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A Note on MFA Programs
I am back home from the hospital and hopefully on the mend for good this time.
Since I note that August Kleinzahler is once again foaming at the mouth about some utterly imaginary and wholly evil version of MFA programs, about which he clearly knows nothing, I thought that I’d throw in my two cents, since I have two MFA degrees and thus some experience in the matter. I got those degrees because I was tired of doing data entry and other menial labor for not much money. I wanted to be able devote my time and energy to reading and writing, and to be in a context in which those things weren’t ignored at best and disdained at worst. After being nearly crushed by the so-called real world, the idea of hanging out with a group of people who liked books was novel and appealing.
While an MFA or a PhD is for the most part necessary to get a teaching position, the vast majority of MFA graduates don’t get such jobs (and the teaching jobs they get are in general poorly paid adjunct jobs with no security and no benefits—I’ve done that too). It’s not a practical degree, and no one should pay or put themselves in a lot of debt to get an MFA. But in general MFA programs have fairly good financial aid, usually in the form of teaching assistantships.
Despite many people’s reasonable doubts (and many other people’s unreasonable attacks or dismissals), MFA programs are in general a good thing. Mine gave me several years to focus on reading and writing, during which I didn’t have to worry about looking for or working at a job.
What was most important about my time at the two MFA programs I attended was that I met several fellow students with whom I clicked as people and as poets, many of whom are still among my closest friends. Having felt very isolated as a writer for much of my life, especially during the several years I was out of school before finishing my BA, that was very important to me. It’s very valuable in general to get outside perspectives on one’s work, even if one doesn’t agree with all of them, as one never will. To imagine one’s work through other eyes is absolutely crucial for a writer.
If one goes to an MFA program without any illusions about what it will do for one professionally or practically, and if one doesn’t pay through the nose or put oneself in debt to do it, it can be a very rewarding experience. Whatever one does afterward, one will still have had that time to focus on what one wants to do, which is a rare opportunity in our society.
One can read and write on one’s own while working full-time. But I know from my own experience how draining and demoralizing most nine-to-five jobs are, and how hard it is to gather up one’s resources when one gets home at night to do anything mentally substantial. (There’s a reason that Adam and Eve’s punishment was to labor by the sweat of their brows.) It’s hard to find the time and energy to study while making a living doing something else. I was very disciplined about such things when I was working nine-to-five, but that’s because I had to be in order to do it at all, and thus to maintain some sense of myself as a human being, let alone as a potential artist.
Most MFA programs aren’t intellectually rigorous, though some are surprisingly so. In my experience (I’ve attended three of them), most PhD programs aren’t intellectually rigorous either, though they do put one through many hoops, some of them on fire. If you want to read and think and write about literature for its own sake, not as a social symptom or an illustration of a theory (and I write this as someone who has found “theory” very useful to my development as a writer), a PhD program is not the route to take.
A PhD is a professional degree, and love of literature is an impediment to academic professionalization—I was once told that it’s something one outgrows. That attitude is antithetical to mine, or to any attitude compatible with being a writer. It’s also, I would add, incompatible with conveying to students that literature has any value other than as a social, ideological, or theoretical document. If that’s one’s only interest in literature, it’s hard to see how any interest in literature can be sustained, which is why so many such types drift off into pseudo-social science (that is, social science without the rigor, the research, the thought-out, consistent arguments, or the standards of evidence) while still claiming to “do” literature.