Last week I read an article from The Atlantic about how MFA programs don’t do squat (spoiler: science people used computers to find the answer) and I got to thinking about writing a piece about MFAs. After all, at one time or another, a young writer has to make the decision to MFA or not to MFA.
I did not. Looking back, I still ponder on what it would’ve been like. Because it is surrounded by professionals, colleges make you think that they have answers to all your questions, and so for a young writer, going to college seems like the obvious next step. We all want to do what we love and get paid for it, and this, if only by implication, is what colleges are offering. What stopped me and pauses every one of us, was the very focus of the article–the huge amounts of money MFAs cost and the lack of a guarantee that I would do anything with it. This is usually when I nod my head, realizing how much money and time I’d saved on going out on my own. This is when I furrow my brow, crack my neck, and work on writing a thought-provoking, heartfelt piece on the struggles of deciding whether to go back to school.
But then I realized I’d already written it.
While going through my laptop’s junkdrawer folders, I came across an eight-year-old letter. It was addressed to a university I’d wanted to attend for my Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing (I don’t remember which one; I think Minnesota or Wisconsin). Before I’d written this letter, I was still gung-ho about going anywhere to pursue my love. But as I did the numbers, I grew more frustrated and conflicted with the decision laid before me–is it worth it? Those were tough times. I’d graduated about three years before and was staring life (as well as family and friends) in the face with my decision to not pursue something (“anything!”) with my degree. But then I wasn’t doing any writing either (except for furrowing my brow and looking like I was writing in coffee shops and bookstores. Remember Borders?!). I’d wanted to make something of myself but I didn’t know what another degree would get me. I was beginning to find my own voice and style, and my own subject matter, and so I knew I had the drive to be a good student and work hard, but I was also questioning the institute of schooling itself. It was easy to plunk down money for something, maybe too easy.
So when I wrote this letter, I poured my heart into both sides of the argument, hoping that within the very art form I’d come to love so much I would find my answer. Here it is.
(P.S. When I first wrote it I had no intention of sending it out as an introductory letter, but, in the wake of the final decision I’d made, I actually had the idea of sending these out to universities, the intent being that the subject of the letter would show that I wanted nothing to do with their system but that the style and genius of the letter would make them see that I was, of course, a talented writer and that they’d be insane not to take me on. Ah, young ego.)
Without further ado:
Dear [Insert name of college professor]
I want the outside forces that MFA programs represent to push me, to mold me, to shape me. That block of wood which Palahniuk’s narrator talks about the men becoming in ‘Fight Club’. I want to slog through, to really learn discipline, to break out of the cocoon and become a butterfly (a sappy clichéd metaphor, but one of merit because of its use of transformation). I want to feel uncomfortable, because the places that I wish to go to make my writing great will be uncomfortable. I wish to endure pain, frustration, heartache, depression, and fear because this is what it takes to do good things.
Nothing good is ever easy and nothing worthwhile reading is ever easy writing it. I know all of these things. I also know that all this pain and frustration, these next two years (if I am accepted), will not mean instant publication, fame, money, etc. That’s not why I’m doing this. I’m pursuing an MFA to find a catalyst, to find a community of like-minded writers, and, finally, to find my path. I know it, I sense it, but I can’t do it alone. I need help.
Working on my own for the last few years of my self-appointed apprenticeship. I’ve shed some of the naïve notions, myths, and ideas of writing. I do not want to be some rock star of writing; I do not want to be ‘writerly’, wearing a tweed jacket and a pipe; I do not want to be a self-absorbed Byronic artist, a starving one, depressed and isolated on purpose, angry and cynical; and I also do not want to get by.
I know as well as you do that there are two types of writers, in varying degrees: the storyteller and the discoverer. I lack a bit of the former while possessing a bit more of the latter. My style, as what I have seen so far and recognized reflected from my favorite authors, is more realism than the fantastic, more traditional than the experimental. But then, I’ve always sat on the fence for that argument. Another thing I do not want is to adhere to a certain style or theory of literature. This stifles creativity, the great benefactress.
