Friday Five-O: The Mysterious M.F.A.

Dear Friday Five-O:

Is an MFA program worthwhile?

– Tom G. in Somerville

Dear Tom –

I’m still trying to figure this one out myself. In the meantime…

Here’s the short answer:

Money-wise, definitely not.*
Morale-wise, probably not.
Social-contact-wise, yes and no.
Time-wise, probably.
Literacy-wise and therefore craft-wise, absolutely.

* (Unless they pay you.)

Here’s the long answer:

When people ask me – which they rarely do – what the letters after my name mean, I like to invoke the wisdom of my former professor, a wry and inspired poet: “M.F.A.,” he says, “stands for motherf*cking artiste.”

Maybe I rely on this pith because I’m not exactly sure how else to respond. A Master’s of Fine Arts is a unique beast – part Henry Ford and part Rasputin. You never know whether or not the “progress” is, in fact, progress; and come to think of it, can you really trust its visions? Anyhow, who’s it trying to charm over there in the corner? The whole process can be maddening, so I suppose my professor’s profane translation rivals any others.

The degree differs from an M.A. in literature in that it focuses on craft as well as critique: the M.F.A. attempts to build things just as earnestly as it attempts to dismantle them. On the other hand, the degree forces you to become a more conscious, systematic reader, something that even the most committed writers occasionally overlook.

The extra “F” might as well stand for finito, as an M.F.A. also qualifies as a terminal degree – or at least it did when I got mine. Theoretically, that fact primes a writer for university-level teaching, though more and more administrators are reserving such positions for candidates with the creative Ph.D. As a result, according to the same professor I mentioned earlier, M.F.A. programs have become for some students merely way-stations en route to the doctorate – a trend that makes me feel nervous (not to mention eclipsed).

With fairly equal pros and cons relative to other degree options, the piece of paper itself probably isn’t the best reason to pursue an M.F.A. Those three letters might get you somewhere, but I doubt they alone will get you where you want to go. You see? It always comes back to a four-letter word: WORK.

Writers aren’t academics – remember: artistes. It’s right that they should be all about the work. And, to me, that’s the essential value of an M.F.A. program: its potential for apprenticeship, collaboration, and flat-out productivity.

I’ll never forget seeing my many poems splayed across the kitchen floor of a poet I’d long read and admired. As he struggled to help me sequence my manuscript, I watched his head rock and bow. Somehow he saw not only what I’d written but what I’d intended to write, and he led me to an organization that would have eluded me yet was entirely natural. Even the most disinterested M.F.A. participant has to concede that access to thoughtful, experienced writers is a joy.

But of course that access is never guaranteed. Not all faculty are so dedicated; some seem incapable of offering any constructive feedback. Like almost everyone these days, they are overworked and overcommitted. That’s where the other students come in. When I first toyed with the idea of going to graduate school, one of my undergraduate creative writing mentors advised me to go “where the best students are.” I wasn’t sure what to make of his suggestion, though I tried blindly to follow it. Once I arrived, I realized the value to his advice. The rigor, intelligence, and sheer insanity my peers brought to our workshops (not to mention to non-workshop courses and even to casual conversations) contributed easily 85% of my overall learning.

And I did learn a great deal – in terms of craft and content but also about the life of an artist. Much of it wasn’t pretty; some was brutal. M.F.A. programs can bruise, to put it mildly. Workshoppers tend to be erratic, at times unreliable, and occasionally psychologically unsound (and not only in the hip ways). I say this both sympathetically and lovingly, but also in earnest. The exchanges become personal very quickly. At times I wanted to jump ship – to head back to normalcy, where people were less committed to performances of their own pain, didn’t constantly speak in metaphors, and weren’t likely to comment on the layered narration of a tuition reminder. Then again, I remember calling a classmate breathlessly late one night to exclaim about how I was three-quarters of the way through my memorization of Yeats’s “Easter 1916.” I suddenly felt the poem on a cellular level. My friend immediately understood.

Though I was fairly productive during my two-year program, I often wonder whether or not the open stretches of time spoiled me. Before graduate school, I made time to write, regardless of my other obligations. After graduate school, I fixated on the relative inadequacies of my schedule, and I could finish almost nothing. I have heard subsequently that part-time or low-residency M.F.A. programs can help writers avoid that reintegration shock, as most part-time or low-res students lay down tracks to manage jobs and writing time simultaneously. (Grub instructor Hillary Rettig published a revealing article on Huff Post last fall on what she called the "exploitation" of M.F.A. graduates. It's worth a look for anyone interested in pursuing the degree, not the least for its discussion of active alternatives.)

For many writers, the deciding factor will be ducats: what’s the cost? What ultimately kept me in graduate school was funding, not ambition, not romantic ideals. Even now, when I hear of writers – especially poets – considering high-cost graduate programs, I cringe. The writing life is an enormous struggle without graduate-school debt, and let’s not forget the lottery involved in being published in any financially meaningful way. Writing is an investment, and we all want to be smart about our money.

Right. We’ve basically come full circle. I see that. Despite the hard-earned italics of an M.F.A.’s artiste status (ahem), no one can answer this question for you. Asking if an M.F.A. program is worthwhile is like asking if a second piece of pie is worthwhile. Is a gym membership worthwhile? How about marriage?

The problems are that a) it all depends on where and why you go and what the commitment means to you, b) you are the sole person who can answer the question, and c) you will come to that answer probably only in retrospect, if at all.

I will say this: If you believe in your writing, then you deserve time to make it a priority. Your writing deserves a chance to be taken seriously – mainly by you. Whether that chance requires a traditional M.F.A. program or not depends on you. Artistically, there’s little a standard or even a low-residency M.F.A. offers you that can’t be achieved independently, with the help of a well-loved library card, a thoughtful and committed writing group, and the courses and program offerings of an organization like Grub Street. With discipline and drive, you can absolutely do it on your own.

Will you? That’s the real question.

Word up,

Allie A.

About the Author

Allison Adair has been with Grub Street since 2002, first as an instructor and then as a board member (2004-2011). She has taught at the University of Iowa, Boston University, and Boston College, where she is currently a faculty member in the English department. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Best New Poets 2015, Boston ReviewLos Angeles ReviewMid-American ReviewMississippi ReviewThe Missouri Review (Poem of the Week), National Poetry ReviewNew SouthShenandoahSouthwest ReviewTahoma Literary ReviewThird Coast, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal. Flash pieces appear in The Journal of Compressed Creative ArtsLascaux Review, and Nano Fiction; and literary hypertext projects appear at Electric Literature and The Rumpus. Winner of the Fineline Competition from Mid-American Review and the Orlando Prize from the A Room of Her Own Foundation, Allie is a Contributing Editor at The Brooklyn Quarterly. She holds an MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she received the Teaching-Writing Fellowship. 

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