The MFA debate

I have been aware of the ongoing debate over the value of an MFA.  I’ve largely ignored it.  I have my reasons for pursuing an MFA, and I really don’t care what anyone thinks of that pursuit.  However, my graduate school work came up in a conversation with a professional colleague today.  When I mentioned I was in an MFA program, she was aghast and asked me, “Why?”  I resisted the temptation to reply with “Because I’m not a corporate drone and actually have the occasional original thought; both of which help me create economic value for this company.”

It seems the primary argument against MFA’s is that artistry can not be taught.  I concede that point emphatically.  However, I would submit that tuning an engine, analyzing a profit and loss statement, and constructing compelling, resonating stories can be taught.  Writing, after the mystic layers of art and creativity are peeled away, is a craft.  Like all crafts, it requires skill sets.  Skills can be taught.  Will my MFA education make me Faulkner?  (I fucking hope not!) No.  It would be unrealistic to think so. 

That leads to the second most common argument against MFA’s.  The great ones didn’t have MFA’s.  Nope, Shakespeare and Bellow did not attend writing workshops.  They were geniuses and didn’t have to.  I do.  As the poet Eminem said, “Will Smith doesn’t have to cuss to sell records.  Well I do, so fuck him and fuck you too.”  Last time I checked, Henry Ford and Steve Jobs didn’t have MBA’s.  How’s that different? 

That leads to the other argument I’ve heard often.  An MFA doesn’t prepare one for much.  I don’t have an MFA yet.  I don’t know the answer.  I do know my expectations.  I don’t expect an automatic book deal or tenured teaching position right out of the gate.  My undergrad degree is in English.  I have carved out a pretty successful career in business with that “useless” English degree.  It seems the creativity and critical thinking skills required for a degree in the Humanities translate rather well to many facets of the world of work.  I can hold my own wrestling with Kierkegaard.  I’m pretty sure I can handle your investor meeting.  I somehow suspect that the rigorous requirement of producing substantial quantities of polished prose on regular deadlines will “qualify” me for a great deal.

I’ve had many MBA’s work for me.   I am somewhat bemused that an MBA is held in much higher regard than an MFA in terms of value.  I won’t argue that, as a whole, MBA’s have better career path opportunities than MFA’s.  I will argue ad nauseum about the definition of value.  I once had an independent contractor working for me who had an MBA from Wharton.  That is an ass kicking degree.  In the first fifteen minutes of conversation with him, he mentioned his Wharton degree three times.  I finally pointed out that his Wharton MBA was working for my Humanities BA from the New Mexico Body and Fender College.  (I don’t think there really is a New Mexico Body and Fender College)

I say that not to belittle him or his accomplishment.  I hope he went on to great things.  My point is that his MBA from a premiere school got him an entry level position.  Why do critics deride that an MFA will likely, at best, offer a part time adjunct teaching position at the outset?  I accepted that reality before undertaking the pursuit.    I’m willing to compete, learn, and grow in that career path.  I don’t expect Iowa to be calling my newly minted MFA ass.

Perhaps most importantly in this argument, from my perspective, is the application of others’ values to my educational pursuits.  The primary focus of college for me was not getting a job.  I did not view it as a four year placement center.  Similarly, I do not view graduate school as a means to a financial end.  Do I plan to “do something” with my graduate degree?  Hell yeah.  I find substantial inherent value in the pursuit of education.  I find a betterment of society in academic challenge.  I find improvement in my person from stimulating, challenging instruction.  I don’t say this naively.  I have held executive positions in major companies with my little English degree.

It is argued that MFA programs produce homogeneous writing.  I can only speak for the program I am in, but I call bullshit.  There is work from all genres.  There is post modern, experimental and absurdist work.  Our faculty are all over the literary landscape in terms of approach, subject, voice and product.  The only thing I find homogeneous about the program is all the work I read is good.  One can’t argue that artististic voice and talent are unique and can’t be taught and then argue that they’re being taught to produce sameness.

Ultimately, the argument is moot.  It is others involving their opinions in areas they are not qualified or welcome to interject.  I’m getting an MFA.  It’s none of your fucking business as to why or what I’m going to do with it.

I’m Darren, and I write, and I’m an MFA student.


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9 Responses to The MFA debate

  1. Kelly Gamble says:

    I agree, it’s a personal choice, we all do it for our own reasons.

  2. Well said, Darren! Bravo!

  3. Rob Greene says:

    Bravo. Personally, my MFA will get me raise, putting me higher on the payscale than high school teachers with a lowly bachelor’s. Also, since my undergrad is in political science, I’ll have some paper to hang my English-teaching career on, instead of this “lifetime of experience” crap. Plus, it gave me “permission” to focus on my aspirations, gave me time to write a book, and allowed me to hang out with Darren, who writes.

  4. Jess A says:

    Writers have sought out communities of other writers for centuries. Hemingway had his Fitzgerald. Shakespeare had his Marlowe. Cavepeople with their little knives, carving their drawings on their cave walls, were nudging each other and saying, “So Ooga Booga, what do you make of this symbol for drought? Is it effective? Too contrived?” Artists of every discipline need time to practice their instrument. Having a built-in audience comprised of generous people who will happily listen to each version of your song as you doggedly refine it, is merely a boon.

    The only people who ever whine about the efficacy or honesty of MFA programs are people who a) have never written anything; b) aren’t talented enough to get into a program or c) lack the courage to even try. An MFA is about time. Time to allow yourself to focus on nothing but the ecstasy of language and ideas. Time to let the subconscious connections buried within the confines of your narrative rise up and present themselves. Don’t ever let anyone tell you an MFA is a waste of time. To the contrary, it is time itself.

    • D.R. Leo says:

      Yeah, that’s renowned author, Jessica Anthony. Yeah, I know her. Yeah, she rips me a new writing asshole every thirty days, and it is AWESOME. Okay, that was a vulgar reply to a well considered response. Go with your idiom, I say.

      Thanks to all who commented. Rob and Dave, how’s that chicks thing working out?

  5. I’m an old fart who hopes they keep failing me so I can stay in the program an extra few semesters (what, you think I’m worried about the loans? forgetaboutit …)

    All I know is I’m sure glad I finally took the jump. I love it. And I love that you didn’t attend school to make money. I told my kids a long time ago (think objectively here, folks). “You wanna’ make money, sell drugs. You wanna’ have a life that’s full, get an education. A full life is worth a lot more than any dollar amount you can conceive. Enjoy this life, kids, it’s all you get” (as far as I know).
    – Chaloots

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