The MFA is Not a Calling Card

July 6, 2016 § 47 Comments


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Dinty W. Moore

By Dinty W. Moore

We – myself and our brilliant volunteer staff – do not always agree fully with every word posted here on Brevity’s blog, the “info and discussion” arm of our thrice-yearly magazine. Our readers, writers, and bloggers share a variety of opinions on issues of genre, hybridity, publishing, motivation, literary awards, and, no doubt, presidential candidates. Varied viewpoints are healthy and useful.

Emily Smith guest-posted yesterday – The MFA as Calling Card – reminding us how writers of color, LGBT writers, and lower-income writers often face extra barriers when attempting to enter graduate school. Examining this institutional bias is necessary, and under widespread discussion in the MFA world. Clearly, college tuition rates, state funding of education, and financial aid are all broken systems, not just for undergraduates but for graduate students as well. As is so often the case, those with the least resources bear the greater burdens.

I do, however, question Ms. Smith’s assertion that “the MFA is a literary calling card, a title not unlike Vanderbilt or Kennedy that can often buy entry into the otherwise classist structure of the literary world.” I think she overstates the case.

We are well past the time when an MFA degree absent a well-published book (or in poetry, perhaps numerous books) would put a candidate on the glide-path to a tenure track job. (We may soon be beyond tenure, but that’s another story.)

And I don’t think, despite numerous protests to the contrary, that literary journal editors look for MFA pedigree when deciding what work to publish, or that we accept work based solely on where the author has previously published. I certainly don’t when choosing for Brevity, and discussion after discussion with other journal editors convinces me that the majority do not do this as well.

Good writing wins out, not resumes or degrees. Am I excited when Abigail Thomas or Sherman Alexie submits a piece to Brevity? Of course, but my excitement is about the same when we publish a new writer, one with no or few previous publications.

The MFA is not a golden calling card for teaching positions, nor is it one for journal publication. This is all the more true now that many of our best and most-provocative literary outlets exist outside of university English departments.  (The list is ever-growing, but here are a few: Guernica, Slice, Literary Mama, Electric Lit, Creative Nonfiction, The Rumpus, Barrelhouse, Waxwing.)

Smith was admitted last year to Emerson’s excellent MFA program, but had to decline because she was not offered funding. That was a wise move on her part. Speaking not in my role as Brevity editor but as someone who has taught undergraduate creative writing for close to thirty years, no one, absent independent financial means, should go into deep debt to earn an MFA degree. I’ve been telling my students this since the very start of my teaching career.*

There are schools that fund everyone who is accepted (like the one in which I currently teach), schools that fund a portion of those admitted, and schools with no graduate assistantship or fellowship funding at all. Avoid the latter, unless you have earned your fortune or were born with wealth in hand.

I well understand the desire to write and be read, and know that a two- or three-year MFA affords a young writer instruction, practice, and peer support. But I believe as well that everything you can find in an MFA can be found elsewhere, at much less cost. There are online courses that are far less expensive since they don’t offer college credit (and thus, don’t have the bloated university overhead.) There are online critique groups as well as groups that meet at bookstores, libraries, and cafes. (It can be hard to find a good one, but they exist.) Literary magazines are almost always open to volunteer readers. Craft books provide much the same instruction you will find in a college classroom.

There is this simple truth: we learn to write better by writing.

Is it easier to find support and garner helpful critique in a well-run MA or MFA program? Yes, usually. Do I wish the programs offered more assistantship money, and enrolled more writers of color, and writers from other under-represented groups? Yes, definitely. Do I wish state legislatures weren’t abandoning state universities, and that administrators weren’t running our schools like assembly lines? Goodness, yes.

But the myth that the MFA is an exclusive calling card, a magic ticket to a select inside group, that it will give you entry into quality literary journals absent excellent writing, that those without the MFA are shunned by eminent literary magazine editors, is harmful to writers, and to the entire literary community. Writing is hard enough.

