Welcome, weblings, to the first session of Six Degrees Left, a series of online debates that pulls the plug on the respirator of consensus and delivers oxygen through heated exchange. Our panel guests—consisting of artists, authors, and thought leaders—defy these numbing, flatline times. They are our brainwave activists. Let their intellectual energy spark an inspiration for change and let this discussion harness an impetus for action.
Today’s topic: The Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in Creative Writing and its impact on literary culture
Every year when Poets & Writers Magazine releases its annual ranking of creative writing MFA—and now, Ph.D.—programs, the web explodes with comments and opinions shredding across blogs, magazines, and social media. This year, more than 200 writing professors added to the controversy by decrying the ranking of MFA programs and, Scott Kenemore, in a particularly memorable op-ed, attacked the ratings for the declining position of his alma mater, Columbia University.
Frequently absent from from the annual hullabaloo surrounding the ranking of writing programs is critical conversation. Writers flail, critics tweet and bloggers cry foul, but much of the thoughtful discussion gets lost in the scuttlebutt or amid a long forgotten thread on somebody’s Facebook wall. The thriving participation rate and economic stimulus (resulting in long-term student debt) of MFA programs are indisputable, but what remains unmistakably muddy and highly debatable is the relevance—and practical use—of the advanced degree in creative writing.
Are universities, by and large, maintaining the status quo of writing instruction with a boxed-in, cattle-prodding methodology? Are MFA programs unintentionally diluting the imaginative output of students? If so, are they wreaking havoc on the lasting merit of works of fiction and creative non-fiction?
To tackle theses thorny issues head-on, Atticus Books recently held court with a virtual think tank of writers—Matt Bell, Colin Fleming, Roxane Gay, Tara Laskowski, Matt Mullins, and JM Tohline—and asked them to share their thoughts on the topic. Some of these writers have MFAs; others do not. What they all have in common, however, is a passion and talent for their craft.
The MFA lately has been the whipping boy of the creative writing community. How necessary is an advanced degree in writing?
Roxane Gay: An advanced degree in creative writing is only necessary depending on what you want to get out of that degree. There are many ways to learn to write. Some of those ways can be found in the graduate classroom and some cannot. If you want to teach writing, you need an advanced degree. If you would like the time to focus on your craft, you can, as a bonus, receive an advanced degree. Necessity is relative and contextual.
Tara Laskowski: Necessary for what? In order to write? Or be taken seriously as a writer? Then, absolutely not. As an editor [of Smokelong Quarterly], I could give a hooey whether someone has an MFA or not. I rarely even look at bios when reading stories. I agree with Roxane that if you are interested in teaching, then an MFA is probably necessary (although an impressive history of publications and/or books would probably work just as well). I have an MFA from George Mason University. I enjoyed my time at Mason and loved the opportunity and time it gave me to devote to writing, but I do not think that everyone needs to run out and get one. I think an MFA works best for someone who has an idea of who they are as a writer (I do not recommend people jumping right into an MFA immediately after undergrad) and wants to find a community of writers and readers to share work with.
Matt Mullins: The only people who need the MFA are those who want to pursue the teaching of creative writing at the university level as a career. And this is only because of university hiring policies, not because the MFA makes one a better writer or even a better teacher of creative writing (though it can).
Is the MFA necessary to become a good writer? Definitely not. The fact is good writers will emerge regardless. They will come from within creative writing programs. They will come from outside creative writing programs. The true issue up for debate here is actually one of literary legitimacy and access to the keys of “success” and how individual writers define that notion. In this case, the question of “necessity” is tied up in who’s doing the whipping and why. Honestly, I’ve only been hearing distant rumbles about this entire “controversy” because, to me, the whole thing smacks of money (or a lack thereof), recognition (or a lack thereof), and street cred (or a lack thereof) versus the now decentralized aesthetic monopoly of “the academy” and the university presses.
