Virginia Woolf said, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she’s to write fiction.” I’d say one needs an income and peace and quiet to write anything creative.
But do we scribblers also need Masters of Fine Arts in Writing degrees? Do they give writers an edge?
I was struck to see that nearly a third of the contributors to the nourishing anthology, Why We Write, held MFAs. The book’s subtitle is 20 Acclaimed Authors Discuss How They Do What They Do. How some of them do it is with the help of an MFA.
Granted, Isabel Allende has no college education. Super-successful mystery writer Sue Grafton has the same undergraduate degree that I have: a BA in English Literature. No MFA for either of us. But her father was a writer. That doesn’t guarantee talent, but at least growing up she was exposed to writing as a viable career. So maybe writers need money, a room, an MFA, or parental example.
Last spring, when MFA graduating students at a university near my home read from their work, my husband and I attended the event. Through their program, these writers had gotten the technical know-how that they could weave through or pile atop their natural talent and persistence. (It’s easier to persist with an instructor or mentor at your back, guiding you so that your fragile craft of a story doesn’t zigzag hopelessly on the vast ocean of literary traps.)
In the darkened auditorium, I listened longingly to these students who’d achieved the kind of writing it had taken me pretty much my entire adult life to cobble together on my own.
Those of us without MFAs must put in the necessary autodidactic decades of practice to figure out the techniques by ourselves, or as in my case, with the help of undergraduate and intermittent, but valuable, community based writing courses.
Curious to know if an MFA would have been helpful to my career, I checked the actual courses that comprise the degree.
Rutgers University MFA Program Courses
• Personal Essay . . . Techniques for writing autobiographical prose and memoir; strategies for transforming personal material. (This is my genre. Boy, could I have used this help!)
• Suspense . . . No matter what the genre, literature relies on certain techniques to manipulate reader interest. This course will examine how authors build suspense and maintain it throughout a narrative. (Don’t all writers need this?)
• Memoir . . . This course looks at both recently published and classic memoirs to determine what makes memoir exciting, intriguing, and universally relevant. (Maybe my two memoirs wouldn’t have needed so much rewriting had I written them after taking such a course.)
• Truth and Lies: Autobiographical Fiction and Fictional Autobiography . . . A look at the controversy about “telling the truth” in memoir, and the complexities of using autobiographical material in fiction. (Half of all self-taught memoir writers probably have nightmares featuring libel suit court appearances.)
Each student also takes a “closely supervised sustained project in nonfiction and other genres.” (Here’s where the writer’s shepherded away from the literary shoals.)
Writing really well can be grindingly difficult for both grad-school trained and self-taught writers, but I suspect the former don’t flounder as much as the latter. They lose less time giving serious consideration to ideas that later emerge as ridiculous. “Leave out every third word of my narrative? Why not?”
As each MFA student stood at the spotlighted lectern last spring, I imagined them starting with that itch to express that all writers know. After they wrote their story, poem, essay or memoir, they knew they wouldn’t be exposed before an audience, naked and vulnerable. An expert had helped them polish their pieces, and taught them when to follow convention and when to boldly flout it, would have made suggestions and conferred their imprimatur, giving the student writer a sense of their work’s quality, its readiness.
When I was young, I considered my writing perfect and was terrified a graduate writing program might alter my flawless prose. So, I developed the habit of working through writing problems with help from books and listening to interviews with authors broadcast on radio or TV.
Perhaps there’s some unique value in hardscrabble success, though I’m not sure what it is. I got my writing done, have had much of it published, even won some accolades. But, it would have all come easier and, I suspect, sooner had I an MFA.