These hope-crushing concerns are just not true. The MFA is a great opportunity, but less and less valuable as a teaching credential, and not the key to publication, career, or literary acceptance.

Voice, fresh perspective, energetic use of language, crafted sentences, vivid detail: these are the calling cards.

You can print these cards at home.

__

  • * A brief footnote, after further consideration: my thoughts here are focused on traditional “full-residency” MFA programs and traditional students.  The low-residency MFA is a different equation in most cases, assuming the low-res student is employed during the length of the program, or can handle the tuition and fees through prudent financial planning.

Dinty W. Moore founded Brevity nineteen years ago. He wishes life was easier for everyone in the arts, but somehow it never is.

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§ 47 Responses to The MFA is Not a Calling Card

  • Brett says:

    Well stated, particularly your point about writing more as the best way to improve one’s writing, MFA or not.

  • papatyabucak says:

    Yes.

  • a3doglife says:

    I never went to college, kicked out freshman year because I was pregnant. it’s about the writing. read read read, write write write.

  • Leslie Fuquinay Miller says:

    II was told the University where I taught would consider an MFA plus a published book the equivalent of a Ph.D. So I got my MFA at Goucher, and I got my published book about a year after I graduated. Never got that job, though.

    But while I was in the MFA program–I mean the very moment I was in it, the night of the orientation dinner–getting an MFA became the only reason to get an MFA. I was getting better at writing. I was a poet learning to write long. And though I was hoping for a job at the end, what I got was what I needed: I became a better writer.

    I love the last line. My writing group meets tonight, so I’m printing out my “cards.”

    • Diana says:

      My background is in the business world, and I tested out of English and some humanities classes before entering college. When I started to write, I created my own self-study program. I wrote and read, wrote and read. I gathered craft books and attended conferences and took online classes. And I joined a writing group and when I’d outgrown that one formed a group and then later another. In my small city, however, finding people who were serious about putting their time, energy, and resources into writing was not an easy task. After a while, I realized that I needed something deeper, some formal training. I applied to the brief residency program I’d considered for years and was accepted. I knew I was where I was supposed to be that first night of the first residency. Earning my MFA gave me a connection to other writers (my current writing group, for example, is online with a couple of other grads), a community, a deeper understanding of craft, the ability to teach (which was not my goal), and hopefully the publication of my novel will happen soon (I’m about to query). I paid for the degree as I went, as I had my other three college degrees, so it took four years to finish, but the money and time, in my opinion, were well spent. Without those four years, I might never have received my calling cards.

  • I think it is a mistake to conflate Emily Smith’s use of “calling card” with a “magic ticket” as it’s characterized here.

    In her essay Smith never implies that an MFA magically opens the doors to a career as a writer. Instead, she frames the degree as a necessary introduction into the academic creative writing world, a guild which provides a (relatively) safe haven to the creative writers who manage to gain entry.

    A calling card isn’t sufficient, but it’s necessary, as her illustration of the eminence being uninterested in her when he finds out she has only a BFA.

    For sure, no one needs permission to write and the resources to study outside of a degree-granting program are more available than ever, but if you want to join the guild, you have to have an MFA (or increasingly a PhD), along with books, fellowships, journal publications, etc… Achieving those latter markers is significantly facilitated by moving through an MFA program.

    I like to believe that good writing wins out too, and it does, it’s what matters, but to deny the structure and function of the guild that is mixed up in all of this stuff seems like a kind of willful denial. No one needs an MFA to enjoy the pleasures of writing, but for a “career” (meaning supporting oneself in the field) as a creative writer, it is 100% necessary.

