Last week an old friend forwarded me an interesting blog post. Written by a writer in Canada, the article was about graduate degrees in creative writing, writing conferences and writing workshops. After I read it, I sent off a quick response to my friend and that, I thought, was that. Turns out, I couldn’t quite let it go.
One of the things the article questioned was the need for graduate writing degrees. The author didn’t exactly discount them but neither was she supportive, referring to it as part of the writers’ PAPERCHASE. I considered that.
It’s very true that a few years back there was indeed an active paper chase for an MFA in Creative Writing. Universities (in Canada) began to require that ALL instructors hold a minimum of a master’s degree. At the time many universities employed published authors to teach creative writing. Their credentials were their publications. Indeed I had buckets of MFA classmates who were working at colleges and universities across Canada teaching creative writing. They were well known, often award winning novelists. But, if they wanted to stay in their posts as university teachers of creative writing they HAD to get a master’s degree. Job security required them to chase that paper.
Of course that wasn’t true for every MFA student though there were many, including myself (briefly) who hoped that with their new degrees they could find sessional or even full-time work teaching at colleges and universities. Knowing there is a steady source of income frees a writer up to concentrate on that next novel instead of the next rent payment.
It soon became apparent that there were just too many graduate programs in creative writing for every grad to get a teaching job at a college or university. And it’s even worse now. Thankfully that’s not the only reason people chase MFAs. There are probably as many reasons as there are students enrolled. One classmate and good friend comes to mind. Calgary writer, Betty Jane Hegerat.
Like may other MFA students Betty Jane already had a book published when she began the program. And she wasn’t chasing that piece of paper that would allow her to teach. This woman – already a writer of brilliant short fiction when she began the MFA – was also retired social worker with a masters of social work under her belt. During the graduate program she took courses in Creative Non Fiction, Children’s Fiction and Long Fiction (the novel) which spurred new and wonderful book ideas in that amazing brain of hers. Since graduating – only a few years ago – Betty Jane has had wonderful books (give yourself a treat and read them!) published in each of these genres. THAT’S what a good MFA program can do.
Writing is a lonely, individual business. Being in a graduate writing program is a lot like being in a writing workshop environment. It’s continually stimulating. Exciting. Energising. You’re dialoguing daily with a group of talented and surprising individuals who have the same professional goals you do. Folks, that’s NOT easy to find. And the academic population changes. As you take different courses you become exposed to different writers. Orson Scott Card suggests that after one year in a writing group you should leave it because after a year people become too friendly and start to accept writing flaws they shouldn’t because they’ve grown to LIKE you. Maybe that’s true, but I can’t afford to do that. As an expat, writing groups – in English – aren’t easy to come by and I will hang on to mine with tensed talons! But I take Scott’s point.
Being in an MFA program and taking classes with new students is like acquiring a new writing group each year. You’re never allowed to get too comfortable with your work because as new eyes read your words you’re forced to become more circumspect. And if you’re lucky, you make connections with special people who then become your Wise Readers. For me that Wise Reader was someone I met in my second graduate class. Her name is Gwen Goodkin and if I owned a publishing house I would SO publish her short stories!!!! Today!!!! What I love about Gwen as a Wise Reader is that she truly is wise. She doesn’t mollycoddle me. She tells me exactly what she thinks. She makes my writing better. I would never have found her if I hadn’t been in an MFA program.
But that’s still NOT why I enrolled in an MFA.
I enrolled after being diagnosed with cancer. I didn’t sign up right away. I had to first do the obligatory railing at the world, feeling sorry for myself, and finally planning for my inevitable end. Part of that planning was making the clichéd bucket list.
A lot of folks include travel destinations in their bucket list. Not me. I’d already been (almost) everywhere. My bucket list was about writing. I’d already hobby-written and published two dozen stories and (terrible) poems and even written one thriller novel that placed in the top 100 of Amazon’s first Breakthrough Novel Award (2008). But I had higher ambitions. I wanted to write a fictionalised story of my strange childhood. I knew without a doubt that I would be more likely to achieve that goal within a quality MFA program.
Here are MY reasons for choosing to do an MFA:
REASON ONE: Being accepted into an MFA gave me VALIDATION AS A WRITER. The MFA application includes samples of your writing which is juried by the programs’ instructors. Being selected felt very much like the old days when I used to write and submit stories to literary magazines. When a story was accepted for publication it told me that someone somewhere liked what I was doing. I needed that.
REASON TWO: The MFA program gave me DEADLINES. I’d been in a couch-sitting, self-pitying, the-end-is-nigh funk for a few years. Being given writing deadlines got me moving again.
REASON THREE; The MFA program gave me EXPERT EDITING. I lurrrve my writing groups but it’s only in a graduate program that you can access such high levels of expert editing. At UBC we’re given a thesis advisor who works with you going over your entire manuscript, brainstorming ideas. My first chapters of my novel were edited by Glen Huser who won a Governor General’s award for Children’s writing and was short listed for a second GG. My thesis advisor was none other than Susan Juby, a brilliant writer of YA. Her debut novel Alice, I Think had me laughing out loud and she is one of the few Canadian writers (so I’ve heard) whose writing income is sufficient to live on. But I had another reason for enrolling in an MFA. It was my biggest, most important, supremo reason for chasing paper.
REASON FOUR: Graduating from an MFA program gave me a SLICE OF IMMORTALITY. My thesis will be published one day – soon I hope – but “approximately 3,000,000 books were published in the U.S. in 2011.” And folks, books that don’t make money don’t get reprinted. They end up on sale tables with prices slashed while publishers hope to recoup their basic investment. The odds of a book published this year, still being in print when my grandchildren and great grandchildren are around are slim. Okay, it’s not like I’m at the grandchildren stage-of-life yet but with a cancer diagnoses I was thinking about my progeny and whether or not I would ever meet them. I was long-term planning. You tend to do that when you’re think about your own end game. The only sure way that my grandchildren and great grandchildren will know me through my writing was in a university’s permanent archives. My thesis lives. And it will continue to live in the university’s electronic archives for my decedents to discover as long as there’s a University of British Columbia. THAT, Ladies and Gentlemen was the biggest, most important starting-pistol-reason that sent me off on my paper chase.
I’m a little weird. Sure. And my driver to enrol in an MFA is certainly… unique. But I’d wager that there are a lot people choosing to enrol in MFA programs that share at least a few of my reasons, the least of which is chasing paper. An MFA in Creative Writing is no longer a sure path to publication or a job in teaching. But it most definitely has its uses.
Next week I’ll tackle the second part of the article: To Conference or Not to Conference.