August 5, 2007KR BlogUncategorized

Un-MFAed

The rites of initiation in any profession can be crude or baroque, extensive or nearly non-existent. Too many wiser voices have spoken of the apprenticeship of writers for me to descant and yet again descant on that supreme theme. What I can add to the immediate conversation is the experience of not getting an MFA. To make an easy, perhaps facile, preliminary statement, with neither love nor hatred in my heart for the MFA, I can say this: writing, in my case poetry, can and does happen beyond the pale of organized writing programs. It even gets published, sometimes. Such facts are obvious; the process is more obscure.

I was fortunate to be studying Renaissance literature at an institution with a fine MFA program and therefore to have access to a writerly community. There I had with a few friends to talk to, professors to occasionally consult with, and a series of visiting writers to expand my sense of what poetry is. I struggled to figure out how the intense, insomniac solitude of my writing was to intersect with other people. I didn’t attend workshops in those years. I wrote late at night and as if there were no tomorrow. Writing those poems felt like getting away with something. Perhaps all writing should feel that way. No one made me turn in poems for workshop, though I’m not sure I would have found that inhibiting (many do, which is indication of neither talent nor commitment: who can really understand, no less predict, what will elicit or obstruct writing?) These were the first poems that felt finished and worth sending to seek homes in that unpredictable world of journals, contests, and presses.

Writing is hard enough without having the added burden of an institutional education. Differentiating the two is the key to any degree program. Your job is not only to learn your craft (writing poems, stories, plays, essays, or scholarly articles). It’s to learn what it means to be a professional in your field. There’s nothing necessarily good or bad about that fact. This training ranges from learning the tools of the trade to strategies for teaching, among other quite useful goals. Such skills can be invaluable whether one pursues an academic job or not (and the decision to pursue such jobs is a matter of temperament, not talent). Much is made of networking in MFA programs. There’s never any guarantee that it will happen, that it will lead anywhere, or that it, too, is a boon or a bane. Besides, being an apprentice in almost any field is a rite of passage conducted without concern for the dignity of the initiates, and no degree program can change that. To survive the process without being wholly embittered is to be, one hopes, a better writer and a more compassionate person, but that’s a function of chance, not virtue.

Of course, there were moments, early on, when the rejection slips were piling up like mad when I wondered if there were some set of professional secrets I might have learned in an MFA program (like how to figure which journals might like the poems you write, which is in some cases obvious but in most wholly unpredictable). At the same time, my first poems were taken by Poetry and my first book I managed (miraculously) to place with Graywolf Press and win a 2007 NEA Fellowship. Not so shabby for someone without an MFA. Thankfully, these, like the vast majority of journals, presses, and funding agencies don’t make decisions based on degrees. (Or at least I assume so).

The MFA isn’t the only way, though it may make large social congregations, like the AWP conference, less immediately daunting and lonely. (In truth, it may not). Meeting colleagues, fellow writers and teachers who become friends with whom one has passionate conversation, is hard in any profession. The process is determined by chance, the timing unpredictable. Moreover, training comes in many forms. It may be a multitude of workshops with a dazzling array of experts in an institution designed to accommodate such experiences. It may be hunkering down with the poems or stories that challenge and inspire, even in the absence of degree committees and ready communities. Time to write is precious, to be sure, and many go to programs to ensure its availability. But the hunger to write makes a writer not an immediate facility with language or an astonishing subject. Without that hunger, unlimited time and countless MFAs wouldn’t mean a thing. Feedback, too, comes in many forms. Sometimes, we are best served by patient solitude and a willingness to read and work and wait for the strong words to come, the words that can’t help but be shared because such craft requires an audience. All of which is to say, the perennial question “To MFA or not?” is only one of many questions to ask when determining the path to a writerly life. Finding that path is as much a product of intention as it is of accident. For some, an MFA is vital in all the ways and for all the reasons it was unnecessary for me. In the end, it’s hard to know precisely why this would be the case.

Poems, like stars, are both born and made. The experience is more important than the location, regardless of the genre, though location can create opportunity. As writers, we try to figure out what environments will be most conducive to the making of irresistible strands of language: things can help but be heard by others. Although good writing is neither born nor made in a vacuum, there are no guarantees that any one place, strategy, or community will enable us. The hunger for affirmation can obscure this simple fact. So writing is born of error, the wrong circumstances being as instructive as the right ones. Like stargazers hunting for particular constellations in a night sky so dense and inviting it swallows us whole, we must try to be in the right place at the right time to see them, waiting patiently often in darkness for the lights to rise up before us.