Do you need an MFA?
Today’s debate falls along predictable fault-lines: One side eyes the teaching of writing suspiciously, and concludes that MFA programs may produce some good fiction, but they don’t produce enough “great literature.” The other side defends the institution by saying, if nothing else, that programs give aspiring writers the time to“dedicate oneself” to the craft of writing. But there’s an underlying assumption that the MFA does something. There’s a widespreadbelief that if you get an MFA, at the very least, it will change your writing in some discernible way.
But what if there’s no change to speak of? Is it really possible to tell the difference between novels that have been through the meat-grinder of the MFA and those that haven’t? What if this is just something that’s been imagined into existence, by both detractors and supporters alike, to satisfy a collective need to believe that institutions can improve anything, even creativity? Or conversely, that institutions ruin everything, especially creativity? Whether you valorize the Romantic ideal of the lonely, humble artist or the neo-liberal belief that education can solve any problem, the MFA has become a kind of Rorschach test for how writers and critics feel about creativity, where it comes from, and how best to nurture it.
No one ever said a writer’s lot was an easy one. A student’s must be harder, which must be why I never became one.
If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.
– Somerset Maugham