[T]he DIY nature of indie publishing has brought about a huge paradigm shift, and those individuals focused around making a claim for one side [pro-MFA] or the other [con-MFA] are essentially missing the point. – Matt Mullins
Everybody’s got the keys now to getting good work out there. Literature’s going online and the DIY nature of indie publishing has brought about a huge paradigm shift, and those individuals focused around making a claim for one side or the other are essentially missing the point while jockeying for some kind of aesthetic high ground, which is sad, actually, because regardless of your artistic background, the goal of writing (at least for me) is a universal one; that is to somehow illuminate the human condition and provoke thought. What’s necessary is vital, compelling writing. The more places such writing can potentially come from, the better. The more people who even have an interest in reading and writing fiction or poetry, the better.
Matt Bell: I don’t think anyone needs an MFA. Obviously. That said, I’m very glad I have mine. I was already publishing by the time I went to get my MFA—had been for a couple years—but there’s no doubt that my writing progressed faster than ever in my program due to having nothing but writing time, being surrounded by good peers, and having professors who genuinely took an interest in developing my work. Just being surrounded by writers and readers nonstop for two years might have been enough to help. Honestly, I don’t think I’d be where I am now without having gone, but if people feel they can achieve their goals without one, then good for them. I just don’t think this needs to be as controversial as people make it out to be.
Colin Fleming: I think it’s completely unnecessary. Or, worse, I think it’s necessary if you’re interested in producing a “kind” of story that I’d argue, often, isn’t a story at all, that exists to bore people out of their minds. Or it would if the regular reader got a chance to see that story, though he often does not, as it’s typically squirreled away in a lit mag that 1,000 people might encounter—the staff, their friends, the contributors, their family, and some people who’d like to get their work in that magazine. Not the public.
What really needs to be taught is how to read. But as for teaching someone how to write, I think you can cut out certain stylistic imperfections, and you can teach someone to maintain a syntactic consistency, but when it comes to imparting just how to create a narrative that’s, say, 6,000 words, and that involves characters a reader can relate to, and provides insight into human nature and why we are as we are, or why we become what we become, I say no way. Writing requires invention. You can’t teach someone how to invent a narrative. Telling a story is hard! Coming up with a story is even harder. Most people turn to their own lives. But how much is there from your past that people need to know about and experience in fiction form? So what you then really have to do is stone cold make something up.
I don’t say this as someone who happens not to have an MFA, and has had some of his more, shall we say, surreal career experiences with people in lock-step with the MFA system, but rather as someone who studies literary magazines looking for something original, something that knocks you in the gut, or in the head, and makes you feel. There is scarcely a print literary magazine I don’t have at least one copy of, and I see the same kinds of stories over and over again. It’s system stuff. It’ll either be something padded with excessive description, or it’ll be short, or a piece of something that is clearly autobiographical, by a person whose background doesn’t hugely differ from the other people in that given issue. It’ll be safe, and there’ll be absolutely nothing that might cut you.
Writing requires invention. You can’t teach someone how to invent a narrative. – Colin Fleming
So we get lots of stories of the “It was 1960 at Harvard and I met her in an English class” variety. No one outside of that milieu gives a fuck. The people in that milieu, yeah, they’ll dig it, because they like to see reflections of themselves. It’s good for insecurity. But the guy on the street, he’s not going to care. And he’s the guy who buys the books.
I see a lot of what I call “moves,” this kind of look at me, ma, I’m really writing thing, where nouns are pressed into service as verbs, and the point isn’t to communicate to a reader, but rather to do something that calls attention to the writer, so that he or she can feel validated as “smart” and “smarter than thou.” [If] you want to be smart, write something that moves someone at the level of who they are. That’s the hard thing. And you can’t teach someone to move someone at the level of their soul, which is what the best writing does. But, you can teach people to do 1,000 words of description that’s meant to be a story, but actually has no narrative arc, and which is all half-assed symbolism and pretense and treacle. If it came down to teaching people how to write 6,000 word stories that are inventive and different from each other, there wouldn’t be any MFA programs, because you wouldn’t have enough customers—that is, students, attendees, whatever you want to call them. So what can you teach your customers to do, how can you enable them and make them think they’re all legitimate writers? You teach them shorts, you teach them description to fill up a word count. You can’t teach imagination. And then you get into the question of audience. The MFA system isn’t really concerned with audience as far as the general reader goes. It’s concerned with the workshop audience, and the audience of writers and would-be writers, which makes up such a small percentage of the reading pool.
