“Should I Do An MFA?” (and Farewell, Read Write Poem)

It saddens me to report that, with the departure of the founder, and with the site’s editorial, maintenance, and technical needs having grown beyond the capabilities for a new all-volunteer team to take it on, the excellent poetry social networking website Read Write Poem will close its doors May 1st. It has been a pleasure writing a series of poetry advice column editorials for the site, and getting to know its thousand-plus smart, sensitive, poetry-loving members.

While my first two pieces, on how to learn from rejection and how to be a poet every day, will remain archived on the site, my latest response to a member question, originally slated for mid-May, will now no longer show up on the site. So, in honor of the first day of the last month of this remarkable community’s existence, in honor of the first day of National Poetry Month, and in honor of Read Write Poem member Julie’s question, I am publishing my final column in this series here, on my own website.

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At work, when I interview candidates for an open position, I always ask what it was like at their previous job. I am amazed at how many interviewees animatedly complain. It is a warning sign to me that, if I hire them, they will likely soon be doing the same about my company. And so, though it seems Socratic, I am compelled to respond, whenever fellow writers ask me if they ought to do an MFA, with more questions, such as: How is it going in your current writing workshops? What is the conversation like between you and your trusted peers, when they give you feedback? Who are your current mentors (including those you learn from solely through their published work)? What are you working on improving about your writing life? Whom do you emulate? What do you absolutely know you still need to learn?

Learning to write well is, to me, a lifelong process of self-education. Just as I consider myself responsible for looking after my health, and enlist medical professionals to that end, likewise I am the one in charge of educating myself as a writer. My attitude, therefore, played a critical part in making my MFA two of the most rich and fulfilling years of my writerly life so far.

That said, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” tells the story of a man who, thorough his attitude, found existential meaning in the midst of his imprisonment in a Russian GULAG camp. And so, having said my piece about attitude, let me turn my attention to the substance of the MFA program I attended. After all, nobody wants to pay tens of thousands of dollars to participate in an experience that feels like a Soviet labor camp.

To hear some speak of the MFA system, it can sound like The Gulag Archipelago, which is probably what prompted RWP member Julie to ask:

I’m curious about how writing can be “improved” or even just taught by teachers.  I’ve always felt that poetry arises out of deeply felt experiences that can’t be articulated in any other way but in the shorthand of poems, and yet your writing (at least what I’ve read so far) indicates that an MFA isn’t the kiss of death for originality and that certain “life” that much of current poetry seems to lack.

I must admit that I feel under-qualified to speak to the current state of poetry, or the current state of the MFA system at large. My scientific sample size is limited to one: just me, attending a single low-residency MFA through Pacific University, Oregon, for two years time. I can tell you what I got out of it. Doing so, in my experience, is a bit like sounding a tuning fork. Some will read this and resonate automatically, based on how they are put together. Others might ask “Did you hear something?” and then move on.

Doing an MFA is not for everybody. There are plenty of great writers without them, plenty of mediocre writers with them — and vice-versa. The best answer I can give is to share my experience. Then, if something goes “ding,” you might want to take a next step toward looking in to this type of education.

One of my faculty advisors, Marvin Bell, said something I found remarkable. He said, “Genius in the arts consists in getting in touch with your own wiring.” At first, this would seem consistent with the idea that good writing can’t be taught. This is especially true if you consider teaching in the narrow and traditional sense of imparting information, and quizzing it back. However, my experience in the MFA had more to do with the part of education that shares a common root with the word “educe” — that is, I felt my true writerly self coaxed out from within.

And so, while good writing may not be “teachable” in a traditional sense, a better question might be: is there value to mentorship in the arts? Reading the exchange from Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” strikes me as a natural precursor to the faculty advisor exchanges in a low-residency MFA. Let me be clear: MFAs are expensive, and MFAs take time; Peer advice is free, and workshop groups are cheap. What made my MFA worth every penny of tuition, and every second of the two intense years of study, was this timeless process of mentorship and exchange. Pick your mentors well.

I studied with remarkable poets who have dedicated their lives to poetry. Just being around them was a privilege. But more than this, I experienced the traits of an artist awaken in me, through conversation and contact. Plus, their writing advice was invaluable. Though I may have found my own “wiring” eventually, through the support and encouragement of my advisors, I feel that my MFA gave me a jump start on the discovery process — easily compressing ten years of self-educating study (or more!) into two rich and immersive MFA years.

Regarding the “kiss of death for originality” sometimes linked to MFA programs, I see self-direction as the most significant mitigating factor against this syndrome. With regard to mentorship, the difference between the teacher-as-sender/student-as-receiver model of teaching, and the rich and engaging dialog I experienced in my two years, is the difference between potentially getting in touch with someone else’s wiring, and getting in touch with your own.

In workshops, the danger of sucking the life out of a poem is heightened, since groups tend toward consensus, and consensus favors mediocrity. Still, for the self-educating poet, taking temperature readings from a variety of bright, engaged readers, and conversing with them about their reading experience, can be an invaluable precursor to the more terse and ruthless process of sending poems out to a publisher. It is an imperfect science, fraught with false reads and biases. Then again, the literary marketplace is as well. The self-educating poet carries a salt shaker wherever she goes.

Finally, while my low-residency MFA was certainly not a GULAG camp, the results were a bit like going through boot camp. Two years of getting up early before work to write, reading after work, and spending time in the evenings and on weekends revising work and sending out poems helped me to groove new and lasting habits. I could set up the same accountability for free with trusted peers — and since graduation, I have. But the energy required to sustain my focus in the MFA program specifically helped me achieve an escape velocity — leaving behind preciousness and hesitation, propelling me into a new realm of discipline and confidence.

Your mileage may vary. For me, this particular MFA, at this critical juncture in my life, was transformational. I wrote blog entries on my website throughout my time in the program. If you would like to read more about my experience, including a transcript of the introduction to my graduate reading and student speech at commencement, please see the “MFA” category on my site.