MFAs, Writing and Teacher Guilt

Via Galleycat, today we learn that bestselling author Lionel Shriver doubts the value of an MFA degree, even thought she has one herself (and from Columbia, to boot):

I can’t say that I regret it exactly…  But I sometimes feel in retrospect that I should have gotten a proper education in something like history, something substantive.  If I’m going to be honest, what I really needed in my early 20s was an audience; I wasn’t developed enough as a writer to be publishing.  So I couldn’t achieve that audience through getting short stories in The New Yorker…

So it is not a dumb thing for me to do.  And therefore I can’t really tell other people who were in a similar situation and have a similar need to have people read their work that they shouldn’t do it.  But it does have a kind of indulgent, middle-class gestalt.  The grim truth is that most people who get MFAs will not go on to be professional writers and therefore when I’ve been on the other side of it and occasionally taught creative writing, I felt a little bit guilty because so many of the people that you should be encouraging, because there’s no point to it if you’re not encouraging, are not going to make it.

This is an interesting perspective to me on a couple of grounds. The obvious one is that I share Ms. Shriver’s ambivalence about writing MFAs; they’re not necessary to be a published writer or author, and they take up time that a budding writer could be using  gathering experience in other aspects of the world outside of safely cloistered academia. For myself, in my last year of college, I never considered going on from there into an MFA program; I wanted to get out there and get an actual writing job, because a) the thought of someone paying me to write had its appeal, b) if I went into an MFA program I’d still have to get a job anyway, so why not just get a job and keep the money for myself.

But then, I’ve also always had a wide blue-collar streak to my writing ethos — writing is work and a job, not (just) an art and a calling — which was undoubtedly fueled by the fact that so many of my early writing idols were newspapermen and/or science fiction writers, many if not most of whom simply got out there and wrote for a living, rather than taking the time to take a degree in it. Anyone who knows me knows I take very nearly as much pride in the fact I earn a living writing as I do in the works I write, and that I don’t scorn the writer whose work pays for the roof over her head or the food on her table, even if the writing itself will never win a literary award. Given this, it’s not entirely surprising I find an MFA optional at best and a somewhat frivolous expenditure of time and money at worst (especially if, like Shriver, all you really want is an audience). Naturally, your mileage may vary on this opinion.

So there’s perhaps some measure of irony — if not to say bald contradiction — for me to note that even though I share Shriver’s ambivalence on the value of a writing MFA, I disagree with her ambivalence (or more accurately, guilt) about the value of teaching writing to people even if the majority of the people you teach don’t go on to be professional writers. Indeed, I think her feeling guilty about it is a little silly.

Why? Because that’s not her problem. Her problem is to teach well; everything else is on the student and up to forces mostly beyond the control of either of them. Shriner is almost certainly correct that most people in MFA programs will not become professional writers. Nor will most people who go to writing workshops, or take undergraduate Creative Writing degrees, or show up at the Learning Annex for a six-hour crash course, or whatever. They might not become pro writers because they’re not good enough. They might not because there’s a recession going on. They might not because the particular sort of thing they like to write is obscure and has no commercial market. They might not because they decide there’s something else they want to do more. They might not because they never intended to, they just wanted to learn for their own pleasure (it happens). They might not because on the way home from class, they fall down a manhole and are eaten by the CHUDs. Lots of things could occur that could keep these prospective writers from going pro.

And none of it is anything Shriner (or anyone who teaches, writing or otherwise) has to worry their head about. Their gig is handing out tools; what the students do with the tools is up to them. And the tools in themselves have value – that is to say there’s a value to learning that extends beyond the rather limited gauge of what that learning will do for you in a direct commercial fashion. You know, I have a degree in philosophy: Should my teachers feel even a little bit guilty that I am not a professional philosopher? I don’t suspect they do feel guilty, and if they do they shouldn’t. The degree has been useful to me in other ways.

So, again, the interesting conundrum of someone offering genuine value by teaching in a program of debatable value for the student. But perhaps not so much a conundrum if you remember these are two different things, and if you grant that the student is capable of making an informed choice about the program and what they’re really getting out of it at the end of the day. That makes things a lot simpler, it does. And a lot less guilt inducing.

69 Comments on “MFAs, Writing and Teacher Guilt”

  1. Heh. I went to art school (BFA) and am now making a decent living repairing computers. Would I make a different choice, way back when? Nope (except to take more life drawing courses)! Does it really matter that my college doesn’t apply directly to my livelihood? Not at all. I don’t consider it a waste of money (though I’m still paying school loans). I really appreciate the worlds it opened to me. Also, I can sound all pretentious and snotty at gallery shows. Now that’s worth something!

  2. If you get a chance, read Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, which discusses the history of the MFA and its effects on writing more generally since 1945. For the most part it eschews the “is an MFA helpful?” line, dealing instead with the “MFA is here to stay, so what does it do to writers?” line. For the “is it helpful?” line, see Louis Menand in the New Yorker.

    The “blue-collar streak to my writing ethos — writing is work and a job, not (just) an art and a calling” is more prevalent than you might imagine. But science fiction writers are not—it seems that creative writing classes and what not have had less of an effect on genre fiction, which hasn’t tended to get a lot of notice in formalized creative writing.

    As for the MFA-as-a-waste-of-time issue, John Barth discusses it in The Friday Book, which is also worth reading, and basically says that, although most credentialed creative writers never go on to publish books, they do usually come out better writers and better readers. Or, as the writer of one letter to the editor said in the New Yorker: “But I hope that my students lived as intensely for a year or two as I did at Denver. Like Menand, I would not trade it for anything.” That probably smacks of middle class gestalt, yes. But I also think it valuable in its own right.

