Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I'm a Mother Fucking Artist or My Thoughts on the MFA Debate

Five years ago, I was sitting in my dorm room at Hanover College shoving my future into envelopes that I mailed off to potential MFA programs. I was about to graduate with my BA in English Literature and I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted to continue in school and go the MFA direction. I had spent the previous four years working on my craft, serving as editor of the college literary magazine, and reading as much literature as possible. I wanted nothing more than the opportunity to focus on writing poetry. 

I applied to eight schools, knowing that MFA programs (especially many of the ones I applied to), were very hard to get into. Florida State University was one of those schools and one of them that accepted me. I was thrilled and even more honored or surprised when I got to FSU and realized they only accepted five MFA poets that year. This is how my journey began.

Five years later, I'm reflecting on that decision and on the debate in the creative writing world over MFA programs. There are many people out there stuffing those envelopes and hoping for the best at this very moment, and there are others who have no desire to go to an MFA program. And then there are even more others who like to yell about the merits of going the academic route or not going it. I've met all of these others and decided it was time for me to weigh in on this hot topic (isn't the poetry world exciting?). 

Honestly, I'm not clear why there is such a debate and I'm suspect that it has been caused and fueled by a handful of people from both sides who like to hear themselves talk. Many writing magazines have devoted essay upon essay to this very topic. Many of them focus on attacking MFA programs and blaming such programs for the death of poetry or literature or creativity. That's a lot of blame. I say we blame the iphone, but that's just me.  

Let me begin by giving everyone a brief (maybe slightly inaccurate) history of the debate and of MFA programs in general. An MFA is a Master's of Fine Artists (though I do wish it stood for Mother Fucking Artist), but I assume you know that or you wouldn't still be reading this post. These are terminal degrees, meaning you can teach university level courses the same as having a PhD (courses you are qualified for, of course). You get paid less, but can still get a full time, tenure track position (well, you could until this recession began). In creative writing, MFAs have not been around all that long (40 years maybe). For a lot of that time there were very few programs. In more recent years they have become popular and more and more schools have offered them, which has partly led to this very debate. In some circles, it is now almost expected that you have or should have an MFA if you are interested in writing poetry or more literary short stories or long fiction. On the other hand, many people have ventured into MFAs programs because writing "seems like fun" (not all MFA programs are very selective). This has produced a mixture of people with both good MFAs and maybe not-so great MFAs. 

So, what is the big debate? The bottom-line is that some people feel MFA programs have produced bland, uncreative, and cookie-cutter work. There is this notion that your instructors will teach you how to write like them and therefore populate the world with little mini-mes of famous poets. Those who argue against MFA programs often say things like, "You can't teach creative writing. How do you teach someone to be creative?" On the other side, those with MFAs or teaching in MFA programs can present themselves as elitist and often think the only way to a successful writing career is through the academic world. Sadly, this is partly true depending on what you write. Much of the poetry publishing world is controlled by the academic world through University run presses, contests, and magazines, but it is slowly changing.

What do I think? Clearly, I have an MFA. I picked that route and I don't for a second regret it. Those three years at FSU allowed me the chance to grow. I know, for me personally, I wouldn't be where I am right now without having gone to an MFA program. I knew nothing about publishing or networking when I began. I was just a boy from Indiana who wrote poetry. Without the guidance of both the instructors and my peers at FSU, I would not have the work published that I do. I learned a lot about the poetry business at FSU and a lot about contemporary poetry and where I fit into the grand scheme of things. My writing took leaps and bounds and I was constantly challenged by my peers who often wrote very differently from me. Yes, I said different. I won't say there aren't MFA programs that push their students into particular styles or schools, but I would say most do not and FSU never did. I never felt pressed to write a certain way or to produce work I didn't want to write. I think this is a great myth of MFA programs and one that needs to stop being passed around (especially by people who have never attended an MFA program). 

