Tuesday, December 1, 2009

MFA musings

Tomorrow night I will read from a novel I've been tinkering with, off and on, for the past five years. This novel, titled When We Were Locusts, will also serve as my thesis for my MFA in fiction writing at The University of New Hampshire. The event is open to the public, so if you have an interest in hearing a woman named Shannon O'Neill, a nonfiction student, read from her memoir and me read from my novel, please come join us.

Seeing tomorrow night is, for all intents and purposes, the completion of my program, I figured I'd muse a little about MFA programs and share some of my opinions and experiences with anyone who might be interested in pursuing an MFA, possess an MFA, or hates MFA programs with every fiber of their literary being and believes the programs are elitist shams that produce cookie-cutter writing.

Let me start by admitting that, at one time, I belonged to the latter persuasion. When I first started publishing in the small presses, I was 23 years old, had just finished my undergraduate degree, and was beginning my career as a high school teacher. Quickly, I became immersed in a tiny pocket of the small press scene and started publishing my own zine called The Brown Bottle. At this point in my life, I figured that MFA programs were for people who either couldn't figure out how to write on their own, or had nothing to write about because they'd been living in that bombproof cocoon called "academia" their whole lives. Where's Kerouac's MFA? Or Hemingway's? Or Bukowski's? I'd smugly postulate. Of course, Kerouac and Hemingway were part of some of the earliest MFA programs, although they weren't called "MFA programs" at the time; they were called "writers' circles." And Bukowski? While many will argue that he never could write, I don't buy it, and I think he's a good example for why you don't need an MFA to be a writer.

Now, close to twelve years later, I'm finishing an MFA program. Did I need this program to become a writer? Absolutely not. Did it help me become a better writer? Absolutely.

I'd should preface this by saying my situation at UNH is a little unique. While most full-residency programs don't, to my knowledge, off many part-time slots, I was grandfathered into the program. I started at UNH, part-time, when it was still an MA. The next year, the English department switched the degree over to an MFA, and I was offered the option to changing programs and taking 16 more credits to get the terminal degree, so I did it. I mention this because one of the reasons many people believe MFA programs are for the privileged few is that it is simply impractical for someone with a family and financial responsibilities, especially in this economy, to quit their job and enter a writing program for three years. And it's equally absurd to assume that the minute you finish the program there will be a cushy college position waiting for you. Ask people who are currently in the market for those college teaching positions how competitive it is. They'll tell you.

However, there are many low-residency alternative MFA programs for people who simply can't drop everything and go to school full-time. Do candidates with their MFA's from full-residency programs have a competitive edge over people with diplomas from low-residency programs when it comes to hiring for college positions? I have no idea. Listen, if you write and publish an award-winning book, you'll going to have the competitive edge anywhere you go.

Currently, I'm not in the market for a teaching job---I teach in a high school, thank you very much---and, really, a discussion of MFA programs should center around writing. And as I said before, if you want to be writer, you don't need to get an MFA, but I do believe a program, if you choose a program that fits with you and your writing style, will serve you well in your endeavors and cut a lot of time off the learning curve.

At the very least, an MFA program will force you to finish, or push you in the direction of finishing a longer body of writing. And if you want to write books, this is invaluable practice. Also, you have the benefit of being around people who are just as passionate about writing as you fancy yourself to be, and you'll work with writers who are better than you, on both sides of the desk. This lesson in humility is also invaluable when it comes to publication and submitting your work for publication.

But what about the finances? How can you afford a program that doesn't guarantee you anything--- economically speaking--- when you finish? I don't have that answer. Many full-time programs have fellowships and tuition wavers for MFA students, but it still might leave you scrambling to live. I was fortunate that the high school where I teach will pay for one class per-semester for faculty. In other words, they want their teachers to be more educated and models of life-long learners: that makes sense to me. But I know a lot of districts can't afford it. I just don't have any answers. For some reason, I keep thinking back to Bob Dylan's line in "Like a Rolling Stone" that goes: "When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose." It goes a long way in explaining the quandary---of life.

If you're still reading this, congratulations. You have a hell of an attention-span. In short, the MFA program at UNH was well-worth it for me. I got to work with some incredible writers---Alex Parsons and Tom Paine and Ann Joslin Williams in the fiction department---and I've seen some of my classmates go on to publish books, like Tim Horvath and Jason Tandon.

Ultimately, and always, the important thing is the writing and getting the writing done; and as far as that's concerned, no one gives fuck how you do it. So stop reading this, and get it done.


Anonymous said...

Have you ever pondered the idea that you'd be more popular if you wrote and or talked more "appropiate"?

Robin S. said...

Anon, shouldn't that be "appropriateLY"? I'd say that would be the appropriate word to have used in your sentence.

And, my two cents here is that people who write, as you put it "appropriate" are bland and safe, and thus, boring.

Nate Graziano said...

Thanks for getting my back, Robin.

And, anonymous, I'm pretty sure you can dig up someone who you'll find "appropriate" (aside from misusing the word, it's mispelled as well; although I do it all the time. I'm a very clumsy typer)to read. There's no dirth of writers out there. Good luck.