Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What Happens After...

I have been thinking long and hard about what happens after I finish grad school in writing. What is the expectation? I'm already published, so it's not getting published per se, although I would like to move out of the minor, small press houses and up to the major, bigger houses. Is grad school a surefire method of doing that?

How I wish.

Still, there is a certain level of expectation that grad school will help me figure out how to make my writing better.

So I was kind of surprised to read a rant on MFA writers the other day by an anonymous editor. God knows, we writers have enough paranoia about the world of publication, but now to read that educating ourselves in writing is a waste of time? Yeesh.

As a university educator in an entirely different field, political science, please let me say that I wish, wish, wish, it were required that politicians have a degree in political science, rather than law--as most do--or maybe even both. Perhaps then, they might have a deeper understanding of the history of interaction among nations and how best not to repeat past failures, rather than repeatedly making them.

Clearly, I'm all for educating yourself, which is probably why I'm in a writing MFA program. What I'm not for, and probably what an anonymous editor has against those with MFAs in writing, is attitude. I've had students who believe that just because they sat in my classroom, they had a right to a passing grade. Maybe that's what the anonymous editor has seen, writers who feel that since they have the MFA they deserve to be published.

If only it were that easy. Like any job, writing takes lots of hard work. In my experience so far, getting an MFA in the field means putting in more hours in a shorter time period and thus shortening the time spent figuring out how to write publishable stuff. Do you need an MFA to write? Absolutely not. A person can teach herself any craft. ANY. Thomas Jefferson was a self-taught architect and his home, Monticello, is still standing. But I wouldn't hire an architect today who went only to the school of hard knocks (unless, maybe, he were Thomas Jefferson).

So what does an MFA get you if it's not a pass-go-and-head-straight-for-publication card? A lot of experience in a condensed period of time. It's another option in the learning-the-craft scenario. In the end, it might-like any degree-get you a little more notice from editors and agents (say, 5 seconds instead of 3), but really, it's for me, the writer, not them, the outside world. Unless I figure out how to improve my craft, and then everybody wins. I'm guessing a lot of writers see it this way. I hope more and more will as we continue to educate ourselves. I hope, too, that the anonymous editor runs across some of them and changes her position on MFAs in writing. Education isn't a bad thing. It's what we do with it that measures what we've learned.

7 comments:

Tabitha said...

Great post.

I think the anon editor probably gets lots of query letters with writers professing their greatness due to their MFA degrees - and she sounds very jaded as a result. :) I do think she should have been less rant-y and more helpful, as in telling writers they shouldn't do this and why.

As to MFA programs, I think they are exactly as you say. They're for the writer to improve craft. I think it's wonderful, and I don't think writers should be discouraged from that. I haven't been in an MFA program (my school of writing was Hard Knocks), but I've heard that it's sometimes difficult for writers to keep their individuality. It probably depends on the program. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

I'm also going to add that not all MFA programs are equal. Many churn out cookie-cutter literary stuff that no one wants to read. And a few churn out attitudes. So true.
Many MFA people go on to teach, but that does NOT sound like your dream...

Christina Farley said...

I think it's wonderful that you are getting your MFA! I would love to spend time just learning more about writing and studying the craft.

Stacy Nyikos said...

Tabitha,

I haven't had too hard a time keeping my individuality at Vermont. It's not like they try to cookie cutter mold me there. It's more about finding my strengths, working on my weaknesses and staying my own self. Maybe it's the setting. Aren't Vemontians super independent folk?

Stacy Nyikos said...

Tabitha,

I haven't had too hard a time keeping my individuality at Vermont. It's not like they try to cookie cutter mold me there. It's more about finding my strengths, working on my weaknesses and staying my own self. Maybe it's the setting. Aren't Vemontians super independent folk?

Meg Wiviott said...

I assume, as you and Tabitha have, that the anon editor was swamped with entitled MFA manuscripts. That's too bad. All I hope for my MFA is that I become a better writer. Being the best that I can be is all I really have control over. After that, it's a lot of luck, perseverance, and meeting the right editor who's not in a bad mood because of a lot of entitled MFA manuscripts.

Stacy Nyikos said...

I completely agree with you, Meg. But I still find it baffling that it could, by certain editors, be held as a strike against a writer for working to her improve her craft via schooling.