Having said all that, I don't come down on one side of the debate or on the other side. For me, an MFA program was the right decision. I don't think it's right for everyone, nor do I think it is the only route to good work or successful work. Are all writers with MFAs great writers? No, of course not, but some are. The same can be said for writers without an MFA. Good writing is good writing. As a writing community, I think we need to drop this ridiculous debate and to lose the stereotypes.  For anyone who knows me or has read my work, they will know that I'm not a stuffy academic and my work can be called a lot of things but cookie-cutter or bland is not one them. Also, you are all free to go read Erin Belieu (who was my thesis advisor) and you will see that we do not write the same poems. On the other side, being anti-MFA doesn't make your work more creative or purer and on the same toke it doesn't make you stupid or uneducated. I'm a firm believer in education, but education can come in many forms. 

If you want to be part of the poetry world (I'll use poetry as my example for obvious reasons), you have to engage in it. Writing, for me, is a very solitary action, but afterward I want feedback and someone there to bounce ideas off of and help me grow. I also devote time to reading other poets and magazines and blogs. MFA programs can provide a community of writers very easily, which is one reason it appealed to me, but you can also find this in various other ways. What I'm saying is you need to find it somewhere. Some places have great local writing groups, or there's the internet, which provides tons of ways to connect with other writers. 

It all comes down to life choices and figuring out what works for you. I've always loved school and there is a very good chance I'll go back and get my PhD in Creative Writing. At the same time, I've enjoyed figuring out a new route the last two years here in Orlando with very few writer friends. I've relied heavily on the internet and have found some great poets out there that I talk to through Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail. 

My bottom-line: we all need to strive to write the very best work possible and care a little less about having a MFA or hating on an MFA. 

-Stephen (Elitist)

7 comments:

  1. Much of what you said is true for other disciples as well. There are people who are able to (or even want to) become a mini version of their favorite professor.

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  2. So, do you e-mail drafts of the poems you're writing to other poets? I was always curious if a poet could find an e-mail critique helpful or if it came off as superficial and flat.

    Amanda

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  3. As you know since I've written about this, too, I agree with you. It has to be about personal decisions and what's right for you. That's why I find it so hard to give advice to people about where to apply or whether they should go on to a PhD. What works for one person doesn't always work for another. But it was obviously the right decision for us and I'm quite glad we both ended up at FSU so we got to meet!

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  4. Jessica- I didn't know you had a blog! I just checked it out. I'm a vegetarian now. I have been for about two years. This is great stuff! I hope you are doing well. Remember our trip to England together? I still have very cute picture of you and I.

    Amanda- I have done some critique via e-mail and they can work. Obviously, I'm always a fan of person to person interaction and critiquing, but in recent months I've found some great poets that I really connect to that live far away and we've exchange thoughts and ideas via e-mail quite easily.

    V- It is hard to give advice. A guy I don't know e-mailed me for advice a few months ago. He went to my undergrad and had gotten my name from one my favorite professors. It is just very personal. I, too, am glad we ended up together at FSU and I'm glad we are staying in-touch through twitter, facebook, and blogs. As I said in the post, I think community and interaction with other writers is vital.

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  5. Hey Stephen,

    Found your blog through Sandy Longhorn's. Great post. I think you've articulated what a lot of folks who went the academic route are feeling. Unfortunately, a lot of the criticisms raised against MFAs seem to be borne out of misinformation (i.e. all MFAs turn out the same kind of writers, all MFAs are cash-cows taking advantage of the student, etc. etc.).

    Happy to find your blog,

    Luke

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  6. Luke,

    Thanks for the comment and I'm glad you found my blog as well. You are very right about the misinformation.

    Take care,
    Stephen

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  7. For someone who did not know the debate existed, I appreciate how well you envisioned the multiple points of view and their inclinations.
    For me, I feel much like you do in one point: I think there are good and bad MFAs, so how can we debate on the process, as a whole?

    I also just discovered your pod casts! At first I laughed a lot (and you know why) but I really enjoyed number 4 :) Submit those! Reneen would ;)

    -Your Isobel

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