Tuesday, September 20, 2016

What’s wrong with MFA programs in writing

Admittedly, I don’t know what’s wrong with all of them. I do know what’s wrong with the one where I earned my MFA. But I’ve asked other people with MFAs, and many of the residential ones sound similar. I’ve probably missed what’s wrong with other programs, but surely the following is enough, don’t you think?

  • Mostly, they teach sneering and elitism. They teach nothing about business, and the one I went to taught nothing about craft. But they did sneer often at commercial fiction and genre fiction. I had one prof, whose total publications as a fiction writer were two stories bought by buddies of his, literally sneer at one of my stories. “Isn’t this...(sniff)...rather commercial?” He couldn’t have wrinkled his nose more had I just farted. I smiled brightly and said, “Thank you!” Because he had given me a compliment, even if he didn’t have the wit to know that. What commercial means, just in case you don’t understand the word in this context, is that several strangers would be willing to part with their hard-earned money to have the chance to read what you’ve written. And yet, in the MFA program, this was seen as a bad thing, a low thing, beneath us. It didn’t take me long to see the classism that underpinned all this sneering. The classism assumed you’d be living off a trust fund or a rich hubby, and dabbling at writing “real art” that you needn’t be paid for. I grew up working class. I continue to be working class. I pay all my own bills. I relate as much to this privileged attitude as I do to being in the royal line of Monaco or a Martian bacterium.
  • At the program I attended, they also sneered at all the ways I had taught myself how to be a regularly-published writer before I arrived. Close analysis of published novels, for instance: was not done there, and when I pointed out in a discussion that it was a way for a fellow student to understand why so-and-so’s books worked so well for her, the professor merely laughed at me. Another professor, when I suggested during a critique circle a possible technique to apply to a problem spot, said, “Right. Did you read that in a book somewhere?” “Book” was said again with lip-curling and a sarcastic tone. I thought, but did not say, “Gee, I never thought I’d be in graduate school and the professors would sneer at the thought of reading a book!” But they do, and certainly if it’s a book on fiction craft. (I probably had read it in a book, in fact, and the worst craft book I ever read taught me a hundred times as much as any of those professors did.)
  • Instead of actually teaching the craft, they expect you to intuit it. And maybe some brilliant people can. I think of Truman Capote, writing wonderful short stories at age 17. But then, if you’re that much of a natural, getting published in national magazines at 17, why on earth would you need an MFA program? I spent two years in that program, and there was one fellow there, a nice bloke, who still didn’t have a clue what point of view was when he was awarded his degree, much less how to control it in service to the story.
  • The We Are Special Artistes And Better than Everyone Else belief. In my program, we were encouraged to be licentious and end up in jail. Literally. Seriously. It was stated the first week: they looked forward to bailing us out of jail. I have news for you, artistes, this is ten kinds of nonsense. Writing is work. It’s another kind of work people do, nothing more, nothing less. It is no more noble than drawing blueprints or planting shrubbery or being a civil servant or running a Subway franchise or any other work. It is, in fact, somewhat more self-indulgent than most sorts of work. You do the work by plopping your arse down in the chair every day and typing, not by slapping your hand to your forehead and moaning, “alas, poor me! I’m so special!” Typing scenes isn’t particularly romantic. It’s thinking and imagining and typing and backspacing and typing some more. And being a writer doesn’t excuse indulging yourself in untreated alcoholism, cheating on your spouse, or anything of the sort. “Writer” is not an excuse not to mow the lawn or pay the taxes. Everybody who doesn’t write also has special thoughts and deep feelings. Writers aren’t special and they aren’t above anyone else and they aren’t above the law. Seriously, get over yourselves.
  • Forget the university’s rules about sexual harassment. Because some of my professors demanded their students get naked in conference [you think I’m making this up, don’t you? Alas, I am not.], and others screwed whoever they wanted to (always going for the youngest or most mentally unstable). As there was usually thirty or more years’ age difference between screwer and screwee, it was creepy, to say the least. Requesting sex of someone you hold grading power over is coercive, which is why there are rules against it. But because they are special artistes and all, those rules don’t apply to them.
  • What they are steering you toward, in their half-assed way, is writing the sort of story that appears in the Paris Review or Glimmer Train. Those two magazines pay for stories, but the ones in the tier just under them do not. All you get with publication there is bragging rights. I’ve yet to meet a utility company that takes publication in the Sewanee Review in lieu of cash payment. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy reading these sorts of stories. I do. I’ve written them. I’ve been published in those places. But pretty soon (or not so soon, in my rather slow-on-the-uptake way), a smart writer has had sufficient ego-boosting from it and realizes that it’s not getting her anywhere else but dropped at the corner of Pleased and Proud without bus fare home, and she moves on.
  • Where other graduate programs have an aim of getting you actual work that pays your bills or setting you up for a Ph.D. that will pay you well, MFA in fiction programs have no such goal. One of the people I attended with has a small-press published book which sold about what small-press books of literary fiction do (It’s ranked at 2 million at Amazon today). Otherwise, I’m the only one regularly publishing or making any money at fiction-writing. (And I was regularly published before I attended.)
  • Their combination of nonsense--no craft study, no acknowledgement of the business, Special Artistes, literary fiction only--will push you further away from being a writer who earns a living at writing fiction, not draw you closer. If you believe all the above nonsense while you’re there, it may take you years of slapping yourself out of it to fix your attitude. Life is short, people. You can’t waste two years at an MFA and five years detoxing from it.

