school, I heard this stuff. I heard about MFA programs churning out cookie-cutter authors who depleted the very quality of the literary offerings in the world. I heard that only certain types of work got published, and if my name wasn’t something cool like Michelene, Ayelet, or I if I didn’t have some kind of unexplored ethnic angle to work with, or I wasn’t up to putting out an Astonishing Work of Languishing Genius or something, I wasn’t going to make the cut.

Workshops, I read, are worthless. They’re boring. They slice and dice the work of others as if critical interpretation and criticism was all that made a mature writer. Workshops create writers who pander to their readers, I learned. Not good. Not workable. Not promising. Much better are the writers who organically ply their craft, right out of their wee heads. Those are the writers who will uphold the invisible Canon Nouveau, and make sure that everything we read is intelligent and worthy.

Good thing I only really want to write for children and young adults, I thought. That field is always open. Or not. When everyone from Toni Morrison to Madonna to John Lithgow and everybody else hit the shelves with their celebrity children’s stories, I… um, rethought. It wasn’t going to be that easy to do the kind of writing I wanted and get published. Not by a long shot. Like everyone has to sometime, I faced the fact that there are tons of people who are better connected, better equipped, and just downright luckier than I am. And I thought, dear God, what money and time have I just wasted!?

Truth: We spent a lot of money for our degrees. $37K down, and we’ve got not a lot to show for it except a few letters to put after our names, which, even then, doesn’t guarantee that our work will get any higher in the slush piles of publishing houses. We have a lot of faith, and a lot of great expectations, but what else?

Truth: We have allowed our work and our style of writing to be observed, commented upon, molded and shaped. In all likelihood, some of us have learned to care too much about what others say about our work. Some of us have begun to consider the reader. Does this mean our writing is doomed?

I left my MFA program at Mills with nothing but great expectations. They made me no promises, and I was well aware that they couldn’t make me anything I wasn’t before I got there. But… in order to have gotten to there, I had to have had great expectations already. If I take that faith (and those school loans) and turn it upon myself, I might yet have a chance to stand out – if merely by sheer dint of perseverance. I know an MFA program can’t produce a writer, yet I also realize that giving myself over to the process of observing and immersing myself in writing and reading gives me an edge. I know a lot more stuff than the average writer at a Conference like A. Fortis attended – how to use networking, how to listen to what editors really want, how to sense the patterns created and skill used in what I read. I’ve put in the time, in a wildly busy and rushed world, to polish my craft into something I can honestly be proud of (okay, on those good days when I’m not sucking down my Zoloft and staring moodily into my coffee cup), if I can stick out the hard work it takes to get it noticed. I can take a breath and accept that I put in a big investment in myself, and it already has paid off – the dividends being my writing group, the person I become in an educational environment, and the objective eye that I can turn on my own work.

Success will come in a more tangible form, someday. And, lest these ramblings sound too painfully Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm saccharine, I do have to lie down and scream sometimes; I often wish for something stronger than caffeine on those many bad days; I awaken some mornings and think the whole publishing racket just sucks, and that I hate everyone in New York who works in publishing and wish it was all so much more straightforward — and for goodness sakes, faster at least, and less elitist and snotty. But, like A.F., I’m going to let this hone my competitive edge. I’m going to have to succeed. Because otherwise I’ll never know. What that book within me is, I mean. Maybe not everyone can or should write their dream story, but I can, and I’m going to. I mean to find out if the book within me is The Very Hungry Caterpillar or The Once and Future King. It’s why I went to graduate school…

One Reply to “Post MFA Let-down?”

  1. Bravo, T!

    I have a whole MFA-program-related rant that I won’t go into here, but I wanted to restate–and laud–your implication that the important issue is not whether to pursue a higher degree or not, but the reasons why you choose to pursue more education.

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