by Sebastian H. Paramo
If you’re like me, you may have sat once in your life with a good book and wondered if you’re the only one who writes stories or poems in a bar, or maybe the only one in your town. You might think that you have to be in New York or attend an MFA program to become a writer. You might wonder if the idea of getting an MFA is even worth it and for some it might be, but in my experience it’s not the only way. I’ve come across great writers who dropped out of high school and published in great places and they even got books. I’ve met writers who quit their profession and went back to get an MFA. I’ve met people who are near retirement age and they’ve come into writing by other means. Many of them have gone on to become successful with publishing. The one thing they had in common was that they worked hard and paid attention to the craft of writing. So is it worth getting an MFA?
Since the debut of the MFA degree at Iowa, the debate has existed of whether or not it’s worth it. Richard Hugo discusses the issue in his essay, “In Defence of Creative-Writing Classes,” included in his important book of essays on craft The Triggering Town. (I highly recommend anyone who is serious about writing to pick up a copy.) In his essay, he acknowledges the debate and even mentions that within the academic community of the MFA leading to a faculty job, there is some hostility toward creative writing teachers. Their main issue being, what’s the point. And yes, he also acknowledges getting an MFA may be a privileged degree, but so is getting any degree when you account for the fact that people still pay to go to college and those with the means to are willing to pay. But his point for the MFA ends up being that not only will the degree help you secure a teaching job, but it will teach you how to read literature better.
One of my reluctant conclusions is that the Ph.D. system tends to train people to teach literature as if it is some grand, mysterious system that has little or nothing to do with human existence. Obviously enough good teachers come out of the system to justify it. But I fear such a system attracts its fair share of people who are eager to put knowledge between themselves and their lives. To put it bluntly, dull people. As the punch line of the old joke goes, “I’ve been going through my notes and it turns out I have read Hamlet.”
Ultimately, he argues that the MFA is a means to an end and isn’t always a good thing because it depends on who the person is learning. Creative writing classes themselves are good outlets for being honest in literature.
I believe the writer creates experience as needed to satisfy impulses to write. The odd and not so odd are everywhere, and landscapes never stop. For a writer it is a matter of receiving, responding, converting, and appropriating. A writer will do that anywhere.
The word poetry comes from Greek and in broad terms, means making. Poetry and to the extent of writing is made. It is a product of our blood, sweat, and our tears. The product is the result and it of course takes time and craft to develop. I’ve come to extend this further, writers aren’t just writers; they are technicians, architects, sculptors, engineers. We make objects and people enjoy the small intricacies of what we’ve done to make our writing. You could say our writing is that made thing.
For some the task may appear easy. For others talent can be seen as hard to come by, but a true craftsman is persistent and loyal. If we apply this to visual arts, I think of the popular painter, Bob Ross, strangely enough. Ross was famous on his PBS show “The Joy of Painting.” Watching him is like magic, but as anyone in a trade or creative profession knows, it’s likely that his years of practice are what allows him to make it look easy.
Talent is a pursued interest. In other words, anything that you’re willing to practice, you can do.
It’s a romantic idea for us to believe we can reach out into the void of writing and hope to produce the next great American thing. Too often, beginning writers and the general public will assume we write or create in order to get famous or that simply putting down words on a page will lead us to become worthy of anthologies and awards right away.
And it is a beautiful thing when we’re in the moment of creating and our muse touches us in that way that allows to feel in the moment. I know for me when I’m writing a first draft and feel like I’m getting somewhere and finish that first draft, I can feel excited about it. But once I let it sit with me for a moment and read it over, I’ll see that it can be worked a little bit tighter and phrased a little bit better.
For an artist or any craftsman, we can all appreciate the beauty of a well-made thing. An Apple computer, your first car (meticulously labored over in a garage), a pair of jeans, even a well-thought out meal, these are all things we can consider well-made things. Someone designed or put thought into the computer you’re using. Someone designed your jeans. Your mother probably cooks your favorite meal for you and there’s a certain way she does it that makes it right. When we labor over something with love, whether it be at home or in a lab, the end result is the same. Somebody made that and somebody will love that.
