Tales of an MFA-in-Progress: The Great MFA Debate
by Ryan Sanford Smith
Well, it has been a long summer. People will always talk about how Indiana winters seem to stretch on forever, Februaries that can be measured in centuries, but Indiana summer days tend to stretch themselves out as well, particularly for students who often find themselves inundated with free time. This can be a Very Good Thing if one has a lot of things contemplate and prepare for–graduate school, for instance. The first and probably largest of the questions to occupy me this summer was one that has and continues to flame through many academic and creative circles: Am I doing the right thing? Is an MFA a good investment, artistically? Simply put, will the experience of this program make me a better writer?
It certainly isn’t difficult to find opinions on this question. From the well respected, informed, and reasonable to the whackjob hacks, almost everyone who knows what MFA stands for tends to have an almost jarringly intense opinion regarding their pursuit. Most of the standard arguments for both camps are well known (or can be by spending 5 quality minutes with Google), so I won’t spend a lot of time rehashing them, but they boil down to what one might expect: accusations that MFA programs produce a kind of writer that is best described as ‘workshopped into sterility’. Ouch. No small gripe there.
This can be particularly damning, as I’ve spoken with numerous MFA-bound writers that say they chose it over an MA or PhD program because they feared becoming too ‘academically inclined’ in their writing; basically, they’re afraid of producing work that sounds, through a pejorative lens, like a graduate student wrote it; tell these folks that an MFA will do essentially the same thing, and it’s bound to get their attention.
MFA programs have their defendants, of course; one opinion that I’ve personally found reassuring since first reading it can be read here in a blog post by the talented and dearly missed poet Reginald Shepherd. It feels almost impossible to give my opinion on pursuing an MFA without what amounts to plagiarizing his. What it comes down to, for me, is that it cannot be an inherently bad thing to give someone two or three years to write. Add in the other ingredients of your standard MFA regiment–access to educated and experienced writers in the faculty, intense workshopping, camaraderie with fellow writers and (one would hope) lovers of literature, and the landscape only seems to grow brighter.
Sure, there is a lot of influence, but what doesn’t influence a writer? One’s undergraduate work directly affects, to some extent, the kind of writing one does, yet there are few arguments against attending a university altogether because of that fact. When I reflect on my education at IU South Bend, there were aspects I found more enjoyable or helpful than others, but nothing could be said to have hurt my writing. Perspective is key: everything you experience educates you; past that, it’s up to you.
Like anything else, particularly when it comes to education, I find it hard to view MFA programs as anything other than what one puts into their work there, as well as a basic acknowledgement that one will be influenced, and should always be wary of that influence. Even if someone were to disregard nearly everything imparted to them in their stay in an MFA, they cannot deny an education through exposure–knowing what you don’t like is as important as learning what you do. This was really the crux of my decision many months ago that I wanted to continue my education via an MFA: even if it bores me, even if it makes me miserable or forces me down creative roads I find unhelpful, it simply and absolutely cannot make me a worse writer for all of the wear. Spending two years surrounded by people educated of and passionate about art is also hard to shy away from.
When I think about how I’m approaching the MFA program I’ll be entering at Notre Dame this Fall, my mind returns to one simple but powerful Latin phrase: hypotheses non fingo. ‘I feign no hypotheses’. I don’t know yet how this particular artistic expedition is going to inform my poetry, but I feel more than assured that it will not hinder it. I also know from the folks I’ve met so far that I’ll be in fine company.