JM Tohline: Colin said this: “You can’t teach imagination.” And this is absolutely true. But while imagination (and creativity, and passion, for that matter) cannot be taught, they can be suffocated. Not to say that all MFA students enter their respective programs with imaginations that look like balloons-so-full-of-air-they’re-about-to-burst, only to leave these programs with imaginations that look like balloons-now-sad-and-empty-and-wrinkly…but many MFA students do.
Helpful? For some.
Harmful? Hey, I didn’t say it…
For a long time, the MFA was the terminal degree in the field of creative writing. Now the Ph.D. in writing is being offered at more universities through the U.S. Poets & Writers recently ranked the top 15 Ph.D. programs in the country. Do we really need Ph.D. educated writers? Or is this just the result of an overpopulation of MFA programs with universities now looking to cash in on the next big thing?
Matt Mullins: I’ll resort to a personal anecdote. In the final year of my MFA at Western Michigan University, they decided to offer a Ph.D. in English Literature with a Creative Dissertation. They also offered me a teaching assistantship and told me I’d get to teach not comp, but creative writing courses. This essentially meant I could get a free Ph.D. and four additional years of teaching experience, reading time, and writing time. It totally kicked my ass and put me through the wringer in a way the MFA did not. But it also gave me the writer’s most valuable commodity: time. Time to write, read, and think about writing. To me this is the true value of an MFA/Ph.D. It is focused time to think about and practice your craft that is often very hard to come by otherwise. So though I can’t really speak to what “we” need, or who might be trying to cash in on what, I can speak to what I was offered: a free degree and an opportunity to focus further on my craft without the challenges that come with trying to make the bills, and I’m grateful for that.
Roxane Gay: Do we really need anyone educated with a Ph.D.? Again, the pursuit of such a degree is contextual. It depends on what you want to do with the degree. A Ph.D. in creative writing is often somewhat different from an MFA, with more theory and literature course work in addition to creative workshops. There are also institutions that require a Ph.D. for creative writing teaching jobs. My school is one such institution. I’m not sure what the slow rise in creative writing Ph.D. programs can be attributed to but I don’t think universities are using the programs to “cash in” on anything in the way some universities are exploiting MFA programs. I will also add that getting my Ph.D., albeit in rhetoric and technical communication, is the best decision I’ve ever made.
JM Tohline: Recently, I talked to a guy who attended school at one of the most prestigious technical colleges in the country. Now he works as an engineer for one of the most respected corporations in the world. And in the course of our conversation, he said to me, “I’m thinking of taking some classes at Harvard.”
“Oh yeah? Why is that?”
“You know,” he said. “Just to learn some new things.”
See, I grew up in Boston. In Boston, one of the first questions someone will ask you when you meet them is, “Where did you go to school?” And this seems perfectly normal until you live in another part of the country and realize that no one outside of the Northeast would even think to ask this question as part of a casual conversation.
Take this engineer, for instance. He has no need for classes at Harvard. He’ll likely learn nothing there that he could not learn on his own. But soon, when people meet him and interrupt him in the middle of a sentence to ask, “Where did you go to school?” he can reply: “Harvard.”
I see a creative writing Ph.D. the same way. Certainly, those who attend such programs learn plenty. But is it anything they could not learn on their own? Is it anything worth all that money? Is it anything more than this: “[insert name] studied creative writing at [insert impressive school], and lives in New York City with his wife Courtney and their two Labrador retrievers”?
Tara Laskowski: I’m not as familiar with Ph.D. writing programs. I do think that writers like to have spaces and places to write, and that it can often be very difficult to just take time off from other duties—a 9-to-5 job, family, etc.—and be taken seriously in our society. I wonder if Ph.D. programs are another outlet to do so. Meaning, we might look at someone who is just not working at all and staying home to write a novel one way, but look differently at someone who is in a Ph.D. program writing a novel. Same pursuits maybe? But putting the coursework and the degree there somehow seems more serious, more worthy?
