To MFA Or Not To MFA? That Is The Question. . .
By Robin Black
Recently, I was on the phone with a private student, discussing the pretty wonderful memoir on which she’s working, and at a certain point in the conversation I said, So, tell me why you wouldn’t be applying to low residency MFA programs now?
Before I get to her answer (and then my answer to her answer) let me tell you why I asked the question – because it isn’t something I bring up with everyone. (Though it is the flipside to a question I’m asked a lot: should I get an MFA?) Despite my own degree and my belief that going to grad school ranks among the half dozen best decisions I ever made, I don’t necessarily think it’s right for everyone. Not everyone will benefit from the experience and not everyone needs it – obviously. Some of my favorite writers don’t have MFA’s.
But here is why I thought it was probably the right move for this woman; and maybe this will help give others some ideas about what’s right for them:
1) She writes well. There is obviously no way to predict who will “succeed” at writing, or even really, for me, to feel comfortable using the word “succeed” in the context of writing, but the truth is, if I don’t personally like the work someone is doing, I’m not going to suggest that they put in a huge investment of money and time doing it more.
But then I’ve had plenty of students whose work I like and to whom I’ve never made that suggestion. So there has to be more to it than that. . .
2) She listens well. Her memoir has improved by leaps and bounds as we’ve worked together – so I know she is responsive to teaching, and, specifically, to the kind of one-on-one long distance teaching that goes on in Low Res MFA programs. Not everyone knows how to implement teaching that isn’t about being told what to do (change this, change that) but is about discussing possible approaches and the reasons one might choose one or another. But she has responded well to that approach.
3) She expresses a lot of uncertainty about whether she has any business being a writer. She feels self-conscious about her age (late forties) and about whether she has started too late. I felt this way when I applied to grad school at 40. I have friends who felt this way when they applied at 52, at 48. We all got past it while in our respective programs. Whatever else goes on in an MFA program, it is two (or more) years of being told that you had better be writing, that people are waiting to read your words, and that you are a professional. And that counts for a lot. Some of us need that.
4) She listens maybe a little bit too much. I have seen this with so many students. They don’t know to whom they should listen. They don’t know how to distinguish certainty in an opinionated reader from knowledge about craft that may actually be helpful. They are resistant to their own instincts, all too ready to silence them. (I say “they” but it wasn’t so long ago I was in the same boat. . . And even now, on some days. . . )
It’s a tough balance, learning how to be open to help, without giving all the power to other people. And workshops can sometimes make that all the more difficult to learn. (So many voices! So little correlation between volume and helpfulness! )But the sort of one-on-one teaching which is the heart of Low Res programs can be tremendously helpful with learning both how to listen and how to filter out – skills that are ultimately about knowing what you yourself want from your work. Realistically, most graduates of such programs had at least one semester of a less than perfect match with a supervisor – but that’s not an entirely bad thing. At the time, it may feel like an entirely bad thing. . . but, in truth, writers need to know when they are getting bad advice. The isolation of a single voice that simply doesn’t resonate can be an extremely productive experience. And I have almost never, maybe never, heard of anyone having a supervisor from whom they learned nothing at all.
5) She likes talking about craft and is curious about that side of writing. Not everyone is. Not everyone who writes well is. But this student is. And that’s what a lot of graduate school is: Craft. So that is an important criterion.
6) She does not have a community of writers to call her own. This is huge. This, it turns out, is one of the best gifts of an MFA program. Friends. Friends who are grappling with similar issues. Friends who understand your insecurities and understand when it’s time to celebrate – and want to celebrate with you! Friends with whom you can work through some of the thornier issues of what it means to love people with whom you will inevitably (if not accurately) feel yourself to be, at times, in competition. Friends who speak the same language. When I was a mother of small children, I needed to be around other people with little kids – because they got it. The tedium, the joy. The challenges. As the mother of a child with special needs, I need to have friends who have children with special needs and who know the terror of that, the grief, the triumphs. And as a writer, I need friends who write. And so does she.
7) She can’t just listen to me. No one should listen to only one teacher. It can be awfully gratifying from the teaching end to have students who think that they need you and only you to help them along – but it’s never true. And it’s unhealthy too, artistically unhealthy. Probably emotionally unhealthy too, if it goes on long enough. I have seen those relationships really sour. If you are at a stage of needing a teacher, then you are at a stage of needing teachers – plural. If only to keep it all from getting too weird. But also because there are so many great teachers out there, why limit yourself to one? I’m sure there are exceptions to this, dyads who are pedagogically exclusive and have been healthy and productive, but the odds are way, way against it being a good idea.
So, there are seven reasons I asked her the question.
And here’s a consideration she brought up in response: Money. Low Res programs are expensive, and grant opportunities are few and far between. This particular student can probably swing it, but what if you meet all the criteria above and don’t happen to have a stack of cash at the ready for a degree that doesn’t significantly increase your earning potential? Is all lost?
Absolutely not. Those criteria of mine can be read as some friendly suggestions for those who can’t take the graduate school route, too. Are you interested in craft? Learn more about craft. Buy a craft book or two and discuss them with writer friends. Ask those of us who spent a couple of years annotating craft aspects of our favorite works, how we did it and why. Need teachers? Lots of great writers take private students. Need a community? Social networking has made that easier than ever before. Don’t feel like you have the right to write or to call yourself a writer? First answer that comes to mind: You do. We all do. And if you are writing, you are a writer. Say it out loud: I am a writer! But if hearing that isn’t enough, find a writing partner and set deadlines for yourselves. Or put together a group. Make the consequences for missing the deadlines real. Do as much as you can to create an environment that takes your work and your aspirations seriously. That one bears repeating: Do as much as you can to create an environment that takes your work and your aspirations seriously!!
Not every writer needs an MFA; but every writer does need that. (Even those of us with MFA’s. . . )
Robin Black’s story collection If I loved you, I would tell you this, was published by Random House in 2010 to international acclaim. Robin’s stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications including The Southern Review, The New York Times Magazine. One Story, The Georgia Review, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Freight Stories,Indiana Review, and The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. I (Norton, 2007). She is the recipient of grants from the Leeway Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, the Sirenland Conference and is also the winner of the 2005 Pirate’s Alley Faulkner-Wisdom Writing Competition in the short story category. Her work has been noticed four times for Special Mention by the Pushcart Prizes and also deemed Notable in The Best American Essays, 2008, The Best Nonrequired Reading, 2009 and Best American Short Stories, 2010. Robin is curently working on her first novel which will also be released by Random House.
This article was originally posted on Beyond the Margins.