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.