MFA Programs: The Eternal (God Help Us) Debate

So, I’m reading Mark McGurl‘s piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “The MFA Octopus: Four Questions About Creative Writing,” and I’m thinking: aren’t we done with this yet? I mean, haven’t we all heard the many arguments both for and against the MFA program? And what is all this debate and discussion getting us anyway?

I took two years out of “real life” and did an MFA. Does that make me an elitist? A cookie-cutter writer? A self-absorbed navel gazer? I suspect that if I were, in fact, any of those things (and I’m not saying I’m not), the MFA program had little, if anything, to do with it. In all likelihood, I was those things to begin with. I can’t speak for all MFA graduates out there, but what the experience gave to me was time. Time to write. Time to focus on my writing. Time to spend with more experienced writers. Time to read and discuss and consider. Because, and here I feel pretty confident I can speak for all MFA graduates out there, in the “real” world, time is in short supply. And there are a whole host of other elitist, self-absorbed, navel-gazing activities out there to occupy what little time there is. Like learning to make the perfect martini and house hunting.

The answer to this debate is quite simple. If you don’t believe in MFA programs, don’t enroll in one. Work your job behind the register of an independent bookstore, stay up late reading Tolstoy and write your 18th century-esque novel about cobblers and chimney sweeps. I don’t care. But don’t kid yourself into thinking that just because you’re too “good” or “original” to be hobbled by an MFA program that you’re not an elitist, self-absorbed navel gazer. Because you are.


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