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.
Denise Murphy says
I have a BA and MA in English literature and I wish I had used my time working on the MA to get an MFA in writing. To go back and do it again…. Maybe it is not necessary to have an MFA in order to be a successful writer, but I agree that it would make it easier. However, my primary take away from this post is the fantastic courses! My mouth watered at the description of the Rutgers program details. I long to immerse myself in such course work. ‘The Truth and Lies…’ especially! Yes completing the program would help my writing, but the work would be a reward in itself. I have no illusions that there is a tremendous amount of effort in such a program, but dare I say it would be fun!
Lynette Benton says
Like you, Denise, I’d love to be enrolled in the courses I copied into this blog post. There’s a certain deep satisfaction from writing courses that I don’t think I’ve experienced in any other types of courses in my life.
Linda Gartz says
When I first started trying to write my memoir, I thought my background in producing and writing documentary television scripts meant I was a writer. Wrong. Totally different type of writing. Within 6 months of starting work on my memoir, I realized I needed help, and I signed up to take a couple courses at Northwestern University’s “School of Continuing Studies” in creative nonfiction. I learned a lot, and thought I should just knuckle down and get my book done. That was 10 years ago. Of course I still had months (years) of research to complete in reading thousands of pages of letters and diaries, and I haven’t spent the last 10 years solely on my book, but If I had to do it over, I definitely would have pursued an MFA. I thought it would interfere with “getting my book done.” Even though I’ve taken many classes and workshops, joined writing groups for critiques, hired “mentors” to give me feed back, I think I’ve floundered a lot more than I would have with the discipline of varied classes and guidance of professionals. Of course, cost is a consideration for many — maybe $40-$60,000 for the MFA — and no guarantee of a job to make that back (Even though no guarantees for lawyers or MBA holders now, once the job is secured, they make a LOT more money than a writer or teacher of writing.) I’m still considering the MFA now, just because I would enjoy becoming a more skilled writer, but after getting over 100,000 words of my book written, I want to edit, revise, and get it done!
Lynette Benton says
I hear you and I’m with you, Linda!
I’m sure I’m not the only one who will soon disprove the idea that one needs even a room to write, or even a High School diploma. I have no home, degrees, money, or previous experience writing novels, but I do have the pain Hemingway spoke of to write seriously. That, and the fortunate practice of writing a million bad lines.
I also have first-hand knowledge and experience of the pain I am writing about. I believe that what people buy is the literary montage of the visionary. A peek into the mind of an abnormal being, driven by the need to create worlds. It’s true that they also buy sex, drugs, and money, but I don’t believe that any of that makes a great writer. Just maybe a rich one.
I’m a visionary. I call up words into mid-air, like the leaves of seasons, whispering, and I make them spiral within, crisping, causing the reader to know my characters and their emotions. This practice will help me and my readers to grow. It is the straw that I weave into gold.
The fact is.. I used to love story time in elementary. I used to love English class. I used to carry my Book Fair order form with me everywhere I went when I was 8, because, although we had no money for books, I had the belief in the thing I wanted. I still have that belief today, and it hasn’t a thing to do with higher learning. The fact is that I have continued writing since the age of about 12, and have tasted every cliche, I am meticulous in my writing. I have a feeling inside that knows the writing and how it should sound, and a stubborn unwillingness to tolerate anything less. That inner voice, telling the reader, in a roundabout way, about the child of the 80s, locked within, stuck in old pain.
This I will give (and sell) as a means to survival.
~ PS. Lynette, YOU KNOW I LOVE YOUR BLOGS!! <3
Lynette Benton says
Thanks so much for your candid comment, Greg. I love your determination, and wish you success! The world awaits your manuscript(s).
And you know I love your tweets!
*havING tasted every cliche 😛
Linda Gartz says
Greg, You are a driven writer, someone who obviously has had the muse burning within him since childhood. That muse drove you to write and write and write–and I believe that is the key. I am not as driven a writer as you, but I have become better from practice. I think what an MFA does (or any individual writing class) is give students the opportunity to write more, to study other good writers under the tutelage of someone who’s been in the trenches and practicing the art for many years. It’s not that one can’t become a good writer on one’s own (I assume you read voraciously, read about writing, think about what makes good writing, study the techniques of authors you love, etc.). It’s that one gets guidance in a writing class or program that makes the road less steep, lets the student writer find his/her way more quickly down the right paths than always veering off in the wrong direction. Keep going, Greg. Would love to read one of your books, essays, whatever your genre is.
Thank you for your kind words, and for knowing a bit about me from my words. I know that you and Lynette are correct, and I wish I could afford classes! LOL. I would take them if I could 🙂
Fascinating post, Lynette. You are such a valuable resource to SO many people. xo
Lynette Benton says
Thanks, Terry. I enjoy sharing the goods. 🙂
*plugs in via your dreams and downloads “the goods”*