WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

MFAaaaaaaiiiiieeeeeeeee!

Books

Here’s another of those articles that onanates about the value of MFA programs. I’m morbidly attracted to these articles because I’m one of those poor schmucks who made the conscious decision not to pursue an MFA and I’ve been second-guessing it for 35 years. Now you may ask yourself, why not go for the degree if it objectively improves your chances at an actual career in fiction writing? Well, maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t, but if you watched Girls this season you’d have seen that going to Iowa ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

One benefit of attending a program, though, is that you might be asked to comment for a Times article on the value of MFA programs. At least you get your name out there from time to time.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m sure, but the whole industry of publishing these days seems like a big set-up to me. Publishers use the MFA as another of their gatekeeping techniques so they don’t have to weed through (and read through) tons of over-the-transom material. Writers without the degree have a tougher time finding representation, and writers without representation don’t get read by editors.

Listen up: Here’s what one gentleman quoted in the piece had to say. “The number of writers has increased, but the number of readers has not.” This from Joseph Harrison, Senior American editor for Waywiser Press. “M.F.A. programs make money off of people’s dreams.”

There you have it. Step right up and have a shot, but be aware that you might be taken for a ride. Reminds me of another thing I saw recently about how those carnival claws that pick up toys are rigged to have trouble snagging the stuffed animals. The things everyone wants can’t be picked up. You tell your girlfriend you’re gonna get her the cute little wide-eyed puppy, but the guy who sells you your token knows you’re going home with a capsule full of stale gumballs.

I don’t know. If you want to play viola in a concert orchestra, you’re going to have to go to Julliard or Berklee. Why do I bristle at the idea of going to Columbia or Irvine to earn the right to be taken seriously as a fiction writer?

My cross to bear, I guess. I took the road less traveled, and maybe that has made all the difference.

(Once again, if you’ve read Occasional Soulmates and you’re inclined to post a review of your own, this would be a great week to do it. I need one more in order to list a forthcoming promotion on a popular marketing site.

No pressure!)

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18 comments on “MFAaaaaaaiiiiieeeeeeeee!

  1. John W. Howell
    April 9, 2015

    An MFA degree and serious writer? Like MBA and serious business person? I don’t think so. It’s in the results, not the appearance. (yeah I have an MBA)

  2. sknicholls
    April 9, 2015

    I know so many people with a MFA who are NOT even writing. They are working in business and marketing and have never written a thing. MY husband has a degree from Cornell and he’s an engineer, a good one, but he also has a MBA. He’s an awful businessman. Did you hear about the trouble we had selling a boat? Yikes! He’s due to retire in a few years and we have an adviser.

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 9, 2015

      It’s true. The degree doesn’t make you a writer. Writing does.

  3. ericjbaker
    April 9, 2015

    Meh. The literary world seems like a big circle jerk.

    No MFA here, but 9 years of cranking out copy for 40 hours a week has taught me the value of speed, economy, and grabbing a reader from the first word. I don’t have any desire to be brilliant, just paid.

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 9, 2015

      You’ve nailed it. That’s why I use the neologism “onanates.”

      Hey, where you been, bro?

      • ericjbaker
        April 9, 2015

        The Onanates. My favorite hardcore band. 😉

        I’ve been trying to get motivated to blog. I love the cool people I’ve met on WP, but I don’t see how it’s doing anything for my writing. You know, trying to build a “following” out of a bunch of other people attempting to do the same thing. It’s like pitching vacuum cleaners at a sales convention.

      • Kevin Brennan
        April 9, 2015

        Yes. I definitely hear you. Alas.

    • 1WriteWay
      April 10, 2015

      I’m finding that these days I blog more just to hang out with cool people like you and Kevin and John than to build a following. I’ve missed you, Eric!!

      • ericjbaker
        April 10, 2015

        Thanks, kid. You’re all great people to know!

