If you’re in the mood to bear witness to some pointless Internet rage, look no further than the recent controversy surrounding Ryan Boudinot’s piece on MFA’s over at The Stranger. If you haven’t read it, I don’t blame you. I had never heard of him or the site before this week. Moreover, both the article and the responses to the article seem very much directed at that subset of people who are intensely interested in being “writers,” who talk incessantly about their status as “writers,” who spend more time thinking about the status of “writer” than actual writing, and, in my mind most damningly of all, think that literature and writing are in some way greater than life itself (they are not).
Usually I don’t pay attention to drama within the Internet writing community because, as you can probably glean, I don’t find it particularly interesting or important. But for whatever reason this article caught my attention. Perhaps because it showed what is, to me, the intense kind of egoism and insecurity that fuels those who think of themselves as “real” literary writers, who cannot stand the hordes of legitimately talentless hacks that populate a lot of the literary world. Perhaps I enjoyed it because it highlighted the egoism and insecurity of the people lay themselves down on great altar of Literature and Creative Writing and completely lack the self-awareness to realize that, while they should most certainly write if it makes them happy, they most certainly should not be doing it for a living. Who knows?
Either way, Boudinot’s article and the backlash against it highlight what has become a problematic obsession with the role of MFA’s in the modern literature landscape. His points should not be particularly incendiary. Lots of people suck and lots of people are born with talent. It is harder to be a great writer if you only started seriously reading at 26, and, by extension, if you don’t read and learn from great writers then you’re probably not going to be a great writer yourself. The fact that so many people resist what he’s saying in a way affirms what he is saying. The lady doth protest too much.
Boudinot’s article presents to us a far greater problem than the presence of chaff amongst the wheat in our nation’s MFA programs, though. In a sense, he implicitly critiques the existence of MFA writing programs in the first place. The advantage of an MFA, in my mind, is two-fold. The first reason you might go to an MFA program is simply to have some time to write (if you are funded). Two years with nothing to do but write sounds like a pretty good deal. That’s the kind of opportunity that can let you finally work on your first publishable book, hone your craft, etc. The second reason to go might be for professional connections and marketing. At some MFA programs you meet some really great writers who know other really great writers and a handful of magazine editors and publishers and so on. If you’re already talented, an MFA might be a good way to get yourself noticed. The third reason, I suppose, might be if you want to teach creative writing. An MFA can get you a job like that (though, in my mind, a degree in literature is a far more useful experience for both teaching people how to write and learning how to write than anything else).
Very few MFA’s actually provide this kind of experience, though. Often times, students pay money to receive critiques from and correspond with a perfectly fine writer who has written on average about one book every six years via email. I guess there are a few face0to-face meetings tossed in there. Fundamentally, though most students who are paying (significant sums of money) are essentially receiving services that should exist for free. Whether its practice or feedback, there’s little that a program offers that costs a significant amount of money. Even the argument that MFA’s connect you with like-minded artists, to me, seems like a bad one. I have never really met “like-minded artists.” I’ve met artists who I like as people, with whom I talk to about work with as a result of my affinity for them, but I have never met people concerned with the same things that I am. And I think that’s true for a lot of writers, if they have any talent (even the smallest amount, like myself). Moreover I see no need to essentially pay for friends. Go to readings and bookstores. Go on Twitter. Connect with people. They’re all free. (You may need to buy something at a bookstore.)
Beyond the experience itself, the degree also isn’t “worth much.” Granted, the experience itself is ideally the only metric by which you measure the value of a degree, but we all live in the real world and we all know what a name can get for you. An MFA can help you get a job as a creative writing teacher, sure, but only if it’s a good program, really. There’s a big difference between a degree from Iowa or Austin and a degree from The Institute of the Bay Area and Greater California College University for the Arts Graduate Program in the Fine Arts. Paying $20,000 dollars for a degree that doesn’t even earn you respect within the tiny little niche of the world you occupy is not only nonsensical, it’s deeply depressing and I honestly hate thinking about it. Of course, this isn’t just about the economics. I don’t mean to sound like anyone’s father, and I don’t think that the value of a degree lies only in its employability necessarily. It’s about spending your time doing things that will actually help you become a better artist (or, better yet, be a better artist).
People wrote for centuries without MFAs. T.S. Eliot entered into a PhD program for philosophy; Jonathan Franzen majored in German, etc. Granted, these are famous, brilliant writers, and it’s not fair to ask every writer to compare themselves to people who sell millions of (good) books or form the basis of classes on modernist poetry. Like anything else, there are good and bad writers and writing should not be something left exclusively to those who are great at it. Nevertheless, this mad rush to MFA’s really illustrates the extent to which technocracy and pre-professionalism have weaseled their way into the minds of aspiring writers in today’s climate. Fundamentally, people want MFA’s because they lack confidence in their own ability, and have come to believe that writing, like seemingly all things in the world, comes with a set way of doing things that will lead to automatic success. There is this idea that one learns how to write like one learns how be an electrician. One most certainly does learn how to be a writer—you are not born as one, not entirely, at least. But this learning is different for everyone, and, more than anything else usually just involves reading a lot and talking a lot and writing a lot. I’ve learned more from reading Ben Lerner or Susan Howe than I ever have from a workshop.
Courage in an artist is just as important as talent, and it is, I think, hard for people to break out of the professional models that we use for almost every other “industry” that we have in this country. It is, however, absolutely necessary to do just that. MFA’s are great options for a lot of people. They are not, however, like other graduate or vocational programs, and they shouldn’t be treated as such. There is no “safe” way to be a good artist, and there is no instruction manual. Don’t turn to a degree just to make you feel confident in what you’re doing. Be confident in your abilities and your work.
P.S. To the author: if you’re concerned with differentiating “real” writers from “fake” writers, I don’t think that you should actually consider yourself a “real” writer. Or, at least, not one who’s secure in his own talent. Your work should speak for itself. Putting down the work of bad writers is selfish and unproductive. While I agree that bad writers shouldn’t be doing these programs, it’s not because they aren’t real writers. It’s because it isn’t benefitting them.
P.P.S. To those who hated Mr. Boudinot’s article: he’s not wrong. Some people are born with more talent than others. I can play basketball everyday of my life for 8 hours and I will never be as good as the worst player in the NBA. That is ok with me, and it should be ok with you if you’re not a great writer. If you enjoy it and your work is meaningful to you (forget other people), then it is worth it. There is no sense in being dishonest with yourself about your own ceiling, though. If you’re not that good, then you’re not that good. There’s nothing else to it. Lastly, if you spend more time talking about being a writer than actually writing, then it may not be the thing for you. I’m guilty of doing just that, and I may very well not be cut out to be a “real” writer. But that’s ok. More than anything it’s just important to be honest to yourself and your talents. So says the wise college student with a wealth of life experience.
AJ Stoughton is a junior double majoring in English and American Studies at Columbia University, where he is one of the editors of The Columbia Review, and VP of The Roosevelt Institute. He’s been published before, so that means he’s good.