What Validates a Writer? – DIY MFA Question of the Week 1

Western society in particular seems to focus on the letters behind our name as proof of our ability to do something. When visiting a doctor, our eyes might wander to the directory and peruse the list: DO, MD, PhN, PA, RN … If we take a class, there is something about seeing PhD, EdD, JD, DBA, MSW or some other combination of alphabet soup being the facilitator’s name.But what about writers? Does an MFA make difference?The question was sparked by a discussion group and I thought I would take a moment to explore it here.Gabriela Pereira runs a great site called DIY MFA. The actual questions this week are:

Have you ever thought about getting an MFA? If so, did you pursue it? (And what was that experience like?) If not, what have you been doing instead to enhance your writing education?In the podcast, I share a quote from Eric Hoffer: “In a time of drastic change, the learners inherit the future.” Do you agree? If so, what are you doing to become a better learner?

To be honest, I’ve thought about getting all sorts of additional degrees. I tell my students I hated school all the way through a master’s degree and despite how proud I am of my early alma maters, didn’t gain an appreciation for learning until my doctoral and post-doc programs. I’ve opined about how I probably should have pursued an MSW instead of a master’s in education. I would still like to go after a JD. I thought about an MFA once for about five minutes.I guess I have never gotten caught up in the hype behind having an MFA as a sign that I am a writer. That is not to say that I think my friends and fellow writers who have the degree were hype-driven — I apologize if that’s how it came out but follow me: we all have different paths to take. I’ve known folks who have taken an MFA and who met with a measure of success. They gained access to people and markets that I only dream of.However, I think about the structure required in such a program — assignments, deliverables for class, assessments. Perhaps it’s less a hype issue and more a dedication issue on my part. The free-wheeling part of me screams at the thought, saying ‘I don’t wanna!’ Instead, I cram a moment here or there to write. I dream of going back to my local writer’s group (yay, Inlandia! Still love you all!). I submit to interesting spots I find through Duotrope and QueryTracker … bull in a China shop, anyone?Conversely, I believe if I did decide to go after an MFA, I’d be looking for one that included specialties based on genre. Is that crazy talk? Does it already exist? I haven’t looked so please forgive any ignorance here. While I hold no ill will against strong romance writers, for example, I would not want to be in a bunch of classes where the bend was toward the traditional romantic yarn. If the time traveling alien developed a hankering for the ghost of a shrine maiden? Maybe I’d be interested. I believe a focus on genre would be very important in keeping my interest, even if every assignment did not lead me into the Twilight Zone or on a stroll with Van Helsing.I work with graduate and doctoral students and faculty. I facilitate learning, I’d like to think. In consideration of Hoffer’s quote, as I facilitate, I learn. Every day. Does it make me a better writer? Sure — I think academic work, particularly when its goal is scholarly practice, is challenging. It makes me read and revise my fiction much more so than I used to.It’s all a process and it looks different for each of us.MFA or not, keep writing. Keep dreaming. Keep revising. Keep submitting. That’s what makes the difference.What do you think? Is a degree important for a writer? If so, why and if not, why not?

5 thoughts on “What Validates a Writer? – DIY MFA Question of the Week 1

  1. Great points here, Andreé. I can’t speak toward the MFA per se, but I have an MA (in English language and lit), and although I would not trade that experience for anything, I don’t know how valuable (fiscally and otherwise) the MA aspect has been for my writing (and editing) career. I’ll tell you what was undeniably of benefit, however: the people (both faculty and students) I came into contact with as an undergrad and grad. I had the great good fortune of taking some creative writing, not to mention scholarly focused, classes under two excellent poets; a writer of speculative fiction who really tested me, before I’d even dipped my toes into that part of the pool; and several thoughtful, shining examples of literary scholarship, one of whom became my mentor and let me work at his literary magazine as a poetry editor and then an associate editor (being directly exposed to some arse-kickingly awesome poetry and prose). Although I’ve half-heartedly explored getting an MFA a couple different times, it has always seemed cost-prohibitive and, simply put, unlikely to work for my particular situation. I don’t want to ‘have the experience and miss the meaning,’ you know?! So, I do as others before me have: I brainstorm and scribble, write, edit, proofread, engage other writers and thinkers in conversations as here, and I submit and take my lumps and edit again (as needed) and re-submit and move on. Degrees are as important as you make them, and though I have no doubt I’d ‘work’ an MFA to the maximum (I don’t do things half-way), as any ‘type A’ personality would, I don’t think it’s necessary for me to achieve my goals. Sorry for the long-windedness, but them’s my thoughts! [I could go on, but I’ll save you!]

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  2. I don’t have a degree in anything and I sometimes feel I’m at a disadvantage as a writer because of it. Maybe people would take me more seriously if I had an MFA or something similar. Maybe a Diploma in English Lit…who knows, but at a cost of $10,000–$21,000 a year that is way out of my league. Oh wait…I do have one diploma. It says I completed junior high school 🙂

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