  3. I think about this, since I’m an astronomy grad student. I plan on being a professor one day. Most likely, 90%+ of the students I’ll have won’t be grad students or folks planning on majoring in physics or astronomy or what have you — they’ll be art or business or English majors trying to get their three credit-hours of science by taking Astro 101.

    So, it’s something to keep in mind for my teaching goals — what I want the students who take Astro 101 to get. I don’t necessarily mind if they don’t become astronomers, since I’m not teaching it for that and they aren’t taking it for that. What I want them to do is to 1) understand something about how science in general works and 2) come out with an appreciation for the universe. If they can remember spectral types of stars or the size order of the planets in our solar system, that’s just icing on the cake.

    (I also enjoy writing, but I’m one of those folks who has a day job she loves, so writing is a hobby. Someday I might write and edit something publishable (and enough someone elses might agree), but it’s not my primary motivation — I’m motivated by having fun and improving my work.)

  4. I’m getting my degree in Linguistics, but the chance that I’ll make a living because of that degree is very slim. I’d much prefer to make a living writing, or working with computers, or something. That doesn’t make my degree a waste of time, nor does it mean my professors should feel guilty.

    Just to say, I’m pretty ambivalent about MFAs and other writing classes and degrees as well. I might take an SFF CW course, and that’s probably the last English course I’ll ever take. But that doesn’t mean much as far as other people go. It’s all up to the student.

  5. Okay, just had to say to Becca: I’m taking Intro to Astronomy for my three physical science credits. :o

    I actually love astronomy, but it’s just not something I’d ever do as a career. Ironically, not a single class, except maybe that CW class, relates to what I’d like to do for a living, or what I’m likely to do until that goal is met.

    As another example, I’m teaching myself a lot of computer stuff in my free time, because I think that’s something I could do as a day job, but I doubt I’ll ever take any classes in it, whereas friends of mine are taking classes in it, but I doubt they’ll ever use it in their jobs.

    So please don’t feel guilty, Teach, we know what we’re doing. ;)

  6. “I felt a little bit guilty because so many of the people that you should be encouraging, because there’s no point to it if you’re not encouraging, are not going to make it.”

    I read that last bit to say she feels guilty because she feels like she’s propagating some kind of myth like you need an MFA to get published or an MFA guarantees you will get published, or something like that. Neither of which are true.

    So she feels guilty for propagating a myth, or she feels guilty because her “encouragement” is on some level false because it’s wrapped up in one of those myths or something like it.

    At least, I think that’s what she’s saying.

    And if that’s whats she’s saying, then I think all she needs to do is be encouraging to her students without misrepresenting how hard it is to get published.

    But it is an errror to go from the general statistics of how many writers try versus how many succeed and try to apply that to the likelyhood of a particular writer’s success.

    because there’s no point to it if you’re not encouraging

    Winston Churchill once said that success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.

    I think a lot of what the teaching of writing involves is getting people to maintain their enthusiasm for writing between their failures.

  7. I’m as assistant director for a non-profit organization in the trauma healthcare sector, and I have no degrees apart from highschool diploma (paired with some college-level courses). I do not feel that being un-degreed has held me back in the least. I had to get out and earn a living, as it was the only option I had in my 20s. And now I’m in my mid-30s, I am given opportunities to take individual classes as needed that apply directly to my job, or taking classes that I think will be fun. The degree system in the US is different than in the UK, from what I understand, which is something interesting to ponder. A friend of mine finished an art degree and has gone on to teach and be paid for her art in less than 4 years’ time, and they didn’t have her taking all those “core classes” that have nothing to do with your degree but earn the college more money by calling it “liberal arts”.

  8. MFA share a lot of similarities with music degrees, of which I have two: they often serve to train the people who will teach the next batch of music students (or MFAs) in perpetuity.

    No one asks for your degree to get a musician’s gig; they just want to hear you play. Only schools ask about the degree, and that’s to thin the pile of applicants and cover their asses if you don’t work out.

    Writing is pretty much the same way.

  9. My undergraduate degree is in creative writing and I am so glad that it’s a B.A. instead of a B.F.A.–because I can say it’s an English degree and not have to explain any further unless I feel like it.

    I went to a school whose creative writing program was all workshop classes and I can quite definitely say that I didn’t learn much. Except, perhaps, that I don’t do well in cut-throat environments. And that the style of writing the program valued was not even close to my style.

    After I graduated, I essentially stopped writing. More or less–I struggle with whether or not the book reviewing gig counts as writing or not.

  10. “The grim truth is that most people who get MFAs will not go on to be professional writers and therefore when I’ve been on the other side of it and occasionally taught creative writing, I felt a little bit guilty because so many of the people that you should be encouraging, because there’s no point to it if you’re not encouraging, are not going to make it.”

    I chuckled when I realized that sentence was written by someone with an MFA in writing.

  11. But I sometimes feel in retrospect that I should have gotten a proper education in something like history, something substantive.

    I have a degree in history, and I can see how it could help a writer flesh out their worlds and make them them more realistic. I learned quite a bit about how religion has formed our world, and how events are basically a domino effect, each event tipping over the next domino in the line. Also, once you get past the lower level courses, you write a LOT. Lots of reading leads to lots of writing, which is, of course, why I chose that major in the first place. ;)

  12. The effects of a great class come up in unexpected ways and for years and years after I took the class. I don’t expect the teacher to justify the degree program.

