by Cameron Price
Okay, so education (and just being alive) requires a lot of money. With this in mind, why would one invest in a degree that guarantees absolutely no promise of a job on the other side?
To begin, let’s just assume that you have reached the point where you know that you NEED to be a writer and that no other calling under the moon could possibly satisfy you. If this is the case– and is it for anyone 100% of the time?– then why go into debt for a two year degree when you could just, well, write? There are many strongly differing opinions on the matter.
Writer and poet Donald Hall, former Poet Laureate of the United States in 2006, is one of the most outspoken critics of the MFA degree, and he has some good points. In his essay “Poetry and Ambition,” he writes: “The workshop schools us to produce the McPoem, which is ‘a mold in plaster, / Made with no loss of time,’ with no waste of effort, with no strenuous questioning as to merit. If we attend a workshop we must bring something to class or we do not contribute.”
McPoem? Harsh. But this critique comes from Hall’s experience of seeing too many programs churn out writers who have merely been trained to mimic what has gone before them. He argues in his essay that writers must have ambition of the right sort– the kind in which the “petty ego” is sacrificed in service to the poem (or narrative) itself. More often than not, Hall feels that MFA programs encourage the opposite and are not cultivating the proper literary immersion, independence of thought, and true ambition needed to write innovative literature.
I agree that one gets what they put into an MFA. Or into anything, really. The writer must already exist inside the writer if that inner-writer is to be developed and coaxed out...if that makes any sense. In short, an MFA isn't going to make you a better writer. YOU are going to make you a better writer only if you work, research, learn, live, and (most importantly) write.
These things can happen in an MFA program, contrary to Hall’s belief. Poet Arielle Greenberg believes that, if treated in the right way, the MFA can act as a supportive green house environment for budding writers. Greenberg writes, “I’d be thrilled if we lived in a nation—like some others in the world—where people gathered in local cafes and plazas to recite great verse and breathe it in, but the truth is, in America, this happens primarily in the classrooms and reading series and conferences and living rooms of MFA students, alumni, and faculty—and for this we should be thankful" (from "A [Slightly Qualified] Defense of MFA Programs: 6 Benefits of Graduate School"). Greenberg illuminates the benefits of the MFA program, which range from cultivating community, teaching the student what and how to read, and finding one's voice and unique set of values.
Both of these writers provide potential students with nuggets of wisdom. I think it’s safe to say that pursuing an MFA is an individual decision– especially if you know that an MFA isn’t going to make you a better writer. The more appropriate question would be: what is going to grow you best? Despite opposing views on whether to get an MFA, I think one thing can be agreed upon: you need to write in order to be a writer, MFA or not. So stop surfing the web and go do it!