  4. 1WriteWay
    April 10, 2015

    I started to read the article in the NY Times, but, alas, I was at work and didn’t have that much time to distract myself. I still think about getting an MFA. Brevity has been posting some interesting essays from writers who are glad they did it. BUT, for the most part, it’s the process of getting the MFA, the work done, the community, the support and guidance that these writers most appreciated. One writer in particular noted that he was rejected by a number of MFA programs and the one that did accept him, did so on the basis of his potential. In other words, they knew his writing needed work and they were willing to work with him on it. They didn’t expect him to already be an outstanding writer who just needed to make the right connections. That’s the sort of program I would be interested in.

    While I appreciate the support I get from my fellow bloggers, I get very little real criticism. I keep waiting for someone to write, “I like your [insert story, poem] but here where it fails.” I’m no fool. I know my writing needs a lot of work, but it’s not going to improve in a vacuum. I have a few fond memories of a couple of writing workshops I took in grad school. I was lucky that my classmates could be both supportive and critical (in that constructive way which seems so rare in most venues). It wasn’t always easy. I had a few meltdowns, but my writing definitely improved. And I also felt that my classmates for the most part cared. Some of them were definitely more accomplished than me, but we all felt vulnerable. I miss that.

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 10, 2015

      Really good points about what the environment of an MFA program can offer, Marie. I think if more future-writers were motivated by those kinds of things, MFAs wouldn’t be seen so much as a ticket to SUCCESS. It’s true that there’s nothing like the support of other writers, and teachers, but there’s also, like you say, a serious need for real criticism, the kind you can take to the bank without wondering if the critic is somehow out to undermine you. The blogosphere isn’t really good for criticism, even if it’s great for support.

      I keep coming back to the money-making side of all this, not to mention the racial, socio-economic angles, like Junot Diaz talked about, which render a lot of programs comfy places for well-off white students to do their thing.

      I wonder if one of the low-residency MFAs would work for you? That way you wouldn’t have to upend your real life too much…

      • 1WriteWay
        April 10, 2015

        Low-res is the way I would want to go. I don’t think I could handle being in a classroom for long 😉 I keep looking. There is one in FL, but, geez, I’m so tired of FL 😉

    • ericjbaker
      April 10, 2015

      Sometimes I feel like all this Learning to Be a Great Writer stuff is hunting unicorns. You just have to put in the hours.

      • 1WriteWay
        April 11, 2015

        So true and it’s what I struggle with the most.

  5. Rick McCargar
    April 17, 2015

    Fortunately, I was in a field where your work spoke for you. As an IC designer, the creativity shown resolving design problems quickly and with exceptional efficiency from a topography perspective, quickly sorts out the good from great designers.

    In my twenties (1980s) I was able to build a 3500 employee company after quickly proving my skill in design, with parts in aerospace, industrial, military and commercial applications.

    Designs that don’t fail prematurely, that efficiently use the space on a wafer allowing more chips-per-wafer, that meet all specs, move you to the front of the line.

    I can imagine in the writing business, that though your design might be superior, getting your design in an application might be next to impossible, limiting your growth and success.

    Competition in most if not all fields is bound to be difficult, but some, due to the extreme technical nature, eliminate the amateurs from the competition, and make it easier for the pros to be seen, sorted out and recognized.

    One thing I do know, is that all of us who excelled, worked at our craft a minimum of sixty-hours per week, and kept that up for decades. Often, 80 hour weeks, and over 200K miles per year travel just to get to the place I needed to be to then work long hours.

    Those who don’t write with at least that amount of diligence probably shouldn’t expect to succeed.

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 17, 2015

      Good points, Rick. I do think many people go after the MFA, though, as something of a shortcut. It probably works for a handful, but by and large the only way to succeed in writing, or any of the arts, really, is to slog your way through and hone your craft till you’re a master.

      BTW, I loved the isolated guitar clip in “Layla.” I can kill a lot of time listening to isolated tracks if I’m not careful!

      • Rick McCargar
        April 17, 2015

        Not sure there are any real short-cuts in work beyond working smarter and harder than your contemporaries.

        Good post!

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This entry was posted on April 9, 2015 by in Publishing and tagged , , .
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