Why Do an MFA?
By D.W. Fenza
"As a writer you are free. You are about the freest person that ever was.
--Ursula K. Le Guin
Because writing is such an irregular and solitary enterprise, you donít need the MFA degree in order to write a book, publish your work, or call yourself an author. No credential or degree can possibly ensure your artistic or financial success. Like an actor, dancer, musician, or painter, a writer has made a risky, brave, or insane choice of vocation. If you choose to become a writer, you devote yourself to a sadomasochistic relationship; it will demand everything, promise nothing, and leave you alone most of the time. Moreover, your success or failure depends entirely on you. This is what makes literary success so unlikely, and this is what makes a good book so profound: the power and freedom of one person creating a world.
So why should one bother to go to a university to study writing with other writers? Why uproot yourself to attend a university? You can make your art, after all, anywhere. Compared to the other arts, writing is perhaps the most economical to practice, so why pay to begin oneís apprenticeship?
The best reason to attend a creative writing program is to expedite the development of your talent. Another good reason is to give yourself the time, space, and structure to complete a book. Yet another reason is to find literary friends and community. Even though writing is a solitary art, every writer benefits from having literary friends, rivals, critics, and--most of all--readers. You will find all of those at a creative writing program. If you are a mediocre scribbler, a program canít make you a lasting luminary, but it should make you, at the very least, a more skilled reader of literature. But if you have promise as writer, a writing program will help you make the difficult traverse from good intentions to real accomplishment.
Writers of other decades completed their literary apprenticeship at newspapers, on the battlefield, in aristocratic circles, on the open road, or in Paris, London or New York. In the days of Hemingway, Stein, and Fitzgerald, America was inhospitable to artistic aspirations. Clearly, it was better for those writers to leave the U.S. in order to advance their art. Today, happily, you donít need to flee your homeland in order to write The Great American Novel or The Great American Poem. Indeed, there are many homegrown stories that still need telling, as there are many places closer to home where you can find a circle of supportive intellects and artists who will challenge, taunt, inspire, support, criticize, and encourage you.
At the graduate level, there are more than 200 creative writing programs--84 MFA programs, 143 MA programs, and 29 PhD programs. Many of these programs offer fellowships and financial support. If you already have some demonstrated talent, chances are you can find a program that will reduce the cost or pay your way. Some programs are as brief as a year, while others may require four or five; most will require two or three years of study. There are also a few low-residency programs that combine "distance learning" and tutorials with brief residencies, so you need not forsake your job or your family to attend a writing program. There is enough variety among the programs that you should be able to find the situation, community, and teachers best for you.
Kurt Vonnegut once taught an MFA workshop whose student participants included John Irving, Gail Godwin, John Casey, and Andre Dubus. I would wager that it was nearly impossible for them not to learn a great deal from one another. Many graduates of writing programs find in workshops and seminar life-long friends with whom they share a devotion to the writing and reading of literature.
Writing is a lonely art. Thatís what makes it hard, and thatís what makes it great. In solitude, you make a book; in solitude, a reader takes it in. There are few acts as powerful, as humane, or as intimate. Paradoxically, a solitary art can be nurtured by a community of fellow spirits. Finding that literary community is the best reason to earn a graduate degree in creative writing.
(D.W. Fenza is the executive director of the Associated Writing Programs, a nonprofit organization of writers, creative writing programs, and writers conferences and centers. He is the author of The Interlude, a book-length poem, and the editor of The AWP Official Guide to Writing Programs. firstname.lastname@example.org)
MFA, A Master of Free Arts
By Mark Seiltz
After I finished my BA in English/Creative Writing, I wondered whether an MFA should be the next step. I really battled with the idea of continuing my writing in another program. What would I learn about writing in graduate school that I hadnít learned in college? What had I learned in college? Did I need to workshop my poems anymore?
During my last semester, I had advanced courses in critical writing and creative writing. In both, we did revisions. In the first, revising meant to me refining the language in order to clarify the argument or theory, that is, discovering the exact words and the exact number of words to use to be as clear and precise as possible. The critical theory already existed; word manipulation came afterwards. In creative writing workshops, however, where we critiqued each otherís work in a small group, revision meant something quite different.
