I have occasionally pondered on the possibility of getting an MFA in creative writing. The idea has never really appealed to me, especially weighing the cost/benefit. Would it make me a better writer? Likely, but not certain. Does it guarantee a writing career? No, not particularly. Would it put me in a awful state of debt? Without a doubt.
I have come across several comments on the pros and cons of MFA writing programs. I respect a good number of the writers who teach at such programs (Ethan Canin, Marilynne Robinson, Kelly Link, and Tony Early among a few), but they are only a handful. I suppose if I wanted to teach at a university and write on the side, a MFA would be a good choice. But being a working full-time writer probably requires a different path.
I like Garrison Keillor's advice,
"Skip the MFA in creative writing…. If you want to write, sit down for a few weeks with the most gripping book you’ve ever read and analyze it to a fine hair—how it’s organized, the structure, the time sequence, the characterizations—and then set out and write something similar. Don’t turn up your nose at genre fiction—which MFA programs tend to do. Learn how to write a workmanlike novel. And if it doesn’t get accepted for publication, no problem—go on and write another one."
A recent book tackles the subject of the affect of MFA programs on American fiction, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. I'm anxious to get my hands on this study, and see if it reveals any interesting information on the affect of the "program era," and how it is different from other "eras."
From the jacket:
"In The Program Era, Mark McGurl offers a fundamental reinterpretation of postwar American fiction, asserting that it can be properly understood only in relation to the rise of mass higher education and the creative writing program. McGurl asks both how the patronage of the university has reorganized American literature and—even more important—how the increasing intimacy of writing and schooling can be brought to bear on a reading of this literature.
McGurl argues that far from occasioning a decline in the quality or interest of American writing, the rise of the creative writing program has instead generated a complex and evolving constellation of aesthetic problems that have been explored with energy and at times brilliance by authors ranging from Flannery O’Connor to Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, and Toni Morrison.
Through transformative readings of these and many other writers, The Program Era becomes a meditation on systematic creativity—an idea that until recently would have seemed a contradiction in terms, but which in our time has become central to cultural production both within and beyond the university.
An engaging and stylishly written examination of an era we thought we knew, The Program Era will be at the center of debates about postwar literature and culture for years to come."
First of all, are O'Connor, Nabokov, Oates, Roth, and Morrison really a product of the MFA writing programs? Since MFA writing programs didn't start growing until the mid to late 70s, that seems very unlikely, but I will have to delve into that issue later after reading the book.
New Criterion has weighed in on the book with a highly critical view of both the book and MFA programs in general:
"Most of us, looking around at the flailing anemic narcissism bred by creative writing programs, will regard Professor McGurl’s book with a combination of wonder and impatience, not to say contempt. The canny Charles McGrath, writing in The New York Times about Professor McGurl’s book, gently mused about the “Ponzi element” that might help explain the explosion of degree-granting writing programs in American higher—or perhaps we should say “higher”—education. There were, he says, fifty-two such programs in 1975. As of 2004, there were 300. Doubtless there are even more in 2009. Why? Here is where Mr. Ponzi comes in. Such programs have proven to be tremendous sources of revenue for colleges and universities. They cost next to nothing to run. The facilities are all in place, as are many of the teachers. Inveigling semi-literate dreamers who wish to postpone their entry into adulthood and whose indulgent parents are willing to shell out $30,000 to $40,000 two years running for a piece of paper embossed with the letters MFA is money for jam for cash-strapped universities. Hence the proliferation of the programs. For what do you do with an MFA? Why, you turn around and teach others the art and sullen craft of being an MFA. You write poems and stories whose sole audience, most often, is your peers in the program. The success of the scheme, as Mr. Ponzi understood, requires a constant supply of fresh recruits. Absent them, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down." more>>>
So, are MFAs just an elaborate Ponzi scheme?
Along with joinig a writing group, in the end I suppose that Keillor's advice, though simple, might be on to something. Anyways, isn't that how writers learned to write before the "program era?"