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.

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  • * 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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