  13. I recently had an erotica book come out. And someone had the gall to tell me I was “selling out.” WTF? I’m making money off my words, right? If writing for money is selling out then she’s right. I’m selling out. I wonder if she feels the same way about the tech writing I’ve done…

  14. I guess I should add that comment was in response to your statement about your “blue collar” ethic about writing. Ditto here.

    I’m a huge proponent of formal, college level education. It teaches people how to think at a deeper, adult level. This isn’t to say some can’t learn how to think without it, but many of us really needed it to learn, myself included.

  15. I agree that the guilt is unfounded. A person chooses to be in an MFA program or a writing class. They may have dreams of being professional writers. Those dreams may or may not come true. I don’t believe any teacher has the right to tell their students they’ll never make it (or feel guilty because they are potentially misleading students without talent). Teachers nourish dreams, or at least that’s what I want from my professors. The dream is mine – just give me the tools to help me get a little closer to it.

  16. I’m seriously considering applying to an MFA program, but it’s not because I think it’ll magically get me a book contract; it’s because the program itself sounds like a hell of a lot of fun. It’s sort of the way I felt when I was getting my (English Lit) undergraduate degree: You want me to read books and then tell you what I think about them? And you’re going to give me a degree for that? Only with writing. It makes me feel vaguely like I’m getting away with something, but in a good way.

  17. As the only thing I write professionally are reports I hardly feel qualified to comment. But of course I won’t let that stop me. Most of the things I’ve heard about MFA’s seems to consist of people complaining that they regiment your thinking in the name of improving your flexibilty. Not quite sure how that makes sense but it does seem to be a consistent theme.

  18. Lisa- thats exactly why I got my BA in English! My dad would snark that it wouldn’t get me a job, and I would say “so?”

    to be fair, it didn’t get me a job but it did get me in the masters program of my choice (library science at CUA) so I say I still win

  19. I have an MFA from Emerson College. I didn’t get it thinking it was necessary to be a good writer. Indeed, I thought I was a pretty good poet already. I learned a little bit of focus and some techniques in the MFA program, but that wasn’t my purpose in obtaining the degree either. I still hold the illusion that maybe my hard work will pay off and I can be a full-time poet or novelist, but that wasn’t why I went into an MFA program either.

    No, the real reason I went into an MFA program was to bolster credentials to teach writing. I learned more about the craft of writing from a mechanical and educational standpoint than I did from a four-year English degree. But I also went into the program after 6 years of serving as a US Navy officer, so I had that real-world practical knowledge to disavow me of any fancy-headed notions that because I had an MFA, my poems would suddenly be in Poetry Magazine.

  20. Good point Scalzi. I’m taking a voice class. I expect my singing instructor won’t feel guilty if her students don’t make it pro.

  21. More instructors should give their students some preemptive CHUD warnings. I think this would lead to more students going on to successful writing careers.

  22. At the liberal arts college where I’m currently teaching, we often assign an essay by Andrew Mills entitled “What’s so Good about a College Education? It goes into detail about what he calls the “can opener answer” to that question. A can opener is valuable because of what you can get with it–similarly, if you think any kind of degree is useful because you can trade it for a job, then you’re missing some of the benefits of a liberal arts education, like being able to participate intelligently in democratic institutions. Good workshops certainly teach that…

  23. if you grant that the student is capable of making an informed choice about the program

    That’s the rub, isn’t it?

    There’s a difference between Clarion West and Pay-Us-$$-and-We’ll-Show-You-How-To-Write-A-Children’s-Book-in-One-Weekend.

    Just like there are predatory self-publishers, I think there are predatory MFA programs. And being really expensive and exclusive is no guarantee that an MFA program’s beautiful brochures aren’t highly misleading.

  24. “They might not become pro writers because they’re not good enough.”

    I don’t think this is ever true. At least as a full stop. Not good enough NOW. And maybe they still need years of practice writing and years of reading. And perhaps in some cases, they’ll need a writing partner to shore up their weaknesses even as they lend their partner their strengths. But I think it’s a wrong idea that a person can simply not be good enough to be a professional writer. As if they’ve failed before they’ve even begun.

  25. Interesting. I was a journalism minor in college, and when I asked the head of the department if he thought I should major in journalism, he said, “No. Major in something you can write ABOUT.”

    On the other side of the coin, I then went on to major in biology (thinking I could be a science writer), and now one of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t major in something “impractical” that interested me more… specifically, history.

  26. J. Andrews:

    No, there are lots of people who aren’t good enough to be pro writers no matter how hard they try. I don’t think a vast number of “no chance” folks will be accepted into reputable MFA programs, but there are other sorts of writing programs that would be happy to take their money.

  27. Yeah, I really don’t get the guilt. I think a lot of people that go to school and get a BA (or a BS) end up in careers that are at best only tenuously related to their degree. I’ve got a friend who got his BS in biology and is now doing QA for a toothpaste company, since they needed someone whose education involved a lot of lab work. My fiance got his Master’s in pure mathematics, and he now tracks cost reporting at an oil company. My older brother got his Master’s in pure mathematics, and he’s a system administrator for a non-profit company now. I wouldn’t want any of their teachers to feel guilty that those two didn’t end up in research. Really, I think the only thing a teacher in a specialized program like that should feel bad about is if they train their students to think that they can’t possibly do anything else.

  28. I don’t know that much about the MFA stuff. I have a B.A. degree in history as well as a M.A. in history. I have used both of these for my job (teaching high school social studies). I also had to undergo teacher certification with added certification in supervision and administration so I can become a grades 6-12 administrator, whichI did, but liked teaching better and went back to the classroom. I think that any education is good if you use it. I had a friend in college who majored in medieval lit., but did not want to teach. I asked her what good was it then? By the way, I have nothing aganist medieval lit. I’ve used it in my world cultures classes.
    I was thinking of taking a writing class this summer to improve my skills as a writer. Now after reading this thread I’m not so sure.

