I thought about naming this post “I Dreamed of Iowa” because I, like many, dreamed of spending 2 sleepless, coffee-infused years writing my imagined masterpiece in that literary Mecca. I say this with all seriousness. I was 40 years old when the dream started. I imagined the little house I would rent, how my husband would commute, the route I would take walking my dog around the campus. I saw myself having cheap drinks with my peers and talking about literature and solving our manuscript problems, wearing all the shades of black. It seemed like every book I read in those days had IOWA stamped in the author bio: This Published Book brought to you by a Graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I longed (yes, Longed) to be destroyed by Frank Conroy. I wanted to sit in awe, in an uncomfortable wood chair, before Canin, McPherson, and Robinson, whose books I paid retail for and read fast because very soon, you know, they would be my teachers.
I applied. I was rejected. Me and 800 others that year. It’s close to 2,000 in doled out disappointments these days, I believe. Everybody wants to go to Mecca. No room at the Inn.
I got to thinking about all this after reading some recent articles about Creative Writing Programs. Mostly negative articles. You’re shocked, I’m sure. The one that really got me fired up was this one at The Rumpus. Surely the title had something to do with setting me on fire: blowing my load?, ponzi scheme? Give me a break. Then there was the link to this over-long, winding, and PhD-wordy piece in The London Review of Books by Elif Bauman titled “Get a Real Degree” reviewing Mark McGurl’s book about MFA programs. Get a real degree? F-you, I say. Mine is as real as they come.
I’ll post detailed thoughts on my personal MFA experience later this week, but for today I’ll keep it to this. Do I feel “programmed” by The Program? No. Was it perfect, was it the Iowa Mecca I so desperately wanted? No. Do I regret one bit of the 3 years I spent on my palm-tree-lined campus with my teachers and my peers — experimenting, thinking, failing, working? Not one bit.
Unlike the author of the Blowing My Load article above — whose program is ranked #11 in the country — mine is not even in the top 50. I went where my husband, the money-maker, got a job. I didn’t have choices. But I ended up in a great place. I feel lucky. Where else but grad school for the MFA would I have had the chance to focus that much, to learn up-close from visiting writers/speakers like Dorothy Allison, ZZ Packer, Salman Rushdie, Junot Diaz?
Finally, at the end of the “Get a Real Degree” article, after I’ve spent half an hour swimming against the riptide of all the rhetoric, Bauman finally makes a statement I agree with.
“In the greater scheme, of course, the creative writing programme is not one of the evils of the world. It’s a successful, self-sufficient economy, making teachers, students and university administrators happy. As for literature, it will be neither made nor broken by the programme, which is doubtless as incapable of ruining a good writer as of transforming a bad one. That said, the fact that the programme isn’t a slaughterhouse doesn’t mean we should celebrate, or condone, its worst features. Why can’t the programme be better than it is? Why can’t it teach writers about history and the world, and not just about adverbs and themselves? Why can’t it at least try?”
Do I still wonder what Iowa would have been like? Sure I do. A dream’s a dream, right? I can’t imagine changing anything of my last 3 years, but still … I might have to order the sweatshirt in the picture. And sleep in it.
Thank you for the great comment! Minnesota in winter? Yikes! We’re originally from the Midwest so a week of snow days seems excessive. The last time we saw that was the Blizzard of ’79.
Since being laid off in 2009, I’ve ridden the fence on the idea of applying to MFA programs. Since the breadwinner and kids must stay in Georgia for now, my options are very limited. As in one school.
Although the idea of going away to school and coming home a few times a year has its appeal.
No. That would be wrong.
I think the dream of Iowa is a goal – something to reach for, but does that make other programs not worthy? Clearly not. The linked articles rely on generalizations. I would imagine that MFA programs are like other fields of study. The experience is more about the students and the professors and the dynamic they create than it is about anything else.
Like you, Lisa, I had few options. I write mostly nonfiction and there were only 3 local programs for me, and only one that really made sense.
I can’t even believe you said The Blizzard of ’79. What town were you in? I was in 8th grade, in Southeast Missouri, and we still talk about it. There’s was never anything like it.
Oh boy. I’ve been doing my own meditating – about my M.A.* – as I approach my last semester. Like you, I didn’t really have choices. I went where I could commute to easily and where I could do the program part time. Do I wish I could have gone to a more prestigious program? Of course. But that wasn’t an option. Was the program I went on everything I thought it would be? Not by half. But I don’t regret it: if nothing else I made connections with a few fellow writers – no mean feat when I live in deepest, darkest Hampshire. And I’ve learned some hard but important lessons, not only about my own writing, but about the business of writing.
(I think the MFA in the US is a more intense program – here the MA is typically one year full time and two years part time.)
I cannot tell you how envious I am of people who enjoy school – who want and passionately pursue their educations. I’ve never felt that. I’m a scavenger when it comes to learning, and fascinated by people who can sit down and learn properly.