A few days ago I posted a link to this article over at The Rumpus about MFA programs. As of this morning, there are 136 responses — I was glad to see that, glad to read all the comments both in support and against the stances taken. I love it when a writer takes aim, stirs the pot, and gets us talking (or screaming), and I laughed out loud when I read, “Aren’t I supposed to have a fucking masterpiece by now?”
Now that I’m officially finished with my MFA, I’ve been reflecting on the program and wanting to write about it, and I’m going to use the claims made in this article (with thanks to its author, Anelise Chen) to get started.
Chen: As we get closer to graduating, we might start to think that perhaps we have not actually learned that much. That maybe we were better writers before we entered The Program.
How can this be even remotely possible? I had great writing teachers during my undergrad at the Univ of Minnesota (Madelon Sprengnether, Michael Dennis Browne, Roxanne Soldovsky, Garrison Keillor) and I think I was a competent writer before I started my MFA. I treated getting my MFA like boot camp. I read voraciously, worked hard on my academic papers as well as my creative pieces. I learned infinitely more about structure, POV, voice, etc… Mine was a 3 year program — with a heavy lit class requirement and required writing classes outside my genre — and it did wonders to push me outside my comfort zone. I am a better writer, a more thoughtful writer. If you are not a better writer (in some way) by the time you leave The Program, it’s your own fault for wasting your time.
Chen: If you’re really ambitious, participate in slush-pile readings of your so-so respectable literary journal and ridicule the cover letters of those who have obviously never been through The Program.
Reading that sentence might just be the one line that pissed me off the most. I did not “participate” in reading a slush pile — but what I did was work my ass off for a full year on our lit mag, Reed Magazine. I served as Co-Fiction Editor and personally read, I’m guessing, about 500 of the 800+ submissions we received. What did I learn? That you better grab the Editor in the first paragraph or page, because she’s damned tired and desperate to find a great story, one she can cheer about and force upon her team of readers. I never read a cover letter until the very end of the selection process, when we contacted the writers to let them know their stories were chosen. I couldn’t have cared less about their credentials. I sometimes think I learned more about writing by working on this journal than in my writing classes.
More later …