Matt Bell: I’ve never been in a Ph.D. program. My understanding is that most Ph.D. programs in creative writing are much more literature- and theory-based than most MFA programs, and obviously there are benefits to writers in such an education. Honestly, my MFA program was a pure studio program—I didn’t have to take any literature or theory courses—and while I appreciated the focus being on nothing other than my writing then, I often find myself wishing I’d been asked to do more. I think one of the overwhelming problems with the writing world is that most writers aren’t very good readers, and I think the Ph.D. in creative writing has the opportunity to ensure that graduates are just as accomplished of readers and critics as they are creative writers. I have trouble finding fault with that idea.
[O]ne of the overwhelming problems with the writing world is that most writers aren’t very good readers. – Matt Bell
The Poets & Writers ranking has caused some controversy, including a petition signed by over 200 writing professors who disagree with what they call the “methodologically specious in the extreme and quite misleading” survey and method of data collection. Yet many university programs are ranked–business schools, law schools. Does this ranking provide additional professional legitimacy to the MFA?
Matt Mullins: By what criteria are the programs ranked? By how many graduates go on to get contracts with big publishers? By the literary pedigrees of the faculty? Seems rather superficial at best.
Roxane Gay: The rankings would only provide legitimacy if they were determined through a sound methodology. Unfortunately, however well-intended these rankings are, such is not the case.
JM Tohline: My take? People dig rankings.
100 Best Colleges
100 Best Movies
50 Best-Dressed Celebrities
25 Best Ways To Eat Macaroni & Cheese
I think most people take such lists for what they are: The opinions of one group of “experts.” Sure, some people will try to attend an MFA program specifically because they saw it ranked highly somewhere. But I think most people who are truly serious about pursuing some form of higher education will take the time to search beyond a simple list (after all, deciding where you will spend the next year, or two years, or four years in school is a big commitment!).
Or am I giving people too much credit?
Okay, maybe I’m giving people too much credit…
Tara Laskowski: As a PR manager for a university, I have to say I hate all university rankings. I never trust the methodology of such things, and I think that too much weight is placed on these rankings, often unfairly. I think that people who apply to schools based solely on rankings are probably missing out on some great opportunities and not doing their research to truly find the best fit.
Colin Fleming: “Methodologically specious”? That’s funny. Why on earth would anyone care about this? So your program is nine and not five? What about your work? What does your work mean to people? Does your work mean anything to the people outside of these programs? Does your work enrich lives? Isn’t that what you should care about? Isn’t that the only thing, if you’re a writer, that you should care about? There are results, and then there are results; in the former category, you have these rankings, which are results in the sense that there’s this list that’s meant to impart a hierarchy. But then you have the results, and that’s how everything translates to the real world.
It’s like if you’re drafted with pick number seventeen into the NFL, and you piss and moan that you didn’t go first overall. Who the fuck cares if you went first overall or you went seventeenth? Either way, that first pick and that seventeenth pick are going to get their shot out in the real world, where it really matters. Granted, that’s much more of a level playing field, as I’ve certainly been discriminated against as a non-MFA’er, but there’s nothing that can’t be overcome with good writing, patience, strength, will, and time. I’d suggest that it’s a whole lot less fun to fight that fight than it is to bitch about MFA rankings. To say nothing of the energy involved. Or the time. Those years. Where you might not see a single positive thing come back.
What does your work mean to people? Does your work mean anything to the people outside of these programs? Does your work enrich lives? Isn’t that what you should care about? Isn’t that the only thing, if you’re a writer, that you should care about? – Colin Fleming
I think people have no idea the kind of battle it is to get anywhere in publishing, if someone isn’t helping you get somewhere. Teach how to cope with that. For me, it was years of twenty-hour days, and fighting for everything, every scrap. Someone might say that if I had an MFA, I’d have made the contacts that would help me get into Random Review or whatever. But what’s the point, save being able to say that you got in? That’s the kind of thing that should wear off as you get older. You want to be read. And I think the only way to be read, if people aren’t trying to make sure that you are by pulling whatever strings to make you the flavor of the month, your only recourse is to find your own path. Teach someone to have the courage to do that. That’d be a good class.
