I just found out that my Art of Hustle interview from last year is going to be aired on APEX Express this evening. It’s a pleasant surprise, but I have a question. Is “To MFA or not to MFA,” still a contentious issue, and if so, among whom is it an issue? And what is the issue? In the recent past, folks used to argue passionately in e-space about it, entering the “machine” and the “academy,” as bad, counterintuitive for art. I know I used to think this too, before I ever started grad school, and in my first year of my program.
I let up, because the whole process, I saw, was different for everyone I knew in a writing program. Some folks I saw and knew were so widely opened, with voracious appetites for learning, for workshop, for experimentation. Others seemed really fragile, damaged, so easily bruised, so closed. As for so much naysaying from folks of color, many of whom had never set foot in an MFA program, the “whiting” program turned out not to be a “whiting” program after all. This is an old blog post on the matter, “MFA Industrial Complex, from the Point of View of the Colored Girl in the Room.”
And really, what I was critiquing wasn’t MFA program itself, but the (at the time) growing industry of folks who to me appeared to be capitalizing on an enlarging cultural anxiety about it. I said in my Art of Hustle interview that if an emerging writer believes she needs one in order to further her writing, then she should go do it. There are folks who believe they don’t need the MFA. And they do just fine without one. The bottom line for me is that for any one of us who decides to apply to any graduate program, we have our own reasons, most of which I believe centrally involve professional development.
Now, perhaps the resistance to MFA programs and professional development has to do with a resistance to creative writing as a profession. Well, it is one. That’s that. The work involves so much writing, refining the writing process, editing, revising, learning how to grow manuscripts and polish them into full blown books, seeing these through to publication, and perhaps (hopefully) even lending that expertise to subsequent generations of writers/future authors.
If we know that any graduate degree, any professional degree, much less any college degree, is no guarantee of anything, especially in hard economic times when so many differently degreed people can’t find work, then why is the anxiety about the MFA degree so much more loaded and emotional?
These days I teach MFA students, and since I have a fall semester schedule, many of these students are brand new to MFA workshop. I also notice that many of these students are women of color, some of whom have come from slam or spoken word communities. At this point, there’s little argument that the ones who enter my classroom have for the most part have reached some resolution. They’re here, and there’s no reason to have to argue for or against the validity of the MFA degree. We just all agree to dig into the work, as my expectation for all of them is to get learning, above and beyond the thesis they will be expected to produce, how to write a book. Immediately, the response is, yes, that is what we’ve come here for.
I reserve at least part of one class session to share and discuss my own chapbook and book process, from germinating idea to revision, to full blown manuscript, to publication. They respond positively, telling me that yes, they want and need to know these things, that they want me to share my own experiences and process with them — another reason they’re here. “We want to learn how to get to where you are.”
You may learn these things elsewhere. But I am very sure this is what I bring into my classroom as our central concern and work. If there is resistance to creative writing as work, toil, and/or labor, that’s what needs to be addressed.