    • libbywalkup says:

      I find that my MA and MFA in creative writing have helped me v. little in getting published or in having a career in writing, and it certainly hasn’t guaranteed me a job in publishing or even as an adjunct prof., whereas some of my non-degreed counterparts have done quite well in creating literary journals, publishing work, and rubbing shoulders with other literary peeps while building communities together. As far as big publishers are concerned, the number of Twitter followers one has is likely just as or even more important than what degrees one has, so, I think “100% necessary” is conflated. But please, maybe the problem is me, maybe I’m not using this calling card appropriately. If there’s a club I forgot to join with my MFA calling card, I’d really love to know about it, because my MFA certainly never told me anything about it.

    • happyepsilon says:

      I’m with John Warner here. There are many benefits to having an MFA, and in this world where an MFA is no longer enough for a TT position, but tons of us have them, they are becoming a prerequisite for many other positions, like working as an editor for a literary magazine or press. I have a friend who has successfully published several poems in quality journals and has run his own literary magazine for almost a decade, but when he applied for paid editor positions, the hiring committees sputtered during interviews upon realizing that his literary magazine wasn’t attached to a program. Of course, there were many positions he couldn’t apply to at all because of his lack of an MFA. If you look at many NON-teaching but literature/arts-related positions, you’ll see that an MFA is required or desired for most. He constantly has to ask himself whether or not he wants to pursue an MFA in order to break into the publishing end of things.

      Besides instruction in writing, MFAs allow for extensive networking that some (not all) candidates can leverage into jobs post-MFA. Everyone knows of stories of MFA candidates who wowed a famous or semi-famous faculty member who contacted the editor at an important journal, who then published that story/essay/poem. And we also all know that meritocracy is a myth, period. Would those stories/essays/poems have been published by those journals had they arrived in slush, without being pre-approved by a figurehead? Maybe. Maybe not. Many factors affect our reading of submissions. What we accept/reject one day might have struck us differently on another. Persuasive arguments can change minds on editorial boards.

      So no, an MFA isn’t a magic ticket, but it can be a calling card, and, if you attend one of the really prestigious programs, it can definitely open all sorts of doors that would remain closed otherwise. And people do like to pretend MFA programs are meritocracies where the best writers get in, but I understand Ms. Smith’s pain at being accepted to one of the “best” programs without funding and having to pass, knowing that someone with resources will take that spot instead and have all those doors opened for them while smugly believing they got everything they have by being the “best” themselves. I’ve been in the same exact position and suffer no delusions about where I might be in my career right now had the program offered me funding or had I been able to afford the program without funding.

      I do like to believe that sitting down every day and doing the work that I have to do myself will get me where I want to go. I think I’d die if I didn’t still retain ideas about meritocracy helping me at some point. But come on, plenty of excellent writers (especially women, people of color, LGBT writers, and lower class writers) go “undiscovered” and plenty of mediocre writers (especially entitled middle class white dudes) do get published because of their connections.

      Dinty, you seemed to focus on TT positions, but I encourage you to look at *other* writing-related careers and note that many of them are asking for MFAs. Everything changes so quickly, and thinking that an MFA doesn’t matter in numerous realms where it does reminds me of discovering that CW faculty were requiring their students to write 25-30 page short stories in a world where most literary magazines cap submissions at 5,000 or even 4,000 words now.

      It sure is nice to imagine writing and publishing is a meritocracy where the cream always rises to the top, but that is simply untrue, and I feel that claiming otherwise and making something of a straw man of the original post is using privilege to proclaim there is no such thing as privilege.

  • a3doglife says:

    I taught in a a couple of MFA programs to which I would not have been accepted without a college degree. I refuse to believe the MFA is necessary. It’s great for community, yes.

  • Phyllis Brotherton says:

    Well said, Dinty. In a way, an MFA is like cake. Once you eat it, you realize you didn’t really need it. But it sure tasted good. I received an MA in Creative Nonfiction (CNF was not in the MFA program at my university yet), 16 years ago. But, no matter, I coveted the cake. And finally, finally, I went back and got it, the MFA. Did my writing improve during this time? Most definitely. But, mostly it was getting back to intensive writing and the rigor required in most MFA programs that did it. And, a tribe of like-minded people to spur you on. Reading, writing, rigor, a few supportive writer friends = an equally tasty cake.

