Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Em Eff Eh?

I’ve been wanting to write about this topic for a while. That is, the writing MFA. I see this question come up regularly on writers' forums. To get one, to not get one. Bottom line: are they worth? And by worth it, I assume people mean, will this get me published?

I have to say, most writers seem to think they are downright worthless, total waste of time, won't get you anywhere. I’ve read agent comments to this effect as well. Some agents seem to take special pride in form-rejecting any query in which an MFA is mentioned.

So let me jump right in and answer the question, was getting an MFA worth it? Actually, I should probably rephrase it to, was getting an MFA worth it to me?

Easy answer there: Absofreakinglutely.

Now, when I went to get my MFA, this was back in the mid-1990s, there wasn’t this thing I’m seeing of late: the low-residency writing program – which is an idea that I find intriguing and probably an option I would have chosen if I’d been able to. My MFA was a straight-up graduate program, meaning we had requirements outside the writing department. I took graduate classes in literature and philosophy, and we had that standard post-grad language requirement, so I also had to finish a class in translation. This is perhaps a long way of saying it was hard. (And for the record, don’t mean to be all secretive here, but I went to Columbia.)

Next question: Would I recommend other writers get an MFA?

Yes, I would. I mean, come on. Devoting a couple years to studying writing, getting the unvarnished truth about your work, and meeting fellow writers who can become life-long friends and critique partners? That is a pickle barrel full of awesome.

But you know what else I would recommend every writer do? Oh, let’s see, how about you take a trip around the world by catamaran. Travel alone through Asia on horseback. Spend a summer as an apprentice to the world’s greatest butcher in Tuscany. Spend a year painting landscapes in Tahiti. And while you’re at it, be sure to get your hands on the new Ferrari Scuderia F430, cuz it is sweeeeet.

Let’s be real. The average middle-class, post-college human cannot afford an MFA. And that’s really what’s at the heart of the “should I get an MFA” question. The MFA is undeniably a luxury item. And when we get to the point of saying such luxury items are required to be a writer, then we’re venturing into the Realm of Wrongness, a realm that is already stuffed-to-brimming, mostly with people who wear track suits and say “it’s all good.”

How was I able to do it? Loans. Lots of them. That I am still paying off and will be for a long while. Even considering that, I still think it was worth it, but that’s probably because I’m someone who doesn’t fully understand how money works, and someday I will probably end up living in a nursing home that bears a striking resemblance to a ditch.

So to be clear, my opinion on the MFA is this: Anyone, in any situation, with any life experience, and any degree of education, who is devoted to improving their craft can become a writer -- and probably a darn good one. Art is nothing if not egalitarian. And frankly as much as luxuriously cool experiences would help build your chops as a writer and artist, so too would living in a trailer park working your way through a series of husbands or spending a decade in a Turkish prison because your roommate stuffed opium into your backpack as you were heading through customs. Do you need an MFA to become a successful writer? No, of course you don't. But if you CAN get one, why wouldn’t you?

Of course if you had to choose between MFA and that Tahiti thing I mentioned -- Tahiti would be a perfectly lovely substitute. The Turkish prison thing? Well, I suppose it would be a lot cheaper and probably far more impressive in a query letter. You got me there.