Tuesday, December 18, 2012

In Defense of My MFA

By Steve Weddle

I've insulted, um, pretty much everything during the past few years here at DSD.

Recently, I said your writing workshop was dumb.

This week I was reading this Lifehacker article: How to Edit Your Own Writing. I believe 100% that you should print out your writing to edit it. I believe 0% that you should read your writing aloud to "see how it sounds." Unless you're recording an audio book. Then you should probably read your book aloud.

Some things will work for you. Some things won't. Do the ones that work for you. Don't do the ones that don't.

At first glance, the "MFA programs are bad" argument seems to require this kind of response. You don't like MFA programs? Then don't sign up for one.

I was having this discussion with Sam Hawken and Hexican when it occurred to me that this is really a different type of argument, isn't it?

If you don't find printing out your novel helpful, then don't do it. Simple.

But if MFA programs are bad, then what to do with the MFA-generated novel? Are MFA programs bad for writing in general? You know, I can't answer that. Not without some dumb list of 10 or 20 things that lean one way or another. You want to argue that literary writing is bad? Or that genre writing is bad? You want to go on about how teen werewolf romances that sell millions are killing reading? Meh. This ain't that column.

This is a column that says why the MFA program was good for me, about why working days in WalMart's automotive shop and spending evenings listening to Dave Smith talk about writing were instrumental.

First and foremost, it gave me a network of writers with whom I've built decades-old relationships. I was in the LSU MFA program in the mid-90's. Geaux Tigers.

I read and wrote alongside playwrights, screenwriters, novelists, and poets. We didn't have an "performance artists" that I know of. There was one freak-show of a dude, but he wasn't officially in the program. He just stood up at open mikes and yelled stuff.

The point, if I have one, is that I have a handful of people I still turn to when I need to chat about reading and writing. We didn't go to war together. We weren't on the same college lacrosse team. (Hahaha. Lacrosse. Hahaha.) But they cared about writing. They said "Hey, you read this Carver story?" They said, "Dude, this paragraph is kinda dumb. I don't think you need it." Before Twitter and Facebook, I had in-person people with whom I could share stories -- in both senses. And these are friends and colleagues I still count on day after day. These are friends who get emails from me at 11 pm on a Tuesday with this as a subject line: "250 Words from 2nite. Do it sux??"

My years at LSU in the MFA program gave me people I can trust, like-minded friends.

Have I made like-minded friends since then? Yes. Nine.

Another thing the MFA program helped with was writing on deadline. You have to have a short story ready every other week or a poem done each week, you've got a good chance to make good writing habits.

Being at a college or university MFA program also provided great access to "real" authors who would stop by and get drunk and give readings.

The idea that MFA professors sit around talking about tweed and cigars doesn't make much sense, either. I don't remember Andrei Codrescu arguing one way or another about Harris Tweed. I don't know whether Rodger Kamenetz likes cigars. I do know that Dave Smith's pool-house/writer's cottage is one of the coolest writer spaces I've ever seen. And Rick Blackwood's talks about sex and violence in fiction and movies was always fun.

I also had the opportunity to teach college classes, which helped me to reconsider some ideas. That also helped pay the bills for years to come.

Are MFA programs for everyone? No. Is college? No. Are these shoes? No.

You can be a writer without an MFA. You can be a writer with an MFA.

You can travel and write. You can research and write. You can live in your mom's basement for your life, watching old movies, and write.

Anyone who says an MFA is for everyone is wrong.

Anyone who says an "MFA novel" is better than a non-MFA novel just because the author has an MFA is wrong.

Having an MFA doesn't make you a better writer.

The experience of an MFA program can be amazing, just like many other experiences.

I wouldn't say everyone should work in WalMart's automotive shop.

I wouldn't say everyone should spend 10 years paying off an MFA degree.

I would say that you should find what works for you and do more of that.

Unless it's reading your stuff aloud. That's just silly.


Anonymous said...

Very nice insight into your experience with an MFA program. As you know from our brief discussion on Twitter, I definitely don't think it is or was the path for me — largely because I think the average MFA instructor would absolutely hate my devotion to genre, among other things — but I can understand why people go for this degree. I have a friend who's finishing up his MFA right now and he can't say enough good things about it.

It's worth noting, and you touch on this just a bit in your entry, that some people do consider MFA-driven novels and MFA-awarded novelists to be better than those without that imprimatur. I couldn't disagree with this more, not just because I have a fairly well-developed distaste for literary fiction, but because the vast majority of worthwhile writing has always been produced by authors without such a background. Some MFA-awarded writers are good. Some are not. The degree itself would seem to make no real difference except to the experience of the individual author in question.

As you say, the choice to pursue an MFA is ultimately a personal one and I can't argue with that. If you think it will enhance your writing or your life or what have you, then obviously take out the gigantic student loan and go for it. I'd never tell someone to avoid an MFA just because I chose not to pursue one. Whatever works is whatever works.

Steve Weddle said...

Sam, Well said. And from my experience, most of the profs at the LSU MFA program would have loved DWoJ. My experience was 20 years ago, but I do recall some "genre" stuff. I also recall some directionless blather, of course.
And I completely agree, as you and I have said, that an MFA badge on a book doesn't mean a damn thing.

EA said...

Well said and beautifully written, Steve. BTW, a few weeks ago you put up a post wherein there was a link to a chapter you had written. I can't find that blog post now, but I've wanted for weeks to tell you it was some classy writing.

Steve Weddle said...

Thank you, Elaine. That's nice of you to say.

Anonymous said...

Schools can teach you to write, but they can't teach you to write well.