So my advice if you’re even thinking a little about doing this is:
  • Don’t go to an MFA or BFA in writing program unless they pay you to go, as with a fellowship. (I was paid to attend mine and chose the best financial offer.) Why? Because you’ll never earn a dime from anything you learned there, and you don’t want loans dogging your steps for the next decade. With an MFA, you can then teach composition in community colleges all across this great land and experience the joy of explaining the comma splice and that, no, that word that means “absolutely” is not spelled “defiantly” a thousand times every year. It’s not fun, but it’s a job...at least for a while, until you can’t bear it one more day. Community colleges with 80 adjunct English faculty who have no health insurance and only 10 full-time instructors will welcome you and your fresh MFA in fiction with open arms.
  • Instead of grad school, go get a real job, or a series of jobs. Work on a fishing boat. Stock shelves at Walmart in the wee hours. Be a crisis counselor on a hotline. Be an orderly in a nursing home. Anything that puts you in contact with lots of different characters is good, as that’s all fodder for your writing. Work for pay, and write early in the morning and on weekends. This is what most writers do. It’s what you’d have to do after an MFA, so why not skip the MFA and get straight to work?
  • Or get a degree in something that will simultaneously lead you to a job that pays the bills (as writing doesn’t for most people who work hard at it, and it’s often unreliable income even when it does pay) and make you an expert in something you can use in your fiction. Fantasy writers, perhaps you can get a degree in folklore or anthropology. (Though jobs in those areas are hard to come by and low-paying.) Science fiction writers, what’s wrong with a degree in computer science that allows you to earn a good living and also give you ideas for your futuristic fiction? Mystery writers, attend the police academy and hit the streets in uniform for a few years, why don’t you? Then you’ll know something real that will serve your writing.
  • If you must get a master’s degree in writing, go for technical writing. You’re more likely to get a job with that.
  • If you insist on an MFA and do get a fellowship, go, but don’t, as I did, arrive there revealing you have more publications than your professors or, if you get a great publication while you are there, mention it. (It’s hard to bite your tongue at such times, but bite it, hard.) The professors are insecure, foolish little people, and it will upset them. 
  • If you get several offers of fellowships, okay. Now go the websites and look at who they brag about as MFA alumni. Have you heard of any of those people without googling them? If the answer is no, then that’s not the program to attend, is it? If none of them can list a alum name you recognize, then why go at all, even with a fellowship? Be smart; ask yourself, “Then what does this place actually DO for its students?” If, after twenty-five years of handing out MFAs, not a single student went on to pen a best-seller or win a Pulitzer, then they are not doing their jobs right.
  • If you have your fellowship and go, and you’ve learned to keep your head down in class and ignore the nonsense values, do volunteer for a job editing the literary magazine there. You’ll learn a lot about what editors see when you’re an editor yourself, and it’s enlightening. It was the one useful thing regarding writing that I took out of the experience, but of course it was not part of the coursework.
  • So, you have your fellowship, to a program that can brag about several famous authors graduating in years past, and there’s a lit magazine to work on. You’re moving in to your apartment in August, checking out the town. Do check it out! Do not make the MFA students and professors your main source of social connection. If you have a family, great: do things with other families and spend quality time with your kids. If you’re single, join a group that appeals to you, join a church or temple or ashram or atheist meet-up. Find an equestrian group or a group of people who build model trains, or a quilt circle, or volunteer to mentor teenagers playing chess, or get a membership to a yoga studio, and build your social connections out from there. This will keep you saner and make it less likely you’ll absorb all the nonsense values promoted by the program.
Take it from one who knows. The MFA in fiction writing is a nonsense degree, and it won’t get you any closer to being a writer making money from writing fiction; indeed, it will probably push you away from achieving that goal. If you must do it for whatever reasons drive you to, heed my advice about minimizing its damage to you. Like a good parent, I really am saying it for your own good.

Thanks to The Passive Voice and its commenters for reminding me I needed to write this post one day. Kris Rusch has also spoken about the matter intelligently. Let the Truth be known.


  1. Great article, insightful stuff.

    1. Thanks! Upon re-reading it, I suppose it isn't quite as insane-ranting as I remembered it. :)


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