Archive for March, 2015

Just as an update to the last post: Apparently people are so upset by the few paragraphs Ryan Boudinot put up on The Stranger that there’s been a move to get him fired from the nonprofit he founded to get Seattle named as a City of Literature by the UN.  (Or something.  My reading comp isn’t what it was back in my GRE-taking days.)  That is, unless he apologizes for pooh-poohing MFA programs and I guess all the dweems of the students.  He got his pooh on them, is what I’m saying.

Which, whatever. The original article was fine, not particularly well thought-through, maybe, but I have no doubt that it reflected the man’s views and experience. And if I were someone heavily invested in the respectability of the MFA as a valuable degree and a worthwhile thing to do, I’d be pissed.  (I haven’t seen any word from anyone who used to employ Boudinot to be a teacher, but I haven’t looked very hard.)

There ought to be a difference between getting your dander up and going after the man’s unrelated organization, however.  If your project (MFA, stand-up comedy, startup software company, whatever) can’t take any criticism, then it’s not worth anything.  If you know that what you are doing is worthwhile, you can brush off someone squawking in the bushes.  But if you can’t take it, you have no substance, you’re just an Easter Bunny with a thin layer of chocolate surrounding a howling void.  If you have to silence any critic of your project, then you don’t believe in your project.

You don’t respond by attacking the critic, you respond by being awesome.

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Keeping up to date.

Keeping up to date.

A guy named Ryan Boudinot recently wrote a piece in The Stranger commenting on, but really slagging off, the fiction MFA program where he used to teach and all the losers who signed up to be in his class. According to RB, a few students were the Real Deal: talented, insightful, deferential to their wise teacher. The rest — the hardworking and slacker alike might as well hang up their Moleskines, since no amount of work would ever make them great writers (and were they stupid for trying? certainly irritating to Boudinot.).  Also, boo to terrible, self-indulgent student memoirs.

Affected parties responded, also via the Internet, naturally.  One person took the opportunity to crow about being THE student who irritated Boudinot with his slacker ways but also to make sure that readers knew, in case we missed it, that HE was the Real Deal student that Boudinot admired. (Someone else set up a website to curate angry responses to Boudinot, which you can check out if you like.) It’s a rarified bunch, all these aggrieved fiction and poetry students — one imagines the most scandalized of them are the least used to criticism of their project and most accustomed to identifying themselves as artists, baby.

I don’t have an MFA, but I was MFA-adjacent for a couple of years at Indiana University while I was getting an MA in English. (Full disclosure, the MA was a degree they gave you if you dropped out of the PhD program after two years, and I was only too happy to do so.) Although I was in the regular program, most of my friends were MFA students, and when they offered a “fiction workshop for people not in the MFA fiction program,” I signed up.  My memory is not very good, and this was nearly twenty years ago, but I recall that it was kind of controversial that I would get into the class — that “not in the MFA fiction program” meant “in the MFA poetry program” — but either I talked my way in or they decided that it was no big deal for me to join the workshop.  It was taught by Alyce Miller, who still teaches there, and it was the best academic experience I had in Indiana to be sure.

(Regarding my work at that time, I will say that my fiction . . . has improved a lot since then.  The standout moment of the semester was when one of the MFA poetry students made a remark during the workshop to the effect that I seemed to belong in the class.  As someone who has never really belonged anywhere, that meant something to me.)

All this is by way of saying that I have some idea — but not much — of what I’m talking about.

The MFA — I guess the question is why to get one.  From the perspective of a writer who wants to improve his writing — I’ll just parrot Dan Kois on this topic from the Slate Culture Gabfest: the main benefits of the program are 1) a long period of time to concentrate on your writing with few distractions, and 2) the chance to make connections with students and faculty that will further your career (i.e., friends).  As I said, the class I took was great.  I completely understand why someone interested in writing would take it, and as many like it as possible.

I legitimately don’t know the value of an MFA as a degree program.  You don’t need a degree to write either fiction or poetry, or to read them. Often a terminal degree, the diploma may qualify you to apply for positions as a writing faculty member or writing instructor.  None of these positions are strictly to “be a writer,” of course, but also of course there aren’t many W-2s issued for novelists or poets.  Perhaps the degree is a credential that helps you get into the writing industry of English departments and, yes, MFA programs.  Maybe that’s a good day job while you toil away on your novel by whale-oil lamp in the middle of the night.  But is it?  As a vocational degree, the Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate program might lead to a more secure career.  (Cue old joke about guy sweeping up elephant poop at the circus saying he hates his job, but he “just can’t quit show business.”)

Two or three years is an awfully long time to carve out of the beginning of a career for a degree that isn’t likely to pay for itself.  If you end up as a wage-earner (as opposed to a rich and famous author), it’s usually better to have started earning those wages earlier, to advance in whatever kind of job pays the rent. If you bounce around, you’ll spend the rest of your career explaining to your job interviewers about that line on your resume: “Yes, I did get an advanced degree in fiction writing, Mr. Jones, but what I really want out of life is to work in your accounts receivable department!”  Maybe the decision to get an MFA shouldn’t depend on factors like opportunity cost, but I have a hard time thinking about it any other way.  I’m sure it works out very well for some, less so for others.

And, to get back to Ryan Boudinot and those terrible student memoirs: the unspoken tragedy of the MFA program is that the students are usually so young, with so little experience to draw upon and the irresistible urge to write about themselves.   But that is another story . . .

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