In Defense of the Low-Res MFA
March 10, 2015 § 16 Comments
I am an MFA dropout.
I’d been a journalism major by default—rejected from the undergraduate creative writing program—and minored in an interdisciplinary human rights program in which I was given the freedom to use the tools of longform, literary, and immersion journalism to complete my thesis. This program gave me a home. It supported my curiosity, research, and writing in a way no other department would at the time. They listened to me. And they responded with guidance based on my developmental needs and not limited to their preconceived ideas of what I should be doing.
Still, I was convinced that graduate school was my next step. I wanted to tell true stories. After broadcast and newspaper internships, I knew these paths didn’t feel quite right. I could only describe: I want to produce documentaries on paper. I leapt from undergrad to a successful MFA program on the East Coast that had recently added nonfiction. And, yet, I was a fish out of water. I didn’t fit inside the box. And my interactions with professors made this clear. Throughout my first year, I carried the heavy weight of being a disappointment and my writing reflected this. So, I left after that first year.
I had nearly forgotten the intensity of that feeling and how destructive it was, until I read Ryan Boudinot’s “Things I Can Say About MFA Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One,” in The Stranger. Boudinot’s diatribe struck me as an I-just-quit-my-job-let-me-tell-you-how-terrible-it-was letter to his former captors—his students. It was arrogant and personal. It had possible tinder for discussion, but most readers couldn’t get past the sharp tone and appalling digs.
Although I could comment upon each point where he went wrong, I won’t. Others have already done this and done this well. But, what I can’t seem to let pass is Boudinot’s destructive and unspoken criticism of low residency programs and their students.
Ryan Boudinot is a graduate of Bennington College and former faculty at Goddard College. Both of these programs are low residency. This means, for two or three years, students are in-residence twice a year for one to three intense weeks, depending on the program, and then everyone returns to their homes across the country or the globe to work with their mentor and their mentor group from afar. And while they’re full time students, almost everyone returns home to full-time jobs and family.
In full disclosure: three years after leaving grad school, I restarted my MFA at Goucher College, a low-res program. It changed my life. I started from scratch and from day one I knew I’d found a home. Low-res programs have a unique, almost magical, dynamic that only low residency students and faculty understand. And it is for this reason I—an MFA dropout, an MFA graduate, and now a PhD candidate in Creative Nonfiction—can’t wrap my head around Boudinot’s willingness to, for lack of a better word, dis these alternative programs with such a wide brush.
And so, Ryan Boudinot, here are a few lessons I am sorry you didn’t learn:
- Low Residency MFA’s are structured around the positive relationship between mentors and mentees. There is no place for mentor gatekeeping or bullying.
A mentor is a trusted advisor, a friend, teacher, and someone who acts with intent aimed to benefit the development of the mentee. In my program, we referred to faculty as mentors. And, this is what they were. Each worked with a small number of students, catering to the needs of each and their manuscript-in-progress. They understood no student was alike and that required listening. They weren’t saints. We certainly had episodes of new mentors adjusting, and myths around mentors who didn’t make it (insisting that writing can’t be taught), but ultimately it was about investing in the development of a single writer. It was about guidance, pushing students to understand story, structure, character development, their specific sub-genre of choice, and writing ethics. Your judgment of these students and your gatekeeping attitude reflects less on them and more on your suitability to mentor and your ability to understand the true value and role of the low-res MFA. These programs are not aimed at students seeking admission to the Iowa Writers Workshop. These students range widely in experience and aspirations. They actively sought an alternative home for writers who may not fit inside traditional models. Why waste your time criticizing their existence and their lifetime libraries? Sure, you’re going to read some manuscripts that aren’t all that great, but I pick up a lot of books that aren’t all that great. Isn’t that why those students are there—to find ways to get better? To learn?
- Know your audience. Low residency students do not fit into a single category or stereotype.I lived in South Africa where I ran a writing school, edited, and reported. CK was a staff writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama. SG was a lawyer in London. TM lived in Antarctica and was responsible for all scientist field communication. And SJB worked at a funeral home in Baltimore. More than half were married with children. Some were managing illness, divorce, or the looming death of a loved one. Your lack of respect for the low-res “21st century MFA student” and mockery of their difficulties managing the writing life balance makes me wonder: did you take the time to know your students? Did you listen? They would likely amaze you. They differ greatly from the traditional 23-year-old MFA student living below the poverty line while they teach classes, attend classes, and struggle to find the energy to write. And their goals are sometimes one book, a memoir they feel the need to write, a novel they’ve been thinking about for years. Or they may not have an interest in literary fiction, rather a yearning to write mysteries or young adult. My program was uniquely all nonfiction and ages ranged from early twenties to late seventies. And we had what seemed to be a 60/40 split between memoir and narrative nonfiction. We were serious and excited and eager. A few were challenging for mentors, I’m sure, but then again, I don’t know any job that lacks difficulty.
- Literary community is essential. Be kind and listen.
Sure, community can be constructed at home through writing groups and nearby workshops, but the support system and the family developed inside these residencies are unparalleled in my experience and, for many, lasts a lifetime. These are my people. And, because we have always lived away from one another, we learned from the start that writing is solitary, but we have each other. And, as a community, there was an overriding sense that your success is not my failure, rather your success is our success.
“Students who ask a lot of questions about time management, blow deadlines, and whine about how complicated their lives are,” you write, “should just give up and do something else.” First, no one ever told me to quit my traditional MFA, but the feeling that I was a disappointment, that I didn’t share their goals for me, did enough damage. At the time, I was your nightmare. I was poorly read. I lacked confidence in my voice as a writer and, more generally, my place in this world. And, I questioned whether I should be doing this—writing—at all. The competitive dynamic of community in most traditional programs doesn’t lend itself well to correcting this damage. But, in my experience, the community constructed inside low-res programs is different.
On some levels, I’m in agreement: blowing deadlines and complaining isn’t ok, but this is also why many students have joined this community: individual support, guidance, mentorship, and modeling of the things they don’t instinctually do well. It is a place where I learned to ask for what I needed. It is your job as a mentor to be a part of this community and find teaching moments, ways to help each student correct and overcome their greatest flaws and obstacles. It’s a big job and some people are doing it very well. But, guiding someone to quit doesn’t help anyone. Writing is hard and it’s full of rejection at every level. The last place we should find this is in our mentors and our community.
Ultimately, it comes down to this: Boudinot set himself and his students up for failure. He joined an alternative community while still holding on to very conventional, even regressive, ideas about writing communities and the role of the professor. While it’s unclear why Boudinot discontinued his relationship with Goddard College, it is clear that he and his students were not serving each other well.
Maggie Messitt is the author of The Rainy Season: Three Lives in the New South Africa, a work of literary journalism (April 2015). Her essays and reportage have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Essay Daily, Mother Jones, River Teeth, and Teaching Tolerance magazine, among others. She currently resides in southeast Ohio where she’s working on her doctorate and her next book, a hybrid of investigation and memoir. Co-editor of Proximity, a quarterly collection of true stories, you can find her here and here and sometimes even here.