  • ojohnhoag says:

    Mr. Moore, your comments are most welcome and highly encouraging. Good advice is always at a premium. Thank you, from Dripping Springs, TX.

  • Catana says:

    If, as John Warner says, the MFA is a guild, then it’s no longer about being a writer; it’s about jobs. So, the question is: how different is it from any job-oriented degree such as a business degree? Is the obsession with the MFA about writing, at all, since it’s rarely (if ever) taken into account when submitting for publication?

  • I should clarify my own point. In my opinion, academia is a guild, and over time, creative writing programs have taken on more and more characteristics of that guild in terms of qualifications for entry as professional practitioners inside that guild. The same way you need a PhD to be a history professor you need an MFA (at least, and among other things) to be a creative writing professor.

    Guilds establish standards (often informally) about what counts as membership. Emily Smith’s thoughtful, important essay here, which has been widely read and discussed “counts” much less in the academic creative writing world than a poem or short story in a journal that will be seen by only a handful. This is not to say that one is better than the other, but to illustrate what I view as one aspect of the guild, publishing “prestige.” The MFA degree is another.

    The tension (in my mind, anyway), is that those jobs are one of an extremely limited number of ways to support oneself as a “writer” and especially when starting out it’s one of the only models we’re exposed to.

    But it’s something of a moonshot, and as many testify here, going into debt for it can cause lingering hardship. I also wish that those inside the guild did more to grapple with the reality that some are being supported by those tuition dollars, an upwards subsidy for their art.

    I think the good news is that there’s many possibilities for a creatively fulfilling life as a writer outside of the guild.

    And I should note that this is the perspective of someone who, despite having many of those calling cards, never managed full entry into the guild, so there may be some measure of disappointment coloring the perspective.

    • “The same way you need a PhD to be a history professor you need an MFA (at least, and among other things) to be a creative writing professor.”

      So, in my case, this wasn’t true. I had a long and circuitous route to becoming a prof of CW. I hold a PhD in Comp Lit (which means I read theory and criticism, studied the novel, mostly, read across various languages, and wrote a critical diss). This alone would not have qualified me for the job I currently hold (and love). What did qualify me were the two books I wrote (and published), out in the “wilderness,” without writing workshops or writing mentors after I finished my doctorate. It was the PhD + my CV of essays, books, lectures, academic and writers’ fellowships that put me in contention for the position. Even so, there are so many factors at play in an academic job search that I have to admit that good fortune must have played a role too. The point is that I think there are many ways to walk this path: some take writers through MFAs and others don’t. Mine happened to take me through the weeds. For a decade or so, I was on my own, writing in solitude and isolation (in Canada, where there is only an embryo of an MFA culture). This uncertain path is not one I recommend to my students but, weirdly, I don’t regret it. In the end (and I think this is what Dinty’s saying in his above piece), it’s the work — the quality of the writing — that counts above all else. A really good book is the best calling card you can have. An MFA (or PhD for that matter) is a way to start that journey but it’s not the only way. Best advice I ever got was from my PhD mentor (my Doktor-Mutter, as the Germans say). As soon as I defended my diss, she said “Now write your first book.”

  • Nancy Geyer says:

    Yes, and well-articulated. My MFA is quite valuable to me personally, but I’ve never thought of it as a calling card, and I rarely mention it in the cover letters that accompany my submissions. (The credential is useful to me as a freelance editor, however.) As a one-time reader at a quality literary nonfiction journal, and an editor at another, I saw first-hand how the credential was besides the point. Writers with the most impressive credentials were often turned down in favor of writers without MFAs, some of whom hadn’t even been previously published. Perhaps a new or struggling journal would give extra points to a “name” or a credential, but, for the most part, the calling card is the writing. (The awarding of certain prizes and residencies might well be a separate matter.)

