THE INDEPENDENT CANDIDATE, or how to have an accomplished writer's life without an MFA
Presented at the It's About Time Writers Reading Series, Seattle, WA., Thursday Feb. 8, 2007
Many of today's undiscovered writers feel a tremendous pressure to earn an MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) in Creative Writing in order to give legitimacy to their writing careers.
I'm here to discuss the possibility that this is a manufactured notion about the contemporary writing life. In fact, you do not need an MFA to succeed. Period.
I used to struggle with the possibility of attending grad school to the point that, in 1994, I actually registered for the MFA at Columbia in Chicago. A couple of weeks later, I bowed out after learning I was pregnant. I realized the 3-hour round-trip commute, the added homework and the schedule were not things I could integrate into my new life as a mother.
After that, I continued to reconsider the possibility, but found myself saying No every time mostly because I didn't have the money or the time.
The first few times I said No, I felt envious of those who did have the money and time. Sound familiar?
Then I rebelled against the whole notion after my writing took a left-hand turn and was no longer traditional or particularly welcome in the grad school environment at that time.
It was in my late 30s that I realized I was doing, to a certain degree (no pun intended), the things I thought I would only be able to do with an MFA.
This will not be an impeachment of MFA programs. If I had the time and the money, I would enter a program. I love school. I love the collegiate landscape, the homework, the learning. I'm a nerd. So, maybe when I'm retired... But for now, like many of you, I simply can't.
Instead, I'm here to question the notion that MFAs are the only path to successful creative writing careers. I will debunk myths about writing programs, provide you with evidence that writers can succeed without advanced degrees and then offer you tactics for replicating the MFA experience for yourself.
I. On matters of higher learning
True or False: An MFA offers writers the chance to work with professionals to learn what they couldn't otherwise.
True: But there are workshop facilitators, continuing education instructors, coaches and mentors also available for this very thing. Writers conferences, open to all, feature the considerable teaching talents of successful authors. We can even learn from cohorts in our own writing groups.
There's always something to learn. Grad school isn't the only place to learn it.
True or False: An MFA program allows people to carve out two to three years to focus on writing.
True: But any serious writer can do this without an MFA by making a plan and sticking to it. It's all about time management and setting priorities. Of all the people who write novels during National Novel Writing Month, how many have MFAs?
True or False: The MFA is the only way you'll be able to keep your butt in the chair for many hours a day and not answer the phone or your e-mail.
False: All serious writers do this, regardless their homework, their workload or their family obligations. Don't you?
Evidence: Burn this into your skulls: The late Andre Dubus (dub-use) once admitted that he would have eventually mastered what he'd learned through the Iowa Writers' Workshop all on his own.
II. On matters of structure
True or False: An MFA is a shortcut that helps instill discipline.
False: MFA programs do not exist to teach you discipline. They exist to help you become a better writer than you were going in. They also exist to train future creative writing teachers. That's about it.
Plenty of MFA grads give up within a year of receiving their degrees because they can't deal with the patience and persistence that the writing life requires.
What is discipline but the lassoing of patience and persistence? I can't stress it enough. You can only learn discipline through your own efforts.
True or False: It's harder to be a writer without an MFA.
False: If you know anyone in an MFA, you know how exhausted they are. Let's face it; writing is hard work for everyone. Period.
True or False: It will take longer to have a writing career if you don't have an MFA.
False: There is no average career-development period for any writer. This isn't a footrace, folks, nor is the MFA a charmed pit stop. Writing comes when it comes, training or no training.
Evidence: Author Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, graduated with an undergraduate degree, got a "brainless part-time job that paid just enough to live on" and started writing.
In a recent interview, Handler said, "I couldn't imagine what else to do. I had no other plans. I thought, 'If I'm going to waste these years, at least I'll have a huge stack of papers to show for it.' "
He spent the first year and a half of his post-university life writing a novel he eventually threw away. Handler quite accurately suggests that "You need the time to learn, and the time to screw up and the time to write a book and throw it away. That takes a while. If you can get that without an MFA, fine." Handler, in fact, did.
III. On matters of talent, ambition and excellence
True or False: First-time novelists without MFAs and few credits are only capable of writing thinly-veiled autobiography.
False: The careers of Stephen King, Mitch Albom and Daniel Handler don't fit this assumption; neither does yours, I'm sure.
True or False: The MFA guarantees you'll be a better writer.
False: I'm an editor. After having read thousands of manuscript submissions from both MFAs and nonMFAs for Margin, I have not seen a compelling difference in the quality of one group of writings over another. Countless other editors will echo this finding.
True or False: You get a better education in critical reading and thinking with an MFA.
