It’s recruitment season for MFA programs, and I’m thinking of all the folks who’ve committed, or soon will, to this degree despite the fact that a 2013 Poets & Writers index says that full-time teaching positions at the university level are available, on average, for well less than one percent of creative writing program graduates.
In April at the annual Associated Writing Programs conference, I’ll be part of a roundtable discussion (with Sonja Livingston, Carter Sickels, Claire Vaye Watkins, and Doug Van Gundy) called “Straight Talk: What the MFA Promises and What It Delivers.” So here’s some straight talk about both.
I understand that those who are about to enter an MFA program might believe they’ve been handed some sort of golden ticket to whatever they dream of achieving: publication, awards, critical acclaim, a tenure-track teaching position. When I entered my own MFA program over thirty years ago, I’ll admit that I hoped such would be the case for me. I knew the success stories that had come from that storied program, and it was easy to believe in them. It was easy to be seduced, and face it, MFA programs are very practiced at the art of seduction. They publicize widely the successes of their former and current students, and the message is clear: “Come study with us and all of this will be yours.” But for every success story, there are how many other stories of frustration and disappointment.
Early in my MFA program, the editor of a national literary journal, a graduate of the very program that I was in, paid a visit to my workshop. He and my professor told us that statistics showed that in ten years, only three of us from a group of fifteen or so, would be publishing. That was a piece of straight talk that wiped the stars out of our eyes. That was a dose of reality that told me the MFA promised me nothing when it came to results. Hearing that statistic reminded me why I was really there—because I loved to write and to teach, and for two years the university was paying me to do both via a graduate teaching assistantship. That was as far as the deal went.
So what does the MFA really promise? Two to three years of intense study of your craft. A chance to participate in a community of writers. An opportunity to define your aesthetic, to step outside it if you wish to try on other aesthetics so you can better know yourself as a writer. A consideration of the marketplace and the profession as you get an insider’s look at writing, publishing, and teaching. A chance to do what you love to do.
But at times it can seem that the MFA promises so much more—exposure to agents and editors, book deals aplenty, stardom and financial security, the life of your dreams. Beware of believing in all that glitters. If you want to believe in something, believe in your own effort as you study and practice your craft, as you open yourself to what there is to be learned, as you give thanks for the way you feel when you nail that poem or that story or that essay. Beyond that, nothing is guaranteed.
I realize that it may seem easy for me to write these words given the fact that I’ve been fortunate when it comes to the writing and teaching life I’ve been able to enjoy beyond my own MFA, but I well remember those days when I doubted that I would ever publish, doubted that I would ever find a tenure-track teaching position, doubted that I would ever be able to make a living doing what I loved to do. I just kept writing. That’s the promise I made to myself, and that promise had nothing to do with what I expected to receive from my MFA. It had everything to do with what I expected from myself.