I was interested in the collaboration and dialogue among writers, but I found it increasingly unsatisfying and pointless to repeatedly revise my poems. What was I revising? What did we talk about? Changing a word here or there; moving a line or a verse to the end or the beginning; the use of hyphens; variation of form. Why were we talking about these things? Was it to clarify the point of the poem? To find a personal, yet common language? Or was it to simply tweak the artistry? More often than not it was that, a process I considered a waste of time.
Here we had a group of creative people, the opportunity to talk with each other, and the only thing we really talked about was style. We read published authors and discussed their writing, how they used language, different techniques, literary tools. Pretty soon, everyoneís writing started sounding like published writing, like academic writing. We werenít developing our own styles or voices: we were imitating. I left college sour on poetry and poets. Who are these people writing for? Who reads this stuff, other than students of poetry? And why do they study it? Who else gets it?
The Summer after graduation, some friends and I met a couple in Wisconsin who had bought a farm there for their retirement, but would not be able to occupy it for two more years. We moved in, rent-free. All four of us were painters, writers, musicians, and jokers. None of us knew what to do after college. Some of us worked, some of us didnít. For two years, we had a great deal of free time and a vast amount of space.
We friends had discussed at length the value of dialectics and collaborative art, but hadnít really drawn any serious conclusions about our ideas. We were aware of certain essences, but hadnít yet pieced together why they felt good. In this remarkable place, we went crazy, and talked about it constantly. The three-car garage became a painting studio, the living room our recording studio, and we all wrote--together. We freestyled everything, making up songs up on the spot, painting on the same canvases, wrote stories and plays and performed them with and for one another. At one point ,we stopped speaking and communicated only through song. We sang while we made breakfast about making breakfast and sang while eating it. We fed the dog. We sang about the dog. We sang to the dog.
We learned what it meant to interact closely as artists, to really explore human emotion and how to express that through a medium. We never once discussed metaphorical conceit or half-rhyme. Those things just happened and kept happening for two years. In that time, we produced an enormous volume of writing, painting, and music. We never revised or rehearsed any of it, yet what we noticed in the process was that we were creating a history; we saw a progression of ideas and styles. We developed as artists through the continual spontaneity of doing art, not by endlessly revising it.
Ultimately, we decided that the process of doing was more important than the end result. We learned more from the dialogue that arose naturally during the creative process more about ourselves and about our art than any close examination of the final product could have taught us. The refinement of skills and the progression of ideas developed without deliberately focusing efforts on trying to improve these qualities.
College writing workshops place too much emphasis on style and the painstaking manipulation of words to achieve the perfect poem, to get it just right. Even then, most of that work lacks the sense of inevitability that marks a great sequence. I believe this process fools creative writing students and that criticism does more to stagger a young writer than it does to encourage him. I suppose I am assuming that any graduate program would approach the creative writing process from a similar mindset. In the end, it holds no appeal for me. It doesnít sound creative to me; it doesnít sound fun.
My four friends and I next moved to New York City where we established an arts promotion group called, "The Freestyle Family." We conduct numerous workshops at our studio and have created a website, freestylefamily.com, which we envisage as a central meeting place where painters, musicians, and writers can find the dialogue which we believe to be any artistís most valuable resource.
(Mark Seiltz is preparing to travel to Cambridge, England in December and to India in June. We persuaded him to let us publish this small selection of his work.)
the end of winter, the wiry trees
so eaves troughs shave their icy whiskers
salty faces and a car wash
listen: underground water
the parking meters stand measured on
and there are sparrows strung along the telephone
they are figuring the number of days until
Father, just so you know
I remember sitting at the wheel of your Buick
I remember the mornings you returned from the mill
I remember you at the table pinching a cigarette.
I remember peeking tiptoed over the bathroom counter,
On these winter days, something is chasing
He vacuums from room to room
On these winter days his past no longer
Or maybe this is easy --
Or maybe death is like spring or