False: An MFA offers an established educational menu, but you, as a writer, can also set this up for yourself. If you can read and think, you can improve your critical and analytical abilities just as well without an MFA. It requires that you have the wealth of curiosity and discipline to direct your own education.
Writers without MFAs can still do this by exposing themselves to other great writers and to great literature. The venues are there: libraries, writing workshops, continuing education programs, book discussion groups, the Internet. The sky's the limit.
Evidence: Writers who have succeeded independently of the grad school ivory tower include Mary Oliver, William Carlos Williams, Lucille Clifton, John Steinbeck, Carson McCullers, Ray Bradbury, Anne Sexton, Louis L'Amour, Susan Sontag, Walter Mosley, Betty Friedan, Stephen King and many many others.
More evidence: Independent thinking's day is coming. This has relevance to the world of creative writing. Stay with me for a minute.
According to new studies done by the think tank organization Demos, independent scholarship, what they call the Pro-Am revolution, may become the way we define intellectualism in the 21st century.
"For Pro-Ams, leisure is not passive consumerism but active and participatory, it involves the deployment of publicly accredited knowledge and skills, often built up over a long career, which has involved sacrifices and frustrations."
I don't know about you, but this sounds an awful lot like the creative writer's life to me. If these futurists are correct, then things are looking up for all of us!
Further: William Ivins Jr. was not a writer, but he was the accomplished curator at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art for 30 years where he amassed one of the world's largest encyclopedic repositories of printed images.
Unlike his contemporaries, he held no advanced degrees. He was self-taught in art history and worked in other unrelated trades like law and stock brokering.
However, his personal interest in art compelled him to review tens of thousands of prints over his early adult life. It was this intimate self-education that led him to become one of the world's most respected curators.
Ivins' example demonstrates that part of this journey we're on requires that we take our interests to heart, that we invest our time in pursuits that aren't always practical, and that we apply our passion to our work. This, not an advanced degree, is more likely to lead us to success in our creative lives.
With these things in mind, I'd like to close by offering a baker's dozen tactics you can take to replicate the MFA experience for yourself. You can get copies from me afterward.
1. Make time: commit yourself to a schedule made on your own terms. Use that time to cleave away at the sculpture of your stories, poems, narratives and novels. Do not do the dishes. Do not answer the phone. Writing time is writing time.
2. Adopt a structure for learning: Build in learning time. Make a weekly date at the library or online. Read related work during your lunch break. Turn personal vacations into fact-finding missions, when you can. Be a student of life.
3. Find a mentor: Hook up with someone willing and able to help who has progressed further in their writing career. They don't have to be university affiliates. They can even be friends who are artists, writers or teachers, as long as they're there to help you move toward your goals.
4. Seek motivation: Join writing groups to keep your finger in the pie. Write blogs about your writing life to keep yourself on task. Go to live readings and revel in the pleasures of inspiration.
5. Find community: Organized writing communities abound In Real Life and Online. Tap into all that interest you, but make sure you still prioritize your time for writing first. Writing is still a solitary activity; communities are for support and do not replace the real work ahead.
6. Read: Everything. Everyday.
7. Write: Just do it.
8. Draft an honest mission statement: Like resolutions, these have a way of sticking once you put them to paper. Assign yourself a plan that includes, in concrete detail, what you'll do, how long it will take and what you hope to accomplish. Hold yourself to it to the very end.
9. Aspire to be a connoissuer: They don't say Write What You Know for nothing. Find those 2 or 3 topics that excite you and make them your focus during the period of your mission statement. Learn everything you can and enjoy the ride. Once you develop an expertise, many previous obstacles to the writing life melt away.
10. Have regular workouts, take regular breaks: People who lose lots of weight and keep it off go slowly and realize that going cold turkey 100% of the time isn't going to work. Borrow from what they know. A steady regimen of writing is important, but avoid burnout. Breaks refill the creative well and improve your endurance. Schedule them as part of your mission.
11. Know thyself: Spend a little time asking yourself why you are a writer and what you want to get out of it. See how these answers relate to what you have written, are currently writing and what you'd like to be writing. Knowing this Big Picture makes it easier to complete the little pictures that end up shaping a whole career.
12. Share: Once you've got some work out, share yourself. Share what you know, what you've done, your mistakes, your successes. Sharing implies you have done something worth sharing. As writers, we are doing something. Something real. Something worth sharing.
Lucky Number 13. Have faith: Creative efforts are very much like panning for gold. You'll go through a lot of silt before you find nuggets. Whether you strike a mother lode or an empty riverbed has nothing to do with your educational background. It has everything to do with persistence and belief in a positive ending. Keep digging.
I wish you all the best of luck in pursuing your writing dreams. Thanks so much for listening.