  29. @John and J. Andrews:

    There are far less jobs for people who make a living publishing stories than there are people who get into MFA programs.

    I think from reading writer blogs there are essentially 2 types of writers. Those who write stories/scripts and are essentially self employed. There are really not alot of people who make a decent living doing this, since it is so competitive.

    Then there are writers who have jobs doing reviews, writing documents, press releases, and speeches who work for people. This is probably far less competitive.

    You left out one other reason people don’t become professional writers. They don’t really want to and don’t have the drive to sit in a chair and write a good story then spend several years writing bad stories. Then spend alot more time editing your stories and re-writing. Then hunting down a publisher and/or an agent.

    There is a very high barrier to entry to be a self employed and published author. There are probably a number of people good enough to do it, who just don’t want to work that hard.

  30. I think the guilt comes from the fact that an active imagination is the biggest marker of a successful fiction writer, and this isn’t something that can be taught or manufactured in a class.

    An MFA workshop can refine a writer’s technique or explain why some of the work they’ve done is lacking, but they can’t create the novel ideas or characters that make people want to read your stories. So a course in statistics or local history, while not a guarantee of success, will still give you useful information. A fine arts workshop, on the other hand, will either help make a good writer better, or help a bad writer polish their turd of a story, but it has less to do with the success itself.

  31. “…or take undergraduate Creative Writing degrees…”

    I’ll vouch for that. All it has ensured is that I write better emails than most of my co-workers.

    OTOH, I’ve got another forty or fifty years ahead of me in which to get published.

  32. The part that gets me is that my program coordinator refuses to see an MFA as a terminal degree. I have an MA in English and teach at a small Christian college. I want an MFA so I can both have a terminal degree and go back to school for something I am incredibly passionate about.

    She says that all I’d have is two Master’s degrees.

    That kind of bothers me, actually. I know intellectually that having an MFA won’t make me the next big thing. I know that it won’t actually make me any more marketable. But it would provide a lot of in-depth training as far as what I am doing wrong, and it would allow me to teach CW at my school and churn out something that might one day be able to be published and help me make a living on.

    But no. If I want the pay raise for having a terminal degree, I have to go on and get my PhD (film and television studies is most likely), which I don’t really want to do at the moment, as my attention is increasingly drawn to creative endeavors rather than academic.

    I’ve always heard that an MFA is a degree of passion rather than utility, and the more I work in higher ed, the more I see that as being true. And sadly, from what you say here, it’s the same in the publishing industry, too.

  33. I can think of a few reasons one might feel guilty in the writer’s situation, all of which can be dealt with in various ways.

    The first is misrepresentation about of the prospects for “making it” in publishing, which Greg London discusses in #6. Here, I agree that this guilt can be alleviated by including some information the realities of the market in one’s instruction. (This does need to be explicit, though; it isn’t enough just to be silent about the matter if one knows that one’s students have been given false expectations elsewhere.)

    A second source of guilt is related, but subtly different: an implicit assumption (seen in many grad programs) that the *only* way of “making it” that’s worth considering is getting one of those coveted “top” spots (which, depending on the field, might be regular bylines in the New Yorker, an international solo performance career, or a tenured full professorship in the field). The corollary, only sometimes explicitly stated, is that anyone who doesn’t achieve those things is a failure.

    This is an especially cruel attitude in departments that *count* on having students not complete the full program; read, for instance, the blog posts of Dorothea Salo and others about grad departments dependent on having lots of TAs but expecting to support relatively few of them through the dissertation.

    The solution to this is suggested by Becca Stareyes in #3; understand that many people may choose a different path from the “royal road”, and make sure that people who take those paths both get respect and get something useful out of your program.

    The third possible source of guilt isn’t directly stated by Shriner, but is suggested by our host in his followup: the worry that the classes in fact *aren’t* teaching their students what they really need to achieve their goals. One might worry, for instance, that the workshop method of teaching isn’t nearly as useful to teach writing as practical experience “getting out there and writing”. If that’s a concern, though, a teacher should consider changing the way they teach classes: make them practicum-based rather than workshop-based, for instance.

    The key thing about all these possible sources of guilt, though, is that a teacher should be able to figure out what problem, if any, lies behind the guilt. Then, if appropriate, they should be able to adjust their teaching to address the problem.

  34. Becca Stareyes @3

    What I want them to do is to 1) understand something about how science in general works

    An important job in this day and age. I really wish you well. Especially since yesterday I heard on the radio (Vermont Public Radio) a nurse say “Why is it that the NRC believes that what you cannot see or cannot measure will not hurt you?”

    You’da thunk that nurses would have had some training in science.

    atsiko @4

    As another example, I’m teaching myself a lot of computer stuff in my free time, because I think that’s something I could do as a day job, but I doubt I’ll ever take any classes in it, whereas friends of mine are taking classes in it, but I doubt they’ll ever use it in their jobs.

    Just curious as to why, if you’re interested in computers, you wouldn’t want to take your degree in Computer Science or Engineering? Especially if you plan on doing it as your day job. I know that all of my University classes were filled with people who intended to be Software Engineers, so we took classes and degrees that allowed us to get jobs in these areas.

    Unlike MFAs, most people who took Engineering or Math degrees got jobs in the career for which they were studying. Everyone I have ever interviewed for a job had a degree in either Engineering, Mathematics, or Computer Science. And I can say for sure, an interest in computers wasn’t enough.

