Some scattered thoughts on the MFA writing degrees

(in response to, or inspired by, Ruth Fowler’s rant at the Huffington Post.)

Some thoughts on the debate about writing MFA programs:

1. Do visual artists argue about the merits of MFA programs? I know I’m not the first person to bring this up, but the idea of training in the visual arts and music doesn’t seem to be as hotly debated, while the idea that one might seek training for creative writing remains a topic of consistent argument. It seems that the Huffington Post ‘books’ writers thrive on stirring things up (ie, rehashing a tired argument), so maybe it’s pointless to continue the debate in my own small way, but I’m not sure why it’s so strange to think that writers might benefit from the same kind of training that visual artists and musicians receive. I think this stems from the idea that many can write from a young age, that all that’s required to write a great book is to just live.

2. It would seem that the debate, at least as posed by Ruth Fowler, revolves around the MFA being a homogenizing force, that workshop attendees are put through a rigorous program that ultimately results in a bunch of boring books. I have a couple problems with this: the argument that MFAs are a homogenizing force sets up a straw MFA program, when my experience has been that MFA programs vary widely from program to program. Compare the faculty of Iowa with Notre Dame, Alabama, or Brown. So, the first requirement for the MFA as homogenous writer machine would be homogenous faculty, when this isn’t the case. So, maybe you could argue that MFA programs create cookie-cutter writing, but then, you’d have to acknowledge that there are many varieties of cookie (an Iowa cookie versus an Alabama cookie.) My biggest problem with this debate is that it assumes that the attendees of these assembly-line writing schools have no free will or creative judgement, that they are so victimized by the machine that they can’t help but churn out what their professors told them to churn out. In reality, my experience is that most creative writing professors don’t have an aesthetic agenda in the workshop. Maybe I’ve been lucky? Of course this must be the case somewhere, or there wouldn’t be any argument, but I don’t think it’s as pervasive as is insinuated, or that student writers are so influenced by their professors that they can’t break free of their influence.

3. Arguing that the MFA is destroying literature is as stupid as saying romance novels are destroying literature. Many different kinds of books get published. It’s great to be able to read and appreciate many different kinds of books. Just because some books that get published are written by people with MFAs, doesn’t mean there isn’t a market for books written by other people who, instead of getting an MFA, have just lived, dude or whatever path they’ve chosen. Why is the debate MFA versus living life? First, it’s a ridiculous binary, as if getting an MFA means you won’t have any life experience, and second it assumes that living life (“having adventures?”) makes you a good writer. There are many, many ways to get to the point in life where one can write a good book, I’m not sure why it’s necessary to privilege one method over another.

And for what it’s worth, most of the people I’ve met in grad school (I don’t have an MFA) have done interesting things with their lives despite spending part of theirs in graduate school. Even if a writer has lived his or her entire life in the cocoon of academia, that doesn’t mean somebody’s peace corps memoir, addiction/recovery memoir, or maritime novel won’t be published, or preclude somebody with an MFA from writing outside of ‘literary’ fiction. I would never discount somebody’s book because they don’t have an MFA, and I don’t understand why having one makes somebody automatically a tool. Everybody’s experience is different.

Some other thoughts here and here.