Don’t Do an MFA (Or Do One The Smart Way)

Sometimes, I think my MFA is worthless and I want to caution aspiring writers against the degree in general. This is hard for me to do when I look at dreamy, bunny-eyed undergraduates who think an MFA is like a pair of angel wings. I got mine from one of those Top Fifty schools, at least as ranked by The Huffintgton Post, Poets & Writers, or whatever. I managed to graduate on time, only accumulated as much debt as I could pay off, and actually wound up publishing a decent amount under my real name. I have a tenure-track job as a professor (in a different discipline because I woke up and got a PhD in something practical that involved, like, numbers and stuff). So if you’re thinking about an MFA, just listen to my story and and add it to the others before you make up your mind.

A disclaimer, because here’s what I’m not telling you: I’m not telling you to stop reading. In fact, that’s a cardinal sin of many MFA students, and of those few aspiring writers who have studied under me. You can read three books a week for three years, and that’ll do you about as well as any MFA program. I’m also not telling you that feedback and audience are unimportant. They’re crucial. But you know what I did while I was getting my MFA? I sent stuff to journals, agents, and editors, and I went to all kinds of writers’ conferences. Those people I met, even at their meanest, gave me better advice than I ever got from any of my professors.

I remember a ten-minute meeting with this one agent named Noah Lukeman when I was about 21 years old (but probably looked 17). He tore my writing apart, and kind of devastated me. (I cried afterward, not because of him, but because he’d made me realize how far I still had to go.) I was grateful. Why? Because he opened my eyes to aspects of voice and style I’d never considered before. I read his book on plot, and years later his book on punctuation.

My MFA professors constantly disappointed me. Granted, they were well-published, but I’m not quite sure how. They complained to us about how The New Yorker lost their manuscripts, they canceled class for weeks at a time for their own book tours, they forgot their office hours and skipped appointments. They threw temper tantrums if our stories were longer than eight pages. And finally, of course, they tried to sleep with us. (It was really flattering at first, because I thought he must see into my soul, but it was more like he saw through my clothes.)

Once, a professor accused me of plagiarizing him and threatened to have me expelled if I didn’t send him a completely new manuscript in 24 hours. A conversation with some friends confirmed: “Don’t go up against him. You’re right, but just do what he says!” After a night without sleep in front of my laptop in a caffeine-writing haze, I got an email from him around 9 am apologizing. He had mixed my files up with his own (?) and was going to give me credit anyway. He wanted to take me out for dinner “at this amazing German place” to make up for everything. And, of course, I went.

My professors were so privileged that somehow they’d never learned the basic lessons I picked up from reading interviews in The Paris Review and, um, Writers’ Market. They told us literary agents would only read our work for a fee. They told us not to bother with query letters. They told us to always include a head shot with our manuscript submissions. When Nobel laureates came to visit, they told us to “network with them” for eventual book deals. You know what happened to those people who followed said advice? They were asked to fetch the car. Anyway, I could go on. At least I knew what they were feeding us was a bunch of fairy droppings.

Now, I’m not telling you to stay away from MFA programs per se. I’m telling you to do it for the right reasons. I’ll admit, talking to Mark Strand about his poems (because I loved them to death), and getting hit on by him a little bit (and gossiping about it for weeks afterward), rates as one of my top ten nights of all time. No seriously, I walked into a room and people would say, “There’s Strand’s new girlfriend,” and he probably doesn’t remember me at all, but that’s fine. In fact, that experience alone makes up for all the other nonsense I dealt with. There’s also the interviews I got to do with regional writers who went on to become pretty big deals. Did I expect “connections” out of those experiences like a lot of my friends? No. The experience was the thing. I’ve published three books under my real name (with pretty mediocre sales, I’ll admit), and not one of those contracts ever came from a “connection.”

One of my better professors recently admitted to me years later: “I’m not promising the universe anymore. An MFA is just a chance to get some teaching experience and write.” A colleague of mine recently gave some of my students the best advice ever: “Go live. Then go get an MFA, if you want to chill out for a while and just write.” Perfect. Looking back on it, I guess I pursued an MFA while doing a bunch a crazy shit: I freelanced for a bunch of newspapers and attended comic cons, science fairs, concerts, plays, musicals, crime scenes, grave sites, and haunted forests. I read all the books I could get my hands on. I got arrested a few times for sneaking into abandoned prisons, asylums, and sanatoriums. I’ve seen fires, dead bodies, drive-by shootings. I’ve roomed with strippers and drug dealers. I’ve talked a friend down from suicide while he held a handgun in his lap. I’ve seen my own mom half-naked, shouting paranoid delusions, dragged into a patrol car.

I’d be kidding myself if I thought for a minute that an MFA could make up for those experiences. They can’t. So if you’ve never truly feared for your life, slept on the dirt or the concrete, felt like you dodged a lightning bolt, climbed up a cliff without a rope (yeah, stupid, but I’m here), been slapped in the face by your best friend (while sober, not just for fun!), and if you’ve never had your heart ripped out by someone who wanted to be your friend years later, and if you haven’t accidentally crushed someone else’s, then I seriously advise against getting an MFA. You need to go live. Don’t worry. Writing isn’t going anywhere. Despite all the brimstone you hear about the publishing industry, it’s not dying. It’s just changing. There will always be enough people who want to read good work. Hell, I lived a lot, then got tired of writing fiction, and put it aside for about four years. Now I’m back!



2 thoughts on “Don’t Do an MFA (Or Do One The Smart Way)

  1. Damien

    Yep. I couldn’t agree more. I tell my students that if they want to “learn to write” they should write 1,000 words a day for a year and that completing (and fully editing) a novel is the best MFA in fiction you can get. This is a well written and interesting post! NB: I once waved at Neil Gaiman in the airport. There were 729 people between us, but I am totally counting it as a flirtation.

    Liked by 1 person


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