  • Thank you, thank you for writing this! I, too, have an MFA, but it was something I did because I wanted that experience of immersing myself in the craft. And I was damn lucky I could do so. But it is only one little piece of what makes anyone a good writer. And, as an editor at a little lit mag, I seldom look at anyone’s credentials prior to reading their submission. It’s all about how the words are put together.

  • Mary Clemens says:

    Although I’ve written since the age of nine, I had to make my living in another field and that was hard. I was blocked for decades. Now retired, at close to 70, I am writing and getting published.

    I have gotten some real help at Colgate’s and Skidmore’s conferences and an opportunity to study (too briefly) with excellent writers/teachers through the New York State Writers Institute. But, mostly, I write on my own.

    When an editor says “I love your story” it means everything to me. I want to be in the slush pile, one of the few remaining merit systems in the country. When you get that acceptance you know it’s not because of who you know or how you look or what degree you have. It’s because the story is just that good.

    • Anna says:

      “…the slush pile, one of the few remaining merit systems in the country.” Yes!
      Mary, I am of your generation and have a similar writing/publication/studying history. It took me years to get over MFA envy, during which my “internet porn” had me panting over one MFA program after another. What a pathetic substitute for real reading and real writing.

  • bethfinke says:

    Amen, and a question: when did the MFA in creative writing come into existence? Seems to me a lot of writers had work published before there even was an MFA…

    _____

    • Diana says:

      Beth, I commented on this below before seeing your comment. I think there is a direct correlation between the fall of the editor/writer relationship in publishing and the rise of the MFA in creative writing.

  • Dan Dodson says:

    Thank you.
    “Voice, fresh perspective, energetic use of language, crafted sentences, vivid detail: these are the calling cards.
    ___You can print these cards at home.”

  • […] Source: The MFA is Not a Calling Card […]

  • inktarsia says:

    I saved 10+ years for an MFA. I refused to take on more student debt, and I needed a low-residency program, which didn’t have as much student funding. In those 10 years, I ran a small family business, took online classes and kept writing. Some things are worth the wait.

    • Jan Priddy says:

      That is my story too. Thank you.

      • Diana says:

        I, too, waited about ten years, working on my own (online classes, craft books, workshops, conferences, reading, and writing a lot), until applying to a brief-residency program. I’m glad I waited because I was prepared to study at a deeper level than I’d have been earlier.

  • I loved your editorial, Dinty, and mostly agree with you. I cannot attest to the publishing success of MFA vs. no MFA. However, I can attest to a an attitude difference.

    For example, when I was earning an M.A. in English with a concentration in editing and publishing and a graduate certificate in professional writing, other grad students in the department who were on their way to PhDs in creative writing, poetry, and literature referred to us as “terminal.” They would say it with sympathy, as if we were forever stuck in third grade or dying of some horrible disease. “Oh, that’s right,” they’d say. “You’re *terminal*.” Quick, call my husband and tell him I won’t be home for dinner!

    I saw this same condescending attitude among the faculty. In professional writing, photojournalism, technical writing, etc., your craft speaks first for you. In academia and corporate employment, your degree speaks first for you. One excellent professor, a talented, incredible photojournalist, was whispered about behind closed doors that he “only” had a master’s degree. He also had a phenomenal body of work. What had these whisperers created? A self-published chapbook. Textbooks for the courses they taught. Papers they presented at graduate conferences by standing in front of an audience and reading the paper without making eye contact once.

    I’m generalizing, of course. Not everyone in the department acted this way, but neither was the attitude shown by just one or two anomalous grad students or faculty members. Ultimately, in our world, we should be judged by the quality of what we write and/or how well we can nurture other writers along the way.

