Four years after receiving my MFA in creative writing in fiction, I’ve decided to add my two cents to the endless debate: Is an MFA in creative writing worth the time and money? In case you glossed over the second clause in my first sentence, let me reiterate that I am adding my two cents, not answering the question. See how well I implemented the “creative” part of my degree?
When I decided to pursue my MFA, I had just returned from backpacking into India through Nepal, Tibet, and China. Just before that, for two years, I had been teaching English in the small town of Dandong in Northeast China. This was back when I thought I wanted to make a difference in the lives of children by committing myself to teaching at the elementary, middle, or high school level. As it turned out, I don’t like children. (Disclaimer: I have a daughter now, and while I love her to bits, I am happy it is not my job to teach her or her kind.) Anyway, the point is I had plenty of “ real world” experience from which to draw from. That’s what old school writers did before MFAs, isn’t it?
Throughout my time in China and even when I was sitting in the backs of cattle trucks with goats nibbling at my notebook, I always wrote. I always knew I wanted to write. So I did. I wrote constantly. Beginnings of novels. Short-stories with Indian protagonists and pages and pages of backstory on the “exotic” culture I knew very little about. Needless to say, all of those embarrassing stories have never seen the light of day. I knew I had talent, but also knew it was raw. I also wanted to teach adults. And those are the reasons I applied. I didn’t care about publishing. I figured if I could polish up my writing to the point where I like it, then everything else will fall into place.
My application process was not very complicated, especially considering the typical MFA application process. I already knew I liked CSU Fresno writing professor Steve Yarbrough’s teaching style because I had taken one beginning creative writing course during undergrad with him. And I wanted to be close to home. So, without consulting any writing magazines or lists of Top Tier MFA programs, I applied to California State University, Fresno. Yes, just one school. And was elated when I got in.
The workshops, including non-fiction and poetry, were all conducted using the glass-booth style, a term I just recently became aware of, where the author is not allowed to speak during discussion of his or her story.
The two fiction writers in residence at the time, Steve Yarbrough, who is now at Emory, and Liza Wieland, now at East Carolina, were both polar opposites in their teaching and writing styles. Both were very talented, but I found Liza a bit too highbrow for me. She has a Ph.D. from Columbia and did her undergrad at Harvard, which are obviously not negatives, but her approach to fiction seemed like it was more academic than from a storytelling perspective. I took some classes with her during undergrad and only two during my MFA because her house flooded in North Carolina and she returned there in the middle of a semester. Thankfully, Steve Yarbrough was the other option. Let me rephrase: he was the only option, so thank goodness he is awesome.
Steve was ultra-relaxed and exuded Southern-ness in everything he did. All of his stories are set in Loring, Mississippi, where he is from, and he illuminates the culture through every story he tells about it. Many of the writers who I am still an avid fan of today were introduced to me by Steve. Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, William Macy Grey, Cormac McCarthy, all stalwarts of Southern fiction, were writers I would never ever have read if I hadn’t been in the program. I would have thought they didn’t have anything to do with Asian identity and culture, two of the only things I was writing about then. But as I read and analyzed these works, in addition to stories by Kafka and Chekhov to name a few, I realized the power of character and voice. And stories by almost all of these Southern writers are concerned with tradition, culture, and even language, all elements I was trying to write about.
One of my all time favorite short-story writers, Flannery O’Connor, has described the MFA experience as “the blind leading the blind,” which is an interesting way to put it, particularly since she is one of the first successful writers to come out of an MFA program. She was, I assume, questioning the logic behind having unpublished writers critiquing the writing of other unpublished writers, which really is the premise of any MFA program.
I had mixed feelings about the workshop. I will admit that it was sometimes helpful to hear input on my story by other writers who did have a much firmer grasp on certain areas of writing, such as handing of multiple characters and incorporating flashback into the narrative. But there were always those few who would make comments and criticisms designed to make themselves look more knowledgeable than to help improve anyone else’s writing.
Overall, I did get a lot out of the workshops. There are equal numbers of suggestions that I have both ignored and incorporated into my revisions. So I don’t wholly support Flannery O’Connor’s take. But I will vehemently deny this claim should she come back to life and offer to have dinner with me. (I’ve already asked my wife. She says it’s okay.)
Editors, agents and, surprisingly, other writers, are the most critical of MFA programs, claiming that they churn out writers with a similar style of writing and even subject matter. I can’t imagine any MFA program being able to teach creative writing and thereby create writers who write a certain way and about certain subjects. These programs sharpen what is already there, but the bottom line is that a writer needs to have the balls to be true to him or herself. If the writers in your workshop — including the instructor — tell you that your story needs to take a totally different direction and you do it even if you disagree, you shouldn’t be a writer. And your voice deserves to be stifled.
For my thesis, I wrote a short story entitled “The Dickhead” — primarily because I wanted the chair of the creative writing program, Connie Hales, an accomplished poet and an incredibly helpful advisor, to say, “The Dickhead” in public. It was ripped apart in my workshop for having too much Chinese, an unconventional voice with too much British vernacular, and syntax that not many people understood. And it had virtually no plot. The story is about an expat in China who is having a one night stand and has locked himself in the bathroom. Riveting, eh? I ignored everyone for the most part, but expanded it a bit, and it won the MFA fiction prize! I even sent it to the Paris Review and got the nicest rejection letter ever. It will be framed on the wall soon.
So to summarize:
Do you need an MFA to be a writer? Nope.
Will an MFA help you become a better writer? It will ground you in literary history and will expose you to other styles of writers. At least, that’s what happened in my case. But I got extremely lucky that there was a writing teacher in my program who was very accomplished, whose writing I happened meshed well with. That, I think, is key. Really research your professors before you even bother applying.
Does an MFA stifle a writer? If you have thick skin and know what criticism to use and which to chuck out, then no. If you have thin skin and the thought of someone not loving your story upsets you, don’t get an MFA. But then, you’re better of not publishing either.
The bottom-line: Get an MFA if you are passionate about writing and have an interest in one day teaching creative writing. Otherwise just take workshops with writers whose work you like.
I will leave you with two more relevant quotes by Flannery O’Connor:
“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”
“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
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