Ego and the MFA

It’s MFA thesis defense season here at Ohio State, which always reminds me of my own MFA experience at the University of Arkansas. So much of my education as a writer was a process of becoming aware of how much I didn’t know. At the time, it was often discouraging to realize just how humbling learning this craft can be. Now, in retrospect, I see my acceptance of my ignorance as a necessary step in my development.

It’s been my experience, both personal and observational, that writers sometimes enter an MFA program too full of themselves. How can anyone blame us for a certain degree of egoism? After all, we’ve been plucked from the hundreds and thousands of applications for one of the few spots in a program. Faculty members, writers whose work we admire, have told us how wonderful our own work is as they try to recruit us for their particular program. Maybe they’ve even rolled out the red carpet for us at a visitation and then sent us away to make our decision, assuring us they really, really do hope we’ll say yes to their offer. We get the idea that these teachers and their programs desperately want us because of the talents we’ve displayed, and it’s true they’ve noticed something in our writing that makes them believe we just might have what it takes. The message we get is, “Come study with us, and we’ll do great things together.”

Somehow in the midst of all the wooing, we often fail to recognize a deeper truth. There are no guarantees, no magic tickets, no golden keys. There is, instead, a good deal of hard work, disappointment, and shocks to the ego ahead of us.

Such are the facts all MFA students need to accept. Such are the truths all MFA faculty members need to be honest about with their students.

Let’s start by accepting the fact that natural talent never guarantees success. Spectacularly talented writers fail to realize their potential all the time either because they don’t know how to work, or because they’re afraid to admit they really don’t know as much as they assumed they did.

The culture of an MFA program is such that all sorts of things can derail one’s learning. A collection of artistic sensibilities, many of them raw and unformed, can lead to any number of blows to the ego. What students fail to realize at the time, is such blows are necessary. We have to fail in order to succeed. We have to humble ourselves to this life-long apprenticeship.

I remember the years immediately following my own MFA and all the times I’d stop and think, “Oh, so this is what they meant.” The words of Bill Harrison, Jim Whitehead, John Clellon Holmes, Heather Ross Miller, Miller Williams, et. al. would come back to me, and I’d be able to hear and know them in a way that I couldn’t quite at the time. My point is the study and practice of one’s craft goes on long beyond the MFA. In fact, at least for me, the completion of the degree was only the beginning. The MFA provided a necessary foundation-building for the learning to come, which continues to this day.

The first step in that learning process was for me to admit that I was nothing special. When writers put their egos aside, they truly begin to learn. We have to humble ourselves to our craft. For me, the MFA program provided that necessary humbling. I left the University of Arkansas ready to extend my study, a study that continues to this day.  Rilke said this: “Make your ego porous. Will is of little importance, complaining is nothing, fame is nothing. Openness, patience, receptivity, solitude is everything.” Sounds like excellent advice for those about to graduate with their MFAs and go on with their study. Openness, patience, receptivity, solitude. Embrace these things and let them take you where you’re meant to go.






  1. Lindsay Gerano on April 9, 2018 at 9:12 am

    Love this, Lee. I don’t have my MFA but I do know that there are way too many people that know so much more than I do about structure in the craft and wind beneath the wings. Thanks for sharing.

    • Lee Martin on April 16, 2018 at 12:14 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Lindsay. I’m with you. I know there are a number of writers who know more than I do. We all learn from one another.

  2. Billy on April 9, 2018 at 10:48 am

    Thanks Lee for sharing this bit of wisdom. Your posts about the MFA are helpful for those of us operating outside the MFA world. I’m learning a lot of insightful information. I’m curious to know if you recommend a creative writing textbook for those of us trying to pick up some info from the outside.

    • Lee Martin on April 16, 2018 at 12:13 pm

      John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction” is good, as is Rust Hills’s “Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular.: A new book, “Flash,” by John Dufresne is especially helpful for writers interested in the short-short story.

  3. Lynn Lipinski on April 9, 2018 at 7:12 pm

    I’m about to defend my thesis in three weeks so I was excited to read your post. That entire chapter I asked you to read at the AWW retreat? You won’t find it in the version I’m polishing as the final. It crumbled then vanished under the weight of better prose, written later. The MFA degree has given me more discipline about revision and a greater willingness to discard that which doesn’t work. Writing is not unlike life. The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. Thanks for posting this, Lee.

    • Lee Martin on April 16, 2018 at 12:12 pm

      Lynn, revision gets really exciting when one understands that everything is fluid. Congrats on your thesis and your MFA!

  4. Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 11, 2018 at 2:20 am

    I’m another writer who’s never done an MFA, but I went through several years of a writing workshop at a London college that was moderated by a literary agent. Each week, three of us would read excerpts, then the agent would lead discussion about them. We emerged with a lot of critical wisdom and an ethic of apprenticeship – with each book we write, we are learning what it should be.
    Funnily enough, you and I might have a friend in common – I’ve just interviewed for my blog a former professor from the Arkansas MFA!
    Insightful post as always.

    • Lee Martin on April 16, 2018 at 12:11 pm

      Roz, I love how you put this: “. . .with each book we write, we are learning what it should be.” Exactly! I’ve been gone from Arkansas since 1984, but I’m curious which former professor you interviewed. Thanks so much for your comment!

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