How We Should Think About MFA Programs

by Jia Tolentino

“Creative writing programs can teach you how to write, but they can’t teach you what to write. No instructor or Zellowship can transform you into a storyteller without experience strutting your ambition.” — Jon Reiner, “Live First, Write Later: The Case for Less Creative-Writing Schooling,” The Atlantic, 9 April 2013

That quote is from a characteristically faux-contrarian Atlantic article about creative writing programs. It’s specifically about the “Zellowship,” or the $26,000 no-strings post-grad fellowship currently awarded to every student in the University of Michigan MFA. Students like me. With a recent $50 million gift to the program by Helen Zell, this funding, which goes to 22 people per year, has been guaranteed in perpetuity.

This, writes Jon Reiner, is “noble, but it’s a mistake.”

Reiner recently realized that he believes something about the “essence of good writing: experience matters.” What made him realize this? He watched a non-traditional college student get an essay published in The New Yorker, he felt jealous, he decided that “the quality of the writing wasn’t important, even for the esteemed New Yorker” and that “story is and always has been king.”

He concluded by driving straight to Bait City and telling a little story that sounds like this:

MFA programs can’t teach writing, only life can teach writing. MFA programs are training inexperienced young douchebags to churn out proficient, mediocre realism when these students would be better served evolving into experienced, slightly older douchebags who’ve put in a good heartbreak, an unpaid internship and some time at an Alaskan salmon fishery and can then carry on writing their mediocre realism about that. Writers with a financial cushion can’t quite feel it in their bones yet that the publishing industry’s ever-fainter claims to lucre are snapped up by self-exploitative hate reads and whatever erotic werewolf trilogy takes the seven-figure advance of 2013. Aspiring writers, “Zellians beware” — one should live first, write later. Turn down your stipend and live hard.

These ideas may be sort of true, but more importantly, they’re stupid. Equating good writing with unique situations and setting both things in opposition to graduate programs designed to give decent writers a three-year break from scrambling for their rent — it’s just as dumb as the other side of the coin, the side with the MFA defenders who hold writing up as a precious existential proposition, a little bird made of gold filigree that shall forever be protected in a $100,000 nest of student loans.

I avoid these people, as I do the small overlapping sector who complains about the fact that an MFA doesn’t automatically get you a respectable university position teaching the art of fiction to sophomore hockey players looking to express themselves. What a weird thing to be upset about! I like short stories quite a bit — I’m in a fucking MFA program — but the craft of creating pleasing literary nuggets is not quite on par with tax preparation or thank-you note etiquette in terms of skills that translate to real life, and the unsung entitlements of MFA graduates are uninteresting at best and criminally myopic more often.

Why all these answers of technological determinism to a question that no one is asking? The MFA, as a concept, is a neutral entity — it does not automatically qualify you for anything, it does not fundamentally make you better or worse at what you do. The MFA system is a collection of greenhouses, and what occurs within them is for each program and writer to decide.

Here, briefly, is where I stand on writing programs. The ones that make you pay are dead to me and I do not understand how they continue to exist and multiply. The ones that pay you are rare and beautiful, like unicorns.

About the latter case, the ones that pay you — why not take the money? Why does this Atlantic writer conflate financial stability with personal stasis? Why does he assume that MFA students are all young sentimentalists swaddled in blankets, cradling large teacups and measuring their brain out in listicles about what it’s like to be a twentysomething in grad school? The people in my program average out around age 30, and they’ve lived, certainly — lived as people who have struggled to feed themselves, lived as parents, social workers, scientists, Marines, Enron employees, farmers, teachers and prison guards.

At 24, I am in the abstract an exact example of what Reiner is worried about. But, like any intelligent person would do, I use my MFA stipend to enlarge my purview rather than shrink it. This stipend gives me the cushion to write fiction, sure, but also to interview whoever interests me, to go undercover at strip clubs, to write Shark Tank recaps, to do unpaid reporting on Central Asian feminist collectives. School is not a cloister but a job with great requirements. I’m not the only one who is taking reasonable advantage of this weird, temporary, lucky patronage system — and with all this fuss about who can and should write for free, I shouldn’t be.

Also, and maybe most importantly: writing is just writing! Writing is just a practice that improves over time, like doing yoga, and sometimes MFA programs help a person with this and sometimes they don’t. Writing is a vital and fundamentally democratic art that nonetheless requires programmatic interference to not favor the privileged; writing is a skill that is useful in so many other arenas other than the teaching of short story craft. Writing is a proposition that is not worth fussing over in grand “Can Writers Really Have It All?” style but is certainly worth nurturing for the insane glimmers of genius and transformation that will be waiting once we put the dumb think pieces down.

How about this: we let writers write however they can, let the cream rise however it will. We leave it alone. There’s nothing more sadly revelatory of the writer’s marketplace than a piece citing the extravagance of a grad school stipend that, while more than enough to pay my bar tab, is less than double the federal poverty level. And certainly, there is nothing less creative than dissecting the MFA.

Jia Tolentino lives in Ann Arbor.

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