  35. To me, the purpose of education in general should be to teach you how to learn. Ironic, I know, but here’s an example:

    Through reading and writing SFF, I discovered I had an interest in languages. So I went online and to the library and taught myself enough in a year to equal what the other students got out of our Intro to Ling course my first semester of college. I could have skipped that class every day and still made an A. (I went to solidify what I’d already learned, because of course I hadn’t learned everything.)

    What I’m learning in my classes is how much I don’t know, and I’m also getting a captive discussion group to chew on that information. The one thing that can be hard to find on your own is a group of people you can physically interact with who share your interest.

    If you’ve got that, you don’t need an MFA, because you know how to find the resources to improve yourself, and you know people you can talk to. Even just one the web, there’re so many resources available if you know how to look. What an MFA can do is concentrate those resources in one time and place mixed together with a group and an instructor who can give you their full time and attention. (Insofar as that can happen under any circumstances.)

    If that’s what you feel you need to move to the next level, go ahead and do it. It’s still impossible to say whether it will be worth it, but give it a shot. If that’s now what you think you need, then don’t let yourself be pressured by “experts” or “common sense” into doing something you don’t want to do.

  36. I got into an MFA program. I dropped out with only two quarters and my thesis left to complete.

    Maybe it just wasn’t the right program, I don’t know. But I found the environment actually stalled my writing progress and turned me sideways to my goal of being a pro writer.

    In a year of classes, I wrote only four short stories and (eventually) mailed them out. I was considered prolific. Many of my peers worked on the same short story (or few chapters of an incomplete novel) for term after term and never mailed anything because “it isn’t perfect, yet”.
    I realized that my goals and their goals weren’t aligned at all and that my teachers had all mostly stopped publishing work sometime back around the time they got their jobs (15-30 years in most cases). (I did have one workshop taught by a guest teacher who is a best-selling writer, and it was awesome, but she told me that the MFA probably wasn’t going to do much but teach me how to teach writing).

    Since I quit the program I’ve written a novel and twenty more stories and mailed all of them (and sold one for monies!).

    I think that if you really want an MFA, investigate the programs and decide what you really want it for. If you need an audience, it is all well and good (but don’t expect them to know anything more about good writing than you do), and if you want to teach creative writing then it is maybe necessary.

    If you want to sell short stories and novels and make a living as a writer, probably an MFA program isn’t going to help that. Getting your butt in the chair and writing a ton of words will. If you have time and money to take classes, you have more than enough time to write novels and/or lots and lots of short stories.

    (this was my experience, anyway)

  37. I think the guilt stems from the fact that people yearn SO MUCH to be writers, and very often are sort of asking you, “Am I good enough?”

    And you know, often the answer is “yes, if you continue to actually write and work, you can publish,” but a lot of people want “you can publish” to mean something more than it does, I think.

    There’s just a level of yearning that I’m not sure exists in other fields. I’m not a professional anthropologist, but I didn’t yearn to be. I have seen people who probably won’t ever be professional writers eat themselves up with yearning.

    To some extent, even if they’re my students, that’s not my problem–they’re responsible for making choices in their lives. But I am also responsible for being truthful to them. To me, that means never giving false praise.

  38. ” I expect my singing instructor won’t feel guilty if her students don’t make it pro”

    She might, depending on the context. I know when I was studying theater with serious intent to go into the business, the atmosphere surrounding the instruction was very similar to the atmosphere surrounding writing hopefuls. Everyone wanted to know if they were good enough to “make it”; the teachers wanted to be clear, and truthful, and not hurtful; and we all knew there were more to-be-crushed dreams in the room than there were ones that would be realized.

    I decided I didn’t like theater enough to deal with the shit I was going to have to go through to try to make it. I had been told I could probably make a living in the field, but that’s as ambiguous as “you can publish.”

    I find the experiences of having trained in both arts to be extremely similar.

  39. I think music or art are probably other fields with a similar sort of yearning. Any field dealing more with creative types probably has some level of this.

    It’s all good and well to say the teacher shouldn’t worry about it, but that’s an intellectual observation, and our emotions don’t always do what we tell them.

  40. I wonder if the most value one gets from an MFA program is the network of people you develop.

    Frankly, as an MBA (Executive program) from an Ivy League school, that’s the only real value I got from it. I did enjoy many of the courses but, they were of very little use in my daily business life. Of course, I’d been working for 15 years.

    Do you, John, or any of the others find this to be true of the MFA?

  41. izanobu @ 39 — I’ve been told that this is the degree known as the ABT, or All But Thesis. I have one of those, too. I entered the working world with a Bachelor of Theatre degree and four years of experience acquired while chasing an MFA in theatre.

    I dropped out at the ABT stage when I realized that, since I didn’t want to go on to propagate (i.e., do theatre in academia, whether it meant creating more little MFAs or feeding the chain farther down), I might as well screw the degree and get busy working. I originally intended to go back and finish, “as soon as I really needed to” — that is, whenever I found out that I needed the degree to continue working.

    I never did go back for that degree. I did change careers after 15 years and go back to school, but not in the same field and not looking for a master’s degree of any form.

    Although neither the MFA nor the ABT made a real difference, the four years of experience I acquired in the graduate theatre program did — since it involved real-life hands-on on work at an excellent regional theatre.

  42. Frank@37:

    Just curious as to why, if you’re interested in computers, you wouldn’t want to take your degree in Computer Science or Engineering?

