MFA writing programs: an exposé

In May I completed my first year of a two-year MFA fiction program, and so concluded the best and worst year of my life. If someone close to you has the nerve to die, I recommend surrounding yourself with sensitive writer-types. They will email you with words of comfort, they will hold your hand when you’re trembling, and most importantly, they will go out drinking with you any night of the week. I had heard that being part of a writing community was one of the main reasons to pursue an MFA, but the truth of this didn’t fully register until I was at a bar with members of my tribe, drinking and discussing workshop submissions. For nerds, it doesn’t get much better than arguing POV and authorial intent over cocktails. When you take away all the cigarettes and whiskey and general bad behavior, we were just little kids who had finally found simpatico playmates. For instance, I was not the only one who played “Library” and “Office” as a child.

But MFA programs have their ugly side as well. One’s ego is constantly being either battered or inflated. Competition, gossip, raging insecurity, and overweening ambition all form part of the MFA gauntlet. Our words often become fighting words, and our self doubt often mutates into criticism of other writers. It’s hard to maintain your sense of self worth when you feel like everyone else is more talented, more brilliant, and more published than you are. There are moments when you feel like a total fraud. There are moments when you feel that you were a much better writer before you joined the program. The burn of one bad workshop can undo the glory of three good workshops. Many of us have never had our skill, or lack of skill, tested and exposed to such an extent. It’s completely terrifying.

But it’s not life and death. Our egos are petty creatures, and learning to rein mine in this year, even just an inch or two, has been one of the most edifying lessons of the program. Huge egos aren’t equipped to deal with failure or with success; they’ll crash from both a scathing review and from an NYTimes bestseller. The writers I most admire in the program are those who remember where their values lie. Books are less important than people. Books are written by people, for people. Our books might outlive us, but they don’t define us. Unless you’re someone like Nora Roberts who seems to write books in lieu of eating and sleeping and updating her Facebook wall.

My dad was a writer, but he was never published. He was too busy being a doctor. But when he died, he left behind decades of handwritten journals, letters to his loved ones, and stories written on the backs of prescription pads. He never wrote so that he could see his name in print; he wrote because he was moved to record the stuff of life. That man could describe the rain in a million different ways. He could describe how much he adored you in a million and one. I don’t think he would’ve had much tolerance for an MFA program, but he would’ve been crazy for the after-hours conversation.

I remember my first day back at school after the funeral. I was sitting in one of my favorite literature classes, barely aware of my surroundings, and instead of scribbling notes I was writing down everything I could recall from the week before: every flower from a friend, every visitor to the house, every embrace from a fellow mourner. I had filled up three pages when my pen ran out of ink. My classmate saw me struggling, and she pulled an extra pen out of her backpack. She said I could keep it. Someone told me later that she hadn’t known what to do for me or what to say about my dad, so she was grateful that she could at least keep me writing.

6 Thoughts on “MFA writing programs: an exposé

  1. shenanigans on June 22, 2010 at 11:21 am said:

    That is all. I’m no writer.

  2. For the record, I personally have never said confessed to having any sort of values to begin with.
    Seriously though, I do like your point about remembering why we write, particularly when you mention why your father wrote. I think our goals are what get so terribly blurred in the program. “In The Program”….yeesh. At best, we become competitive in the best way and we’re let into a world not just of friends and teachers and colleagues, but one in which we always have a gun to our head to write, and although I put in a rather gory way, that deep gut feeling of terror at having not written is the one thing that separates the men from the boys, and the writers from the dilettantes.

  3. Middle Carr on June 22, 2010 at 2:11 pm said:

    Wistar — your honesty, warmth, and humor continues to shine in your writing. I miss reading your work (and you!) a lot — and they way you capture the human condition as it sways this way and that.

  4. Nora Roberts has a Facebook?!
    And I love you.

  5. Lauren Neese on June 27, 2010 at 12:20 am said:

    this is beautiful. keep writing – i love reading it.
    all my love and peace,

  6. Kathie on June 29, 2010 at 3:33 pm said:

    Wistar, all these years and I didn’t know your dad was a writer too.Mentally, I’ve added it to his list of talents. It’s a gift passed on to you and I am in awe of your vision, humor and perspective. When I read your entries, it’s like a little gift wrapped up for me.

    Thank you.

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