I will become a great writer. Quite frankly, I will become this, with or without you. It’s not an ego talking, it’s a passion. It’s not something you can stop in me because it’s not something I can control. I’ve tried to leave stories unedited or badly edited, and I can’t. I’m hungry, and I’m passionate, and I’ll work like a draft horse, to quote Mr. Gardner, if that’s what it takes. What it actually does take is where you guys and girls come in. An MFA program can only bring out what’s already inside me. Break down some walls, build up some walls, become tough, become sensitive, become diligent, disciplined, and hopeful.
I believe you are the program for me; not out of prestige but out of a communal feeling I get when I read up on your faculty’s writing. You’re not the top school compared to Atlantic Monthly or Publisher’s Weekly. But then, if I was hung up on lists and prestige, I’d want to be a best-selling author instead of a great storyteller. I believe that your faculty, your MFA program, and your millions of other little influences can help me become a great storyteller and a great writer. That’s all I wish.
On the other hand…
Then I say: don’t do it, the whole fucking thing stinks. The American business ethics has reached our schools (how hard was that?) and has taken over our creative writing programs. What can they possibly do for you? People are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to make themselves cuter, funnier, a better husband, a better lover, a better father, a better American; sexier, more spiritual; to erase their past, to remember their past, to accept their past, to invent an new one; to get over problems, to find their blindspots, to become at one with God, with power, with love; to be more secure—oh fuck it, to do anything but the hard work and self-reflection needed to overcome these things.
And it’s not even an overcoming, since reflecting on most of these ‘solutions’ shows that they are not problems at all but distractions. So with the burgeoning of MFA programs from 50 to 300 in the last twenty years; with more and more people ready to plunk down their hard-earned cash for another solution; with the prospect of teaching writing if one does not publish after these MFA programs are completed; with the trend now to program jump from one school to the next; and with the increase in the output of writers with the decrease of actual readers, while all through this the state of literature, from any genre, has leveled off to read with baseball-card-gum blandness—through all this, as the state of my precious and dying art form, I must say that I will continue to write no matter what the snake oil salesmen bark at me. I do not shun MFA programs. There are human parts to this machine, and I feel pity for them. But because Americans plunk down lots of money to MFAs, they need justification by the people purchasing such things. They need guarantees. And because they are not given book deals out of the hatch, they fall back on fellowships, teaching degrees, or another MFA or a PhD. Because this argument of ‘can it be taught?’ will go one forever, because the number of writing styles, techniques, and methods of teaching it directly correlates with how many total writers there are out there—because of this, we look for the easy answers but find none because there are none.
The question remains: will this MFA program make me into a great writer? Earlier I said, ‘Yes’, that there was something missing and that thing was this program. I still say this now. I really do believe in the idea of a community of artists, even if a community of introverted and solitary writers seems a paradox of logic. The question I ask you is whether your program is the best. After just ranting against MFA programs, I’d like to make an addendum: we need unselfish and open-minded teachers, and we need just as many students. We need honesty, which is why so many MFAs fail.
Am I just looking for an ideal that doesn’t exist? Am I just a Nathaniel Hawthorne in some commune, kicking at the New England dirt and cursing my romantic side? I hope not. Despite despair, despite cynicism, despite fear of both time, faith, and money wasted, I step towards a door in my life. Is it yours and is it open? I hope it is. I hope you see the potentials of my writing and not its many errors, its faults or weak structure and characterization. Hope, after all, is the one thing that we writers have always had stock in, especially from other people.
If you do not accept me, it won’t be the end of the world. This isn’t American Idol and I’m not a spoiled nineteen-year-old kid. I’m a thirty-year-old man. Rejection is part of my wardrobe and always will be. That’s how, after all, people become great: by realizing that they will never become great. Rejection cuts the legs out from us, pulls the rug out from under us. Rejection is part of life, but it’s also very cold and indifferent, having nothing to do with talent than with choosing of many different kinds of talent. Touche.
But I won’t stop. I can’t stop. Every day that I wake up, I get better, maybe only by a very small margin. Every day till I die, I at least strive to be better than the previous day. I challenge myself, my writing, and my standards.
One day, when I’m dead, I’ll be published. Whether I am published during my lifetime is all a matter of perseverence, time, and luck. Thank you for your time.
David M. Barnish