In Defense of the MFA

MFA programs are proliferating. Currently there are 71 MFA programs in the U.S., as well as another 112 programs that offer an MA in English with a concentration or emphasis in Creative Writing. A conservative estimate would suppose that more than 800 MFAs are conferred each year.

This fact is bemoaned on a tiresome and regular basis in book reviews, essays, and cultural commentary. The universities are churning out similar approaches and similar minds; workshops are producing writers cloned like Dolly the sheep. The ultimate fear seems to be that (god forbid) we will have too many writers. A poet surplus. An excess of essayists.

I find myself unintimidated by this scenario. Imagine the worst: having finished your MFA, you continue to revise your manuscript, slipping pieces of it like slivers of your heart into the mail for publication, and in the meantime you land a job as a technical writer. Your cube-mate reveals himself to be a poet, posting snippets of Akhmatova by the coffee urn. Your supervisor is a lover of metaphor. Each of them harbors an inner life, and together all of you hope for larger things. Is this so bad?

If I were a single, white, male writer and it were 1926 I would go to Paris. I would hang around the left bank and look for Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, and I would try to get invited to the right parties so that I could seek out F. Scott Fitzgerald. Certainly I would disdain the safety of the American academy back home. Unfortunately the salons of Paris are behind us. So if I wanted access to other writers who would pay attention to my work and offer me their opinions – some of them just what I wanted to hear, and some of them painful – I would apply to an MFA program.

Lest anyone think I am offering an endorsement of graduate writing programs in general, let me clarify: I am specifically promoting the program at the University of Minnesota, which now offers three-year teaching fellowships to every admitted student.

Let me phrase that another way: instead of bussing tables and working at Kinkos and getting up at 4:30 a.m. in order to get two hours of writing in before the day really starts, everyone admitted to the MFA program at the University of Minnesota wins a small lottery. For three years (not one, not two, but three, which is enough time for many of them to complete a book), our students leave the job market behind in order to concentrate on creating art. They do so without the promise that, after finishing, they will have a degree as marketable as an MBA. They do so because an MFA is, in today’s literary currency, akin to a sojourn in Paris in the 1920s: time away and stimulation and camaraderie and the luxury of moving words into arrangements that please the mind — the chance to carve one’s life and meaning into language.

This is probably dangerous; otherwise people wouldn’t feel threatened by it. And imagine: it could be frightening if overused. Imagine if writers as well as pianists and dancers and sculptors, some of them geniuses and some of them merely dedicated lovers of their art, were all afforded three years. It would be a sort of draft in reverse: instead of summoning each citizen to donate several years of his or her life, this program would give the years back. I am all for it, and the more years the better.