Matt Mullins: To me, the goal of the MFA or Ph.D. is to give you time to study your craft while enabling you to get feedback on your work. When I was 21, no one in my world gave a shit about literature, but I knew I wanted to write. My choices were few: I could start working full-time on the automotive assembly line where I’d worked during my summers home from college and write when I got off work. Or I could try to score what other job I could with my BA in English and write when I got home from work. Or I could enroll in the MFA program that was essentially offering me a free education, teaching experience and the opportunity to meet writers whose work I admired while being afforded a ridiculous amount of time to write and read books I loved.
My point is this: Rankings don’t mean anything if becoming a better writer is your reason for pursuing the MFA. If this is your goal, the best choice is a school where you’ll be able to work with a writer whose writing strikes a chord with you and/or a program that’s structured in such a way that it gives you the mix of experiences you’re looking for. For me it was about keeping perspective and taking the academic world with a healthy dose of skepticism.
During my MFA, the majority of writers whose work influenced me came from outside academe. Many of them openly despised it. Like them, I never really found myself trying to become part of that world, nor did I tailor my work to a particularly literary audience. I needed to stay true to my own idea of what I wanted to say. I’ve always felt that when it’s time to hit the page you’re the one who has to put ass in chair and look for the truth. To do that, you need to prepare yourself. How you prepare yourself in terms of your “education” should obviously be dictated by your own nature. Because in the end if you come up empty it makes no difference if or where you went to school.
[W]hen it’s time to hit the page you’re the one who has to put ass in chair and look for the truth. – Matt Mullins
Now that’s a quote worthy of printing out and putting on your wall—thank you, Matt!
Tomorrow the conversation continues with a discussion on whether the MFA results in a uniformity of voice, if a writer can achieve the same results through non-academic workshop programs, the shift to electronic publishing and reading, and art for art’s sake.
ABOUT THE SERIES
Six Degrees Left dismantles the walls of literary elitism through open and frank dialogue between leading writers, critics, and thinkers on topics that matter. Six Degrees Left keeps its fingers on the pulse and beat of everyday culture by exploring tipping point topics in a refreshingly authentic manner. Send in your questions, comments, and topic suggestions to laceyd [at] atticusbooks [dot] net.
Matt Bell is the author of How They Were Found (Keyhole Press, 2010) and Cataclysm Baby (Mud Luscious Press, 2012). His fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and American Short Fiction, among others. He is the editor at Dzanc Books and of the literary magazine The Collagist. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan and teaches writing at the University of Michigan.
Colin Fleming is a freelance writer and short fiction author whose work has appeared in Slate, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Tin House, and The New York Times Book Review. He has completed a short story collection, Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories, and is working on two novels and a memoir about listening to, and living with, the music of the Beatles.
Roxane Gay is the co-editor of PANK and publisher of Tiny Hardcore Press. Her work has appeared in New Stories From the Midwest 2011, Best Sex Writing 2012, NOON, Black Warrior Review, and Cream City Review, among others. She is the author of the collection Ayiti (Artistically Declined Press, October 2011) and an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University.
Tara Laskowski is senior editor of SmokeLong Quarterly. Her work has appeared in The Mid-American Review, The Los Angeles Review, Corium, and Monkeybicycle, among others, and she has completed a novel, Black Diamond City. She lives in Northern Virginia.
Matt Mullins writes fiction, screenplays, and poetry. He also makes experimental films and designs digital interfaces for his poems and stories. His written work has appeared in Pleiades, Mid-American Review, Hunger Mountain, and Descant, among others. He is the author of Three Ways of the Saw (Atticus Books, February 2012) and a professor at Ball State University.
JM Tohline is author of The Great Lenore (Atticus Books, June 2011) and is currently working on a manuscript called Blue the Person. He lives in a quiet house on the edge of the Great Plains with his cat, The Old Man And The Sea.