Listen Up, Student Applicants: Let’s Talk MFA in Creative Writing
It’s that time of year when students applying to graduate programs are putting together lists of schools and portfolios and asking for recommendations. U.S. professional culture now has full-blown Recommendation Mania but I’ll save the details of my critique of that for another time.
Over the last few weeks, there have been some extended and quite useful blog discussions of the problems and possibilities of the MFA in Creative Writing. I’m gathering a few relevant links here for people wanting to read more.
I hope especially that students in the process of applying for MFA’s will check out these discussions. And that includes all of you who have been stopping by my office to talk about graduate school applications.
A significant discussion of the political, social, and economic problems that MFA programs both suffer from and promote can be found at Rachel Zolf’s Tolerance Project blog. Both Rachel’s initial post and the many responses are all well worth considering in detail:
A discussion of an entirely different tone and topic, regarding MFA Program Rankings and their value and why the very idea of such rankings makes many writers purple-faced with rage, took place over at Elisa Gabbert’s blog:
And, partly in response to the conversation on Rachel Zolf’s blog, K. Lorraine Graham posts the following thoughts about her own MFA experiences and desires, and some of the contradictions and complexities she has found:
What follows in the rest of this post are some of my own thoughts on getting graduate degrees in creative writing. Take them or leave them, as you will.
There’s no doubt that MFA programs participate in, and benefit from, a situation in which there’s a lack of satisfying career options in the U.S. for people who are in the process of becoming writers or deciding whether to become writers. Too many people enter MFA programs because there isn’t anything else they can find worth doing while still trying to develop their writing. In some instances, I suppose, that’s caused by lack of imagination on the part of the person applying, but in many (and I would say probably most) others, it’s closer just to being a social fact of life in the U.S.A. One, by the way, that needs to change.
MFA programs also therefore participate in university exploitation of labor. An MFA may help someone become prepared to teach, but most of those teaching options are not great. Adjunct teaching at low wages and with no job security is not automatically or even usually a stepping stone to a successful career as a professor. It can be such a stepping stone (and beware professors who too smugly say “There are no jobs for professors” and appear to be taking pride in their own success at the impossible) but isn’t always or even often one.
It is worth noting that many people who get an MFA or even an academic Ph.D. and who don’t end up working in universities are not automatically doomed. In fact, many who take such a degree and then leave academic institutions for other careers (or work in those institutions at jobs other than teaching) do better, at least financially, than some people who continue working as teachers. Despite cliches about English majors, most people getting literary degrees are quite capable of surviving once they leave their academic programs. Imagine that.
In terms of actual academic jobs teaching creative writing, the less prestigious a university is, the more likely it is to require that professors of creative writing have an MFA or Ph.D. More prestigious universities (Ivy League universities, for instance, and some similar others) will more often hire writers simply for their achievement as writers, although that approach may be increasingly disappearing at all but the most elite U.S. institutions.
What that means is that at most U.S. universities, just being a publishing writer isn’t considered a good enough background for teaching creative writing. You have to have both the degree and publish. Many writers have been critical of this fact, and rightly so in most instances, since having an MFA doesn’t mean that someone is automatically going to move forward as a writer or that their writing is any good. Still, right now that’s how most U.S. universities and colleges operate.
This problem is also tied to the issue of how universities consider the importance of teaching and writing when it comes to being a professor. The less prestigious the school, the less likely its administrations are to really want to see its professors publish that much. That’s a sad fact. For instance, as several of my very helpful academic colleagues pointed out in letters they wrote supporting my application for tenure, the fact that I’ve published a lot didn’t actively hurt my ability to be a good creative writing professor. I’m not criticizing my colleagues in saying this; it was a good practical tactic. The point though is that too many administrators at too many institutions see publication as getting in the way of good teaching.
Students who enter an MFA program are probably best off when they know what MFA programs offer and what they can’t. Such programs give people a few years to read and write and learn and to have further chances to create a community of others who share their interests. They give people a professional credential that has some potential career and earning value, but by no means necessarily much. Therefore by no means do MFA programs necessarily solve the problem of anyone’s future work life, and of course most last only two years. They end fast.
The students who are especially best off in MFA programs are the ones who enter an MFA while either developing or already having developed other possible options for their future work lives. Remember the saying, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” I myself worked as a professional journalist for many years, on and off, while getting my own academic degrees.
And remember, crucially, that getting an MFA degree doesn’t make anyone a writer. Only continuing to write will actually do that, and many people do that just as well without an MFA. And entering graduate school is not the only way to develop a connection to other writers or to become part of a community of them. Another approach is to move to a city where many writers already live and become part of the literary activities in that place.
One final irony here: having a developed social critique of MFA programs is helpful regarding knowing what you’re getting into, but is much less helpful than having other actual options.
I hope anyone with further thoughts or questions about MFAs will respond in the comments section.