I had a friend once who insisted she knew exactly what MFA stood for — and it wasn’t Master of Fine Arts.

The back and forth about what it means to be a writer, how to become a writer, and whether writing can be taught will never be settled, because it’s a matter of personal preference almost as prickly as religion. The MFA crowd — those who have them, those who pursue them — clearly believe that the couple of years and tons of money spent in pursuit of that degree is worthwhile. And of course, many of the very finest writers have no MFA, and some of them never went to college.

Cary Tennis (the advice columnist at Salon who I think is really good at what he does) had a letter from a young woman who desired a particular MFA above all other things and has come to doubt her goals, her priorities, and her choices. Radiant Robyn Bender sent me the link, but beware, I don’t know how long it will be available to non-subscribers.

So I was reading over his response, which encapsulates a lot of his own experiences as a writing in training, and I got irritated. Very, very irritated. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what button it was that got pushed, but I believe that it has something to do with his tone, which was understanding and kindly and empathetic.

What I wanted to do was smack the kid.

His final word of advice to the reluctant student:

So finish your degree and take care of your writing as you would take care of an animal or a child. Do not send it out into the world to do an adult’s job. Just take care of it and, in its own way, it will take care of you.

This feels so wrong to me, I don’t even know where to start. Too twee, too zen, too something. Practical problems call for practical decisions, seems to me.

I’m still thinking a smack would do her more good. You know the movie Moonstruck, when Nicolas Cage is making moon eyes at Cher? And she’s had enough, so she smacks him and shouts: Snap outta it!


3 Replies to “MFA”

  1. *nods* Yup, yup…I felt the same way you did. I’m not even entirely sure if this is a letter meant to say “You need an MFA in order to take care of your writing” or if it was just a self-absorping piece of drivel.

    Here’s my thought on an MFA:

    I thought at one time I should get one. Why? Because I thought to be considered legitimate, I should have that degree.

    Here’s what I’ve learned over the years: No degree makes you legitimate. Experience and proving oneself in the real world is what causes people to notice your work and consider you “real.”

  2. I read the Cary thing. I thought his response was very personal. I don’t know anything about Cary. But I read his response, and learned a bit about how he came to be a writer, his approach to writing, and how he will soon be an MFA graduate despite it all. I got the impression the woman’s letter was a trip down memory lane for Cary, and he lingered there overly long. He stated that “writing is … about soul. It is a tool for becoming who you are.” How does that line answer one of the woman’s questions: “I’m going to stay and finish my degree, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about never writing a word afterward. Does that make me a terrible person?”

    The follow-up article Cary wrote, and the letters responding to his articles are interesting, but involve a lot of grad school concerns, and it really took me back in time. Why am I feeling so old, all sudden-like?

  3. Okay, let me give you my final word on the MFA because too many people believe the MFA is a degree you get if you want to write. So not true — you get an MFA if you want to TEACH creative writing. So will you become a better writer if you get an MFA? Probably. But that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t have become a better writer all on your own either. I have an MFA in creative writing because I want to eventually teach at the graduate level. I’m completely glad (despite the debt) that I got it because I feel like I grew as a writer in those two years much faster than if I had been left to my devices. But that’s just me. I’m a very lazy person and it has taken me years to be productive without that classroom deadline looming over me. I’m planning on going back for my PhD next year because I feel it would give me an advantage and some much needed teaching experience (and I’m a geek who is totally addicted to school). So in summary, an MFA is necessary if you want to teach (unless you happen to already be a bestselling author, then they’ll probably let you teach without one, but then why would you want to?), it is not necessary if you want to write. But it can be very beneficial. It just depends what you need as a writer.

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