I’m now almost at the midpoint of my final year in WVU’s MFA program. Everyone, it seems, is busy weighing in on the value of the degree I’m about to earn. Are MFA programs killing writing as we know it, turning out “Raymond Carver clones?” (And why is everyone so sure that it’s Ramen Carver clones? Around here, I think you’re a lot more likely to run into an Alice Monro knock-off, though even those are more rare than you might expect.) There is also great gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands over the future earning potential, or publishing potential, of MFA students. Will we have to spawn even more MFA programs to feed our greedy selves on the fat of academia? (And where is that fat? Also around here, it sure looks like even the tenured faculty are living pretty lean.) Will we ever publish books that will later be made into movies so that we can live fabulous lives full of Hollywood parties and New York meetings? Really, other people, you’re much too angst-ridden about all of this. We’ll find jobs. Some of us in academia, some of us at advertising agencies, some of us as technical writers, and some of us in food service. Same as it ever was. These are the things writers do, with or without a degree.
There seems to be, in particular, a lot of concern about how we will repay the imagined debt we’ve aquired funding our education. Uhm… except that most of us haven’t actually aquired all that much debt. Again, “around here,” most of us are fully funded. We teach freshman and sophmore composition in return for a pretty generous stipend and a tuition waver. There are programs that don’t fund their MFAs. Don’t go to one unless you have a sizeable trust fund. Because yes, if you need to borrow enough money to both live in New York (even Brooklyn) and pay tuition, you’re probably making a bad financial decision. And maybe also a bad academic one, as well. Because I have learned at least as much from teaching basic undergraduate writing classes as I have from workshop and theory courses.
Which leads me to this list, which is the real meat of this first “Notes from my Thesis Year” post:
Ten Really Important Things I’ve Learned During My Three Years as an MFA Student:
- Writing is a lot harder than it looks, particularly on the level of the sentence. A shocking number of my English 101 and 102 students are unable to consistantly produce meaningful sentences. They have no idea how to use a comma, when to end a paragraph, and they constantly use the plural pronoun “they” as a gender-neutral, singular pronoun. And, you know what? I made those same mistakes when I started teaching these classes. My Appalachian high school didn’t teach grammar. It didn’t teach rhetoric. It sort of taught literature, but with a wink and a nod to the reality that, while we were required to read Shakespeare, we couldn’t possibly understand him. What little I have learned about formal structure, I have learned by grading the papers of people whose skills are even more abysmal than my own. And this has been invaluable. Don’t go to an MFA program that doens’t let you teach. You’ll learn more from correcting student papers than you could ever learn from workshop.
- Publishing changes nothing. I used to think that publishing something would suddenly make me “a writer.” It didn’t. Neither did publishing three things. Or five. Probably, you’ll spend your whole writing career feeling like a hack who got lucky. If you’re smart, when people ask you “what you do,” you’ll say something like “I teach English” or “I’m between jobs.” You won’t say “I’m a writer.” Because that just opens you up to all sorts of weirdness. Unless you’re Junot Diaz or Michael Chabon, in which case they shouldn’t be asking.
- MFAs are no longer terminal degrees. If you want to be an academic, assume you’re going to need a Ph.D.
- Prizes count. Publishing, even in seriously aspirational journals, didn’t make any difference in how I thought of myself, or in how other people thought of me. Winning a Pushcart Prize did. The next post will be all about what it’s like, post-Pushcart. For now, I’ll just say it’s weird. Seriously , life-alteringly weird.
- Work that sucks can, in fact, become work that doesn’t suck if you’re open to the workshop process. Workshop seems to be at the center of the “you’re ruining literature, you bad MFA students!” angstiness. That’s crap. Workshop is your best chance to interact with readers. It’s the most direct feedback you’ll ever get. Do you really want to hear that your prose is stilted and awkard from the New York Times–where your high school crush, mother, and that English professor you slept with as an undergrad will also hear it–instead of from a group of fellow writers? I thought not. Think of your workshop as a defense against public mockery.
- Don’t listen to writers who can’t write. Only pay attention to the workshop comments from writers you admire. You can’t please everybody.
- It’s both what you know AND who you know. Yes, it’s a closed circle. Yes, writers nominate their friends for awards because that’s the work they know. Yes, journal editors publish pieces by people they know because they believe in them. It’s not a clique, but it is a community. Cultivate contacts. Attend conferences. Submit papers. It does make a difference. Which leads us to…
- Be a good literary citizen. Pimp your compadres on your blog. Repost classmates’ publications on Facebook. Write reviews, but don’t feel the need to be scathing. If you hated a work, assume you didn’t get it and review something else. Volunteer for writing programs at the local elementary school, read at local bookstores, bring proteins to the inevitable MFA potlucks. We’re all in this together.
- Sometimes, editors are idiots. Don’t let rejection deter you. My piece that won a Puschart was rejected by three editors who felt the need to tell me they found my work “exploitive,” “liberal clap-trap,” and “exemplary of the self-indulgence that defines bad creative nonfiction.” Don’t stop sending your work out until it’s been rejected by at least fifteen places. Then you might want to consider revision.
- All you need is love. Don’t put your writing above your relationships. This is, in the end, a lonely thing to do. You’re going to spend a ridiculous amount of time in a locked battle with your work, staring at the blinking cursor on your computer screen. Don’t expect emotional gratification from your readers; find it in friends and lovers who you support through their own crazy projects.
Next week: Life After the Puschart