    Could be his university doesn’t offer degrees with the focus he wants. Ferex, when I was in college in the late 80s, the CS degrees at my university were heavily focused on the theoretical/math aspects, with practical programming limited to the lower-level courses. Or if he’s interested in a support career, his university may be limited in troubleshooting/repair courses.

  43. Frank@37:

    Well, I’m a big flake. I have lots of interests. My dream job is making a living at fiction writing. Just to be clear. If they had a degree for that, I would totally take it.

    It’s not that I want to work with computers for a living, or that it’s my plan. It’s just that I think I could if necessary. An options open sort of thing. The reason I’m learning things like C++ and html (among a lot of other things) is because I enjoy it.

    As regards an actual degree, I’m at a liberal arts school. They offer a BSci in Computer Science. As regards TB@45’s comment–had I wanted to pursue a CS degree–he is spot on.

  44. But, but but… according to this dunderheaded article:

    The “literary” world of publishing has always operated as an informal network in which writing teachers identified promising students and passed them off to agents or editors who, in turn, excited the publishing house and sales force to get the independent booksellers talking about the next Great American Novel.

    (Yeah, I want some of whatever he’s taking.)

  45. I’ve been considering entering an mfa program so your thoughts and Shriver’s caught my attention. What is the value of education itself? Isn’t it to better oneself? As an adult, that is how it is for me now. Back 30 years ago, a degree was just something you had to get before you got a job. I didn’t value my education then. I didn’t finish and now at 50 am almost done with my bachelor’s in liberal arts with an emphasis in literature. I’m enjoying learning. Now that I’ve gotten a bit more serious about writing, I’m interested in improving and learning more about the craft. I know an MFA won’t result in becoming publisher. However, I may discover my strengths and weaknesses when it comes to writing. So wouldn’t there be value in that?

    An education doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a job or even work in the field you studied. My brother earned his master’s in English and ended up being a carpenter because he enjoyed it more.

    I’m interested in the answer to rick’s question: For those who did earn their MFA, did you personally benefit from it?

  46. Great discussion. I started to write a comment here and it got lengthy, so I’ve moved it over to my site. I do think my creative writing degree was worth my time, and I explain why in the post linked above. For context: I graduated from the University of Texas’s masters program in creative writing in 2006. The novel I wrote in that program was featured on the Big Idea here a while back.

  47. I was just (re)reading Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, and you know, it has something to say about this. In case you haven’t read this little gem, On BS is a philosophical examination of BS, and how it differs from telling the truth and lying. Frankfurt’s thesis is that BS isn’t exactly lying, because a BS artist doesn’t care what the truth is. A BS artist merely cares about being convincing. Frankfurt considers BS more dangerous to the truth than lying, because at least a liar knows where the truth is and avoids it. He also considers that BS has an implication of shoddiness that lying may not.

    How does this relate to an MFA degree? Here’s the question: if all you’ve trained is how to write, what are you going to write about? That takes a separate education, either in the school of life experience or in some other program.

    My concern is that an MFA degree can lead to the production of well-phrased BS and little more. While any writing (particularly science fiction) can be well-larded with BS, having a passing acquaintance with some other truth (or lots of little truths) makes for better art. Science is a system that’s concerned with truth, and the more you know about various sciences, the more you can put in a story.

    As for the number of professional writers produced by an MFA program, I hate to break it to the grad students out there, but there’s a 90 percent chance in most academic fields that you will not get a tenure-track job in the field you trained for, unless you a) get lucky and b) are willing to sacrifice almost everything (family, choice of where to live, etc) in pursuit of your career. Don’t let that stop you, but PLEASE realize the odds and arrange your education to maximize your chances of having a worthwhile life.

  48. Well Robin @ 48 my experience here in the UK is that degrees have gradually become more narrowly focussed on the “vocational”, i.e. the aim increasingly is for the graduand to “get a job” – the imputation is the the job you get should be related to your degree (major) subject, i.e. someone with a masters in Golf Course Management should end up doing something related to the managment of golf courses. Hence, degree courses have proliferated and the number of possible subjects has multiplied at least as fast. In reality of course, most people who are BSc (GCM) will never work on golf courses, in the same way at least 50% of LLB graduates never work as lawyers. This is greatly to the impoverishment of our cultural and personal lives.

    My first degree was in History and although I have never worked in that field the broad-based nature of the courses I undertook during my 5 year university career has provided me with tools I have used for the last 25 years, including understanding of the basis of science, mathematics and religion, as well as history, geography and archaeology. I learned to write and appreciate good writing first at college in the early 80s. And the friends I made then and the discussions we had remain relevant and have informed my world-view ever since.

    Since then I have completed a second degree in law and, though not a lawyer it was both useful to me in my working life and interesting and ienjoyable in and of itself. I also supported my partner in her Art History/Literature degree from which I learned much about fine art and read a huge amount of great literature.

    My own final word on this is that any student should study a degree subject which is of personal interest to them, otherwise they are just going through the motions. If your degree subject helps you get a job, great, but most employers value the fact you have a degree not the particular subject these days (exceptions for those working in specific fields), they may look for more or less science but most graduate programme don’t just take graduates in a single subject. If you take an MFA use it to give you the skills to be a better person (possibly but not necessarily also a better writer), but don’t think you have to have it to be a writer. This, I think, is where Shriver is coming from (and it’s already been alluded to a few times above). I am sure a lot of MFA students think it will help them become writers – she should make it clear to them that that isn’t necessarily so, and – as others have said – not beat herself up for crushing their unrealistic dreams (which is classic liberal middle-class angst).

  49. “For those who did earn their MFA, did you personally benefit from it?”


  50. My only regret about the MFA I did (at Mills College) was that it cost me so much. When I was applying to MFA’s, I didn’t know any better.