    • Jan Priddy says:

      Condescension. Oh yes, your experience is not unique. I served on a state-wide committee devoted to writing education. I was the only member on the committee teaching high school which meant that for some other members, my input was trivial. Nevermind I had an MFA, nevermind I was better published than most of them, nevermind my students went on to Stanford and Brown and so forth, nevermind I was older and experienced in both private and public education—my opinion was worthless because I taught in a high school.

      A member of the community made rude comments about “these high school teachers” being unqualified and ignorant while I sat a few feet away. No one spoke up.

      Fortunately, there was at least one member of that committee who was welcoming and helpful to me, offering assistance and support as I transitioned to teaching college classes. I remain grateful to her, but I abandoned the committee after a few years. While they were paid to attend meetings, I attended on my own dime and could not afford to indulge myself that far.

  • After noticing many responses here and on Facebook from folks with low-residency MFA degrees, I realized a need to clarify. Just added this brief footnote to my original posting:

    “…my thoughts here are focused on traditional ‘full-residency’ MFA programs and traditional students. The low-residency MFA is a different equation in most cases, assuming the low-res student is employed during the length of the program, or can handle the tuition and fees through prudent financial planning.”

  • Diana says:

    These days we hear that work is not strongly edited by a professional, that to get published a manuscript needs to be in excellent shape when it is submitted. The days of editors working hand in hand with writers, especially with new writers, appear to be gone–or at least going. One thing I got from my MFA was an ability to edit. In many ways, in my opinion, the mentor/writer relationship seems to have replaced the editor/writer relationship.

  • Phyllis Brotherton says:

    Despite my earlier, sometimes off, cake analogy, getting my MFA was one of the top ten experiences of my lifetime so far. I would do it again. Who can replace a Wednesday night when workshop has been moved to the Red Wave, sitting around a table with classmates drinking our fave beverage and having an in-depth discussion about what makes a lyric essay? Who can replace a Queer Theory class that raised your queer consciousness about 5,000%? I could give a hundred more examples. Immersion in literature and writing and learning. The best and most satisfying cake I ever ate. Up there with Boston Creme, Saukertorte, and Lemon Meringue.

  • You are a hopesayer, Dinty.

  • Mary says:

    I’m really glad I was able to see both sides of the argument, both of which I understand, in parts. I, too, went into my undergrad program thinking that an MFA was the right immediate course of action. However, as I was completing by bachelor degree, I realized that an MFA wouldn’t have been in my best interest, considering the programs I was looking at were unattainable (pardon my low self-esteem or my honesty in reality). I took two years off before I went back for a master’s degrees in publishing, and I was able to pay for it all without loans. Even though I decided I’d rather be on the business end of the writing industry, it was still fulfilling to my career opportunities.

    While I totally get wanting to pursue an MFA for the camaraderie, the mentors and the time to write, it’s not always practical for everyone. My friends and I started our own literary magazine after we graduated from undergrad–we still read, we still critique, we still write and edit. We found our own way into the community, and it’s something we enjoy. It’s a matter of finding your niche rather than forcing something that doesn’t make sense.

  • […] I have been following the thread of conversation this week started by Emily Smith and continued by Dinty W. Moore. As the director of a low-residency MFA program, I have my own investment in this conversation, and […]

  • […] is a fascinating debate about the “MFA as calling card.” You can read it in order here, here, and […]

  • […] Source: The MFA is Not a Calling Card […]

  • […] “The MFA as Calling Card” was posted weeks ago, I have still been thinking about it. I think Dinty W. Moore and Kevin Haworth addressed most of my concerns in their own posts about why students should […]

  • […] so far away from the world that I can’t possibly infiltrate it. I’m not looking for a calling card; I’m looking for a train ticket. I need to be dropped off somewhere closer to where I want to end […]

  • […] been talking a lot lately about the MFA – its power, its lack of power, using the MFA as a place to polish one’s craft, to find a writing community, or as a […]

  • […] The MFA is Not a Calling Card, by Dinty W. Moore […]

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