Meeting another academic often means revealing degrees, but I feel sheepish telling them I have an MA and an MFA. Somewhere, I have the framed diplomas, but my MA is 30 years old—I can barely picture my girlfriend from that time, so how can I be expected to remember “Interstitial Transcendence in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam“?
My MFA grows irrelevant even faster. Though it decorates my vita, the job it professed to prepare me for—artist—doesn’t require a degree. Anyone can be an artist because it only requires experience, and some would argue this experience shouldn’t be academic. “Artists don’t need no shoolin’,” they might say, or, “MFAs interfere with the development of a true artist.”
I have a more complicated response. My MFA is in writing poetry, and one of the books I read during my program was Written in Water, Written in Stone, (University of Michigan Press, 1996) a collection of essays about the practice of poetry. While it offers an invaluable window into the creative process, it also contains considerable ire about the MFA industry. In an interview with Wayne Dodd, Robert Bly says, “MFA students are winning because they are receiving the knowledge that you have received in fifteen years of writing poetry and you are giving it to them and they are accepting it.” Then Wayne Dodd gets in his own licks, asking, “You would agree, then, the system is a system of avoidance of pain? It seems to me that is the exact opposite way of going about discovering how to write profound poetry.”
Donald Hall, in “Poetry and Ambition,” shouts the battle cry, “Abolish the MFA!” He says MFA programs create “‘a mold in plaster, / Made with no loss of time,’ with no waste of effort, with no strenuous questioning as to merit.” Studying how to write poetry contributes to what Hall calls the “McPoem,” a barely passable work that bears a striking resemblance to hundreds of other passable poems manufactured that year.
The criticisms of Bly and Hall are particularly hard for me to take, as they were both associated with the MFA program that granted me my degree. I attended their lectures and seminars. If they reject MFAs, where does that put me?
Consider Hall’s description of the staple of creative writing programs, the workshop:
The poetry workshop resembles a garage to which we bring incomplete or malfunctioning homemade machines for diagnosis and repair. Here is the homemade airplane for which the crazed inventor forgot to provide wings; here is the internal combustion engine all finished except that it lacks a carburetor; here is the rowboat without oarlocks, the ladder without rungs, the motorcycle without wheels. We advance our nonfunctioning machine into a circle of other apprentice inventors and one or two senior Edisons. ‘Very good’ they say, ‘it almost flies . . . how about, uh . . . How about wings?’ or ‘Let me show you how to build a carburetor.'”
I can identify. I’ve participated in excellent workshops, but I’ve also been confused about whether my machines function or not. I presented “constructions” in hopes that they would “work”—for if they didn’t work, I was so ignorant I feared I couldn’t repair them. As my shelf grew heavy with owners’ manuals, practice and theory split more and more. It occurred to me that theory and practice may only contaminate one another.
Every workshop participant probably feels similarly confused, paralyzed by all of the intellectual choices you’ve been offered. So studying for an MFA doesn’t take away pain. Your confusion is a measure of your desperation. You accept help, hoping—perhaps unrealistically—that someday you will no longer need to ask, that you will know without asking…because you want to say what you feel and want your writing to reach someone. These teachers have achieved that. They must know something.
I’m still not sure I know what a carburetor really is, where it belongs, or what it does, but I’m grateful I had the chance to ask. Now, I’m trying to forget the manual and just fix stuff, but I’m glad I’ve looked at the book.
In his interview with Dodd, Robert Bly waxes nostalgic for the teachings of Ch’an Buddhism. “Their method doesn’t resemble a workshop,” Bly says, “They didn’t teach politeness or the smooth surface . . . [The teacher’s] plan would involve something entirely outside the building.” Bly imagines a teacher telling the student:
“After you have built your hut, translate twenty-five poems from a Rumanian Poet.”
“But I don’t know Rumanian.”
“Well then, that’s your first job. You learn Rumanian, translate the twenty-five poems, and then come back to see me, and I’ll tell you what I think about ‘the deep image.'”
As a teacher myself, I appreciate Bly’s desire to get students more lost before they receive help, but there’s a snide and perverse superiority here that doesn’t help students or teachers and actually makes MFA candidates more beholden instead of less. I’m not sure how much students can learn when a teacher communicates students aren’t worthy of attention. Rather than spend years meditating on my inadequacy (compared to my teacher), I’d prefer relevant practice, please.
Maybe the MFA isn’t the best solution to learning how to write, but it is A way, and as long as you know not to expect THE answer, it’s worth doing. True, if students simply seek guidance at every turn, they shouldn’t expect progress. But their basic desire to get better is a good thing, isn’t it? What student isn’t naive–isn’t that why they’re in school?
Another essay in Written in Water, Written in Stone is a funny piece by Robert Francis called “Four Pots Shots at Poetry.” One “pot shot” describes teaching as a pie of six slices. The first two are “What I told them that they already knew,” and “what I told them they could have found out just as well or better from books.” The third slice is, “What I told them that they refused to accept.” The fourth is, “What I told them that they were willing to accept and may have thought they accepted but couldn’t accept since they couldn’t fully understand,” and the last is “what I didn’t tell them, for I didn’t try to tell them all I knew.”
I spent the two years getting my MFA eating the first few pieces of that pie. I’ve spent all the years since trying to find the rest. I’m glad I’ve eaten…and happy more pie remains.