No, a MFA is not needed here–not at the august literary journal, The Missouri Review, that is.
Here is an excerpt from an encouraging email I received last month from TMR about the writing backgrounds of the winners of its prestigious Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize contest:
“Writing contests can feel intimidating, especially for writers who are honing their craft on their own, outside the imposed structure of a workshop or graduate program. I’ve heard writers ask, “Do people without MFAs ever win these contests?” The answer is yes. It has happened before and will happen again.”
And this is good, of course, and it’s encouraging to read something like this.
But isn’t this, writers, our just due?
When did a MFA degree become de rigueur in the literary world?
More interestingly, when did MFA programs come to be seen as the “traditional background” for writers:
“After working at The Missouri Review…I have read…pieces from writers who have…started off in English BA/BFA programs, who went on to MFA programs and maybe even PhDs…I am just as amazed, though, by writers who don’t come from these traditional writing backgrounds: writers who have the self-discipline and drive to simply pick up a pen or open their laptop and write day after day and year after year.”
When I read this email I had two reactions to it.
First, appreciation for the fact that this editor was bringing up this subject, and for the fact that the winners of this prize at TMR do not always come from MFA backgrounds.
At the same time, my head spun when I read non-MFA writers described as having strayed from the “traditional writing background”.
Take a moment and think of how many of the world’s greatest and best-loved writers who are no longer living did not have MFA degrees. You are going to be thinking for some time–because nearly every one of the world’s greatest and best-loved writers did not earn a MFA degree. They didn’t even try to earn them; they weren’t available when most of the world’s best writers were alive!
As late as 1975, according to one writer on this subject, 79 degree-granting writing programs existed in the United States. In contrast, by 2010, over 850 were running.
But what about writers alive today and working currently? Isn’t it true that most of them have MFA degrees, and that many, if not most, are teaching in MFA programs?
I attempted to get hard numbers on this, but could not. I did find copious articles, many quite recent, discussing the pros and cons of MFA programs, and have linked to four of them at the bottom of this post.
What emerged from the four articles is that aside from there being many reasons for and against enrolling in MFA programs, writers working currently have both attended, and not attended, MFA programs in large numbers. And many of those who did receive MFA degrees have ambivalent feelings about their degree, and do not necessarily recommend that writers seek one.
Heavyweight Flannery O’Connor (no longer living, of course, but often held up as an early MFA program success story) famously decried the utility of writing programs, stating that while competence can be taught, “vision” cannot.
Kurt Vonnegut, also no longer alive, harshly declared “You can’t teach people to write well. Writing well is something God lets you do or declines to let you do.”
And Margaret Atwood, alive, working, and now receiving fresh acclaim for her 1986 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, is quoted as having this to say about the field of writing:
“You do it by yourself, or on your own time; no teachers or employers are no involved, you don’t have to apprentice in a studio or work with musicians. Your only business arrangements are with your publisher, and these can be conducted through the mails; your real “employers” can be deceived, if you choose, by the adoption of the assumed (male) name; witness the Brontes and George Eliot. But the private and individual nature of writing may also account for the low incidence of direct involvement by woman writers in the Movement now.”
Aside from the range of opinions about MFA programs, and the ambivalence more than a few MFA graduates express toward their degrees, one other thing stood out for me in my research: money. With few exceptions, those who have attained MFA degrees advise strongly to not enroll in a program unless it is free or of low cost.
While interesting, none of this surprises. Most of us writing today are familiar with these arguments, pro and con, regarding MFA programs.
But more so, strong opinions against programs should not surprise because, put simply, art emerges, not from workshops, programs, and MFA departments, but from urgency. An urgency felt in one’s heart. In one’s whole being.
Writing is an art form; writing is art. And the need to engage in making art is a powerful and persistent felt urgency–to speak, write, sing, compose, play music, act, dance, draw, color, paint, sculpt, design, and transform what one must.
Real writing has little if anything to do with academic degrees, experience, age, or even publication. It has to do with engagement–with writing. Real writers do not simply write; they cannot not write.
The urgent need to write does not wait for, or require, program attendance to emerge. Indeed, some argue that the need to write can be damaged, suppressed, interfered with, or even destroyed in classes, workshops, and programs, including MFA programs.
It is there when, at nine, one picks up a pencil and writes a first story, a story that delights and must be told. It is there when, at fifteen, one composes a sonnet, sloppy, rough, or ribald, to one’s beloved. It is there, at eighteen, when one attempts to capture the mystery of trees at midnight. Or the elegance of snow falling for the first time on leaves in autumn. Or the pain of a parent’s divorce or death.
It was there when, at seventeen, I attempted to capture the feeling of grief: “Grief falls over us like a smothering blanket of black dust, masking our faces with pain.”
It makes itself felt, leaves, returns, leaves, and then returns–again and again. Through the turmoil of teenage years, through schooling in subjects unrelated to writing, through years of work both stimulating and mind-numbing, and through the birth of children.
And sometime its birth lies within the birth of children…
I recall wondering as I struggled to cope in childbirth, how would I describe this pain? It is like a tiger tearing at my insides. What is its color? It is the black of panic, then spreads into the blue of earliest dawn, then recedes and I am bathed in rose.
Or maybe the urgency to write emerges in the days following birth, during days of endless work, fatigue and, as writer Alan Paton said of a valley in Africa, loveliness that is “beyond any singing of”.
Or maybe the urgency goes underground at this time as it sometimes does during extraordinary busyness and stress. Only to return when there is a break in the load, when sunlight or moonlight sneaks through tightly shut blinds.
No, the urgent need to write is not borne of MFA programs. Nor is the slow accretion of hard-earned skill and craft to be found only in them.
While skilled writing teachers can assist in the learning of craft, every writer learns that writing instruction can be found in many places. It lies in casual writing workshops offered in many venues and often at low cost, in the opinions of trusted readers, in the literary work of other writers, and in what these authors themselves have written about process and craft.
But more so than any external source, writers learn sooner or later that their best teacher is their own manuscript and their own eyes and ears trained upon it. Our manuscripts lie before us, telling us what they need to become more effective.
We have only to listen to them–to detach from the hypnosis of our own words–to learn what our writing needs to be made more effective.
Do not mishear: I have great affection and respect for several writing teachers with whom I have worked over the years. As well as for the venerable The Missouri Review. It was from The Missouri Review, after all, that I received some of the most helpful feedback on a story that I have received anywhere. And for that I am grateful!
And I appreciate the willingness of the Contest Assistant at The Missouri Review to disclose how many winners in this fall’s Jeffrey E. Smith’s Editor’s Prize contest do not possess MFA degrees, and her sensitivity to this issue for writers.
But, writers, let’s be honest: referring to MFA programs as the now-traditional venue for learning how to write is quite startling, and marks a real change in our vision of, and expectations for, the education of writers. A change that I, and many others, am not all that happy with.
On second thought, perhaps it’s not so bad after all.
After all, according to some, I can now describe myself as a writer with a non-traditional writing background.
Love it! Perhaps I can even use that in my next cover letter.
It can’t hurt, right?