    I didn’t know that all the top programs are generally fully-funded — you not only get your tuition waived, but you get a stipend. (You teach a little usually for that stipend, but I consider that a bonus as long as the load isn’t too heavy, since it means you get teaching experience which may be useful when you graduate if you decide to go into teaching. Also, teaching something is an excellent way to learn it better.)

    So even though I got a tuition waiver my second year, I ended up with $40K in student loans, because I decided not to try to manage a job while in the two-year program, and took out student loans for my living expenses.

    I chose my program based on geography (trying to end up in the same area as my partner, also an academic — that actually failed, so we were long-distance for the whole program anyway). In retrospect, I would have at least looked for which programs offered strong funding options. I met something recently who got a free ride + stipend for three years in their MFA. Damn.

    For those interested, check out the “MFA weblog” —

    They track funding, among other things.

    Eventually, I ended up doing a Ph.D. in English with a creative dissertation, because it turns out I like the academic way of studying writing (many don’t, and it doesn’t do good things for their writing, but it works for me). It’s half workshops and half lit classes, plus a theory class, plus you spend your third year reading 120 books for your comprehensive lit exams, and then you spend years 4-5 writing your creative dissertation, aka book. Learned a ton about writing there. Plus, I wanted to teach lit as well as creative writing and composition, and for that, you need the Ph.D.

    At least for that one, they paid me (as is typical for Ph.D. programs) — full tuition remission, plus a teaching stipend, plus winning a few fellowships in my second and third years to release me from teaching. Not a ton of money, but you actually can live on $12,000 / yr in Salt Lake City, esp. if you work over the summer. And I ended up selling my dissertation novel to HarperCollins, so in effect, I got paid twice for that book. A much better deal. :-)

  51. It is funny she chooses History (capital letter intended) as something substantive. My personal experience is that when I’m on that usual suspects lineup for teaching jobs, the English Lit. degree usually trumps my History degree. I’m talking about actual social studies and history teaching positions. Close enough for government work I suppose. My snotty/jealous point is that taking English degrees do prepare you for a very good chance at getting teaching jobs (humanities), so they are extremely worthwhile. My gut gets sour and nervous, and I break out into sweats, just imagining how hard it would be to get a teaching job armed with a philosophy degree.

    Therefore, the more guilt she feels, the better, in the long run.

  52. Everyday’s a school day. You want to write, so write already. You don’t need a degree in anything. Join a writer’s group (live or web), but write. Keep a journal, write about your dreams, write about anything you can, but the important thing is learning how to sit down and do it nearly every day. At least that’s my take on writing. And for those who don’t think their stuff is good enough to get published, just look at James Joyce and figure there is hope for any and all.

    Back to writing that fifth book.

  53. Shriver, and some others, are missing the point. Writing is a tool. Some, if they have the talent, can use it for High Literary Goals, or Making the Big (or even Medium (or, more commonly, Pittance-Level)) Bucks, but it has uses well beyond that. Becoming a better writer not only helps you in most jobs, but it also helps you in organizing your thinking and expressing yourself throughout your life.

    I am a lawyer, but I learned w-a-y more tools that use on a daily basis from my MA in history than I ever did in law school. Why? Because grad students in history do nothing but write, do research, and argue over obscure points…in other words, the practical *tools* that a lawyer needs. These tools, and the similar ones that I would suspect a MFA in writing offers, are useful in a variety of careers. Even if the students don’t realize it, and even if they have no shot at becoming professional writers, they are getting tools that they can use to help their careers.

    No learning is a bad thing. Student loans do stink, but if you choose a program that gives you skills that apply broadly, the money is not wasted. I’m no historian, but I view getting my MA as one of the smartest things that I’ve ever done.

  54. I’d guess that the guilt is concern that her students think that by encouraging them, she’s implying that having an MFA is necessary to become a published writer, and/or that having acquired an MFA, one’s chances of being a published writer are vastly increased.

    And of course this is an especial concern in a world where education for education’s sake is becoming increasingly expensive and impractical.

  55. I tend towards a modification of a statement by the (then) Head/President of the University of Chicago, and say: Some students will get a good education despite attending university… and some won’t.

    Also, I rather deplore the concept of a University as a place of Vocational Education, and hold that a Liberal Arts degree is usually a better goal. But then, I majored in English (with strong minors in Anthropology and Oriental Languages) — and spent my whole working life in the field of Ornamental Horticulture. Haven’t regretted either of those for more than a few isolated moments. (What I do regret is many of the things I haven’t done, but that’s something else again.)

    And yeah, BTW, back in ’75 I couldn’t afford to attend the WorldCon in Australia, but did so (& spent a month knocking-about the country) anyway, to my delight and (non-material) benefit.

  56. I’m currently in an MFA program. I got a Master’s in Aerospace Engineering for my day job, and now, I’m doing something for myself. The MFA has helped my writing, and it provides a structure for me to schedule my busy life around. Writing has fallen to the wayside in the past, and having deadlines for class makes writing more permanent in my life. Also, the program I’m in does give realistic expectations. The only printing it guarantees you is the thesis required to complete the degree (one copy goes in the university library). The faculty is very honest about the fact that getting published is extremely difficult.

    My writing has improved due to the program; my colleagues and the faculty have pointed out things it would have taken years for me to understand was a problem. It has also shown me what people get out of my work. I wouldn’t trade it for any experience but it most assuredly isn’t for everyone.