How do we achieve this effect on people or produce something like that? When it comes to carpentry, culinary skills, or engineering, there are technical schools, apprenticeships, mentors, and the self-taught. Those that are self-taught read all the books they can find and spend countless hours practicing to teach themselves. It’s what mentors often understand and what apprenticeships know is required. The technical school is a means to incorporate those things in a setting, but anyone could easily create their own experience of that.
Medical students adhere to this practice by following the mantra, “Watch one, do one, teach one.”
The MFA program is a sort of technical school too and helps incorporate the idea of mentors, apprenticeship. In my MFA program, I found many of my initial mentors this way. However, it should be noted that for some the MFA program doesn’t always do much in offering this and mentors must be sought elsewhere. I remember when a friend of mine and I were in an undergraduate workshop that he told me he loved a little known poet’s work so much that he found the guy’s email and sent him some poems. This prompted a back and forth exchange between the two where they talked and discussed poetry. In a way, the guy became his mentor.
In a summer writing workshop, I met a guy about my age and for five years he attended the same summer workshop and continuously worked with the same workshop teacher in some capacity. Eventually, he built a relationship with him that continues to this day. He went on to go into an MFA program. I like to believe this was due to his persistence in taking writing seriously. His summers could have been spent elsewhere and I suspect it’s in a small way related to his relationship to his mentor, but I believe it was mostly due to his persistence in writing. After finishing the MFA is a different matter because only those that continue after the MFA and persist despite their rejections or setbacks can continue to succeed in their writing.
Since finishing the program, I’ve encouraged myself to continue exchange writing with my fellow alumni whenever I can and we do. We motivate each other and we even try to set-up workshop groups whenever we can. This is important too, because as I alluded to before, it’s been known that not everyone that goes through an MFA program continues writing. For every publishing success story whether it be a book deal or getting published in a “top-tier” journal, there’s another person with an MFA degree who stops writing or gets their book rejected. Of course, getting rejected shouldn’t be discouraging. It should be a call to fail better or an opportunity to reexamine your writing and give it another chance.
Maintaining a community is important. I once went to a reading in The Bowery to see a friend read as a featured reader. The reading opened with an open-mic. Among the other readers there, I remember two men who read, one after the other. Although, to some their poetry wasn’t anything spectacular, to me the sincerity and camaraderie I sensed between them and their sharing of their words, touched me. After the reading it was clear the two shared an acknowledgment of respect for their work and were supportive of each other. They clearly weren’t from any MFA program, but they had found their own community.
For some, the establishment of the MFA program or being from an MFA program can cause resentment. Writers before the advent of MFA programs, did well without them for years. However, despite the perception, writers continue to do well without them. As I said before, writers can even fail to find success after the MFA from the best of institutions.
Anelise Chen, writing in TheRumpus (a worthwhile read also for the loose list of MFA and Non-MFA books she makes note of), says the benefit of the MFA comes from the time afforded to write and the possibility of working with great people. However, as she states in her article, the measure of the MFA shouldn’t lie in a brand name teacher as some can be terrible and unuseful. Another consideration too is that the MFA you apply can provide scholarships. Some MFA programs are more expensive than others.
The time afforded to write in the MFA program then is a good argument for being in one, especially if one can get a full-ride. Time management is important here and we have to account for school, work, and play. At home, however, we can still give ourselves time to write if we make time for it. There is no finding time in our lives for the things we love, we have to make it.
Those dedicated to writing may find that the few lines they write in five minutes is a good day’s work. Others find themselves with thirty minutes or a few hours to write. Some give themselves a weekend with a few lines here and there. The daily dose of a good book helps too.
Others may find it more meaningful to write when they can or when inspiration strikes. How to make this writing meaningful is the tricky part and how to find inspiration is always the struggle. The process will always vary. The number one advice any writer will give you is to read as much as you write. Both are important and any good writer will say the same thing. The result will be good for those who are diligent and follow; a well-made thing.