  57. When asked what I do for a living I give one of two answers. I either say “I’m a geek-of-all-trades. If there’s a computer involved, I can do it.” OR I say “I’m professionally awesome.” These are snarky ways of saying that I draw on everything I’ve ever done, every class I’ve ever taken. The art classes, the writing classes, the masonry, the math, the metal shop, the physics, the large diesel engine repair, the elementary education, and growing up raising wheat.
    Even the people who will never write so much as a pithy quote professionally will benefit from the class somehow. Granted, a McDonalds fry chef has less use for a wide skill base than someone working in military medical publishing, but the wide skill set will help them move up, or better yet, out. If nothing else they’re learning things that help them enhance their enjoyment of life.

  58. Pretend Ms. Shriver is reading this…

    Shed the guilt Ms. Shriver. You are teaching graduate students. Just being with you in your graduate school seminars? “Tis’ enough” as Mercutio said of the mortal wound he received from Tybalt. Whatever your students’ motivations are for being with you and their expectations are for after graduate school, they are with you to learn — to become better writers. You do much good with them on that count.

    A 1978 MBA in accounting proved valuable for a 27 year career as a CPA. A 2004 MA in English is proving valuable for teaching English now in higher and secondary education. But, whatever utility the two credentials have granted me, their highest value was the sheer joy of being in those graduate classes, among peers, imbibing the wisdom, experience, and counsel of my graduate school professors.

    Were I independently wealthy, I would just go to graduate school for the sheer joy of being there. Whatever your students do after the program, Ms. Shriver, they will always remember you for being there for them for those seminars. For teaching them, for guiding them, for caring about their writing on this their journey through life.

  59. I think everyone who aspires to writing as a means of converting time to money should be required to do a year on a daily newspaper. Everything I learned about the act of putting ink onto paper was informed by the fact that the paper went to bed at 8:30 AM (small town paper), and you better have your column inches done if you wanted the conversion process to continue.

    I think most folks would be better served by this than by an MFA program…

  60. Good job encapsulating the issue, as always. It’s nice to see writing teachers care enough about their students for this to be an issue. Law professors actively discourage students, I think it may be the same in Med school. Hard facts about our Career Life Expectancy made us very serious about the 200G we were dropping for a slim ‘chance’ at a better life. Let life destroy the dreams – at least that way some will survive – teachers should help dreams mature and evolve.

  61. I should have gotten a proper education in something like history, something substantive

    Ha! That’s rich. For fifteen years I’ve saying to myself, “Self, maybe instead of a degree in History, you should have pursued something more useful. Maybe the sciences…”

  62. I’m currently working toward an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University. Beyond getting the terminal degree, what appealed to me the most was the opportunity to draft my thesis novel with faculty mentors who are also working, published authors. Students work one on one with two different mentors over the course of the program, as well as student critique groups. It’s a distance learning program with on-campus residencies twice a year. If you are a fantasy, SF, romance, crime-fiction, mystery, YA writer in search of a rigorous academic environment that takes seriously genre fiction, check it out. Of course, there’s no guarantee of fame and fortune. However, not only will you have a degree when you’re finished, but a marketable manuscript, as well as a thorough grounding in the practical aspects of the publishing business.

    On a related topic:

    Every semester, the entire student body is assigned a common genre text we then discuss during residency. Last residency’s common text was “Old Man’s War.”

  63. The vast majority of query letters I receive from MFA students are dreadful. Five paragraphs touting themselves and their vaunted MFA program, and (usually) zero paragraphs on the plot of the book. It is mind-boggling to me why MFA programs don’t at least spend one class during one semester discussing the *business* of writing, and how to work with the tools that are part and parcel of the business of writing.

  64. So…I know this is all about the MFA but I am literally on the brink of starting an English BA with a creative writing option. I was thinking about going into teaching with an MFA & potentially a PhD for the job security.

    I have no illusions of grandeur about making it big as a novelist; of course it would be nice but I know the odds are slim, and in reality it’s a pipe dream. Stories have always fascinated me to the point of obsession and I would relish the opportunity to study them in depth but I’ve also developed a striking interest in technology and politics.

    Information security is a much more marketable degree than creative writing. I’ve considered going the tech route and just writing in my free time. Plenty of SF authors are physicists, chemists, or astronomers. Any thoughts?

  65. Let’s see. Stuyvesant High School (where 4 of my classmates were to become senior officials much later, in the Obama Administration) was 10th, 11th, and 12th grade. I spent 5 years at Caltech (due to changing from Physics to Astronomy to double major in Math and English) so that’s 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, and 16th grade. Then my M.S. arrived between 17th and 18th grade, and 5 years total of grad school accounts for 19th, 20th, and 21st grade also. During Grad school I was concurrently with Computer & Information science enjoying progress towards an M.F.A. in Poetry, but I think that refusing to sleep with the chairperson made that a dead end. Could I reasonably expect to earn serious money in Physics (I’m not going on a tangent about String Theory here)? My wife has, in industry and as Professor. Or English (either the B.S. or the partly achieved MFA)? Unlikely, except for teaching. And speaking of teaching, going to Cal State L.A. for my Secondary School Teaching Certificate is 22nd, 23rds, and 24th grade. And then California pink slipped 22,000 teachers in the year since I got credentialed. So no job. Computer Science? Sure, I retired undefeated from software after 30 languages and 44 years. But why assume that ANY academic degree has much to do with one’s career? Did George W. Bush’s MBA help him be a good manager? That’s all a 20th century paradigm. Here in the 21st century, we don’t have careers. We have portfolios of careers. We don’t just change jobs several times, we change industries, including some not yet named when we were in school. And it seems likely that the 22nd century will have something different from that. Although, to be sure, the future is unequally distributed.

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