MFA Programs… the luxury, the sacrifice, and the big question

Ran across this the other day and the following excerpt prompted some questions, good ones.

George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year

Published: January 3, 2013, NYT Magazine
In an interview several years ago with Ben Marcus for The Believer, Saunders defended the time spent in an M.F.A. program by saying, “The chances of a person breaking through their own habits and sloth and limited mind to actually write something that gets out there and matters to people are slim.” But it’s a mistake, he added, to think of writing programs in terms that are “too narrowly careerist. . . . Even for those thousands of young people who don’t get something out there, the process is still a noble one — the process of trying to say something, of working through craft issues and the worldview issues and the ego issues — all of this is character-building, and, God forbid, everything we do should have concrete career results. I’ve seen time and time again the way that the process of trying to say something dignifies and improves a person.”

I’ve always thought of an MFA in Creative Writing as a luxury I’d love to indulge in once my offspring are out of my house. Of course as the economy is what it is and our class position is considerably low, it’s not likely my offspring are going to be on their own anytime soon.

So, what if an MFA program is what actually what I need? I can see the value in the process, and “grinding” craft-intensive experience of an MFA program to bust through my bad habits and what feels to me like far-too-substantial sloth.

I have former undergrad pals who are finishing up their MFAs and I can see the benefits in their work. Compared to mine, their development and self-confidence seems much accelerated. But I also see their financial sacrifice and their debt load, both things I’m loathe to take on for myself, as I already struggle in a day-job that pays precious little for the professional requirements and expenses (licensing, re-certifications, assessments, uniforms, travel, fitness and skill training, etc). When I can barely pay the rent and juggle between insurance one month and utilities the next, an MFA financial commitment seems completely irresponsible.

So the BIG question is, how to find the work-around? What things can I do to come close to the process while I wait for that luxurious day when I can get myself to Iowa or some place relevant?

I’ve been here before. I moved to LA back in the early 1990’s to pursue an education in commercial music. While I was working in the woods of NH to earn the money to move, the school I was enrolled in went under after almost 50 years in the industry. There was and still is another program, The Musician’s Institute, but I was so emotionally devastated, along with other dispositional issues, I abandoned the dream, the path and the plan outright.

Back then I was a pretty committed religious person, a holdover from my family of origin. Everything I did was cloaked and enmeshed with “G-d’s will” and other bondage and baggage. When I encountered the obstacle I bailed and figured G-d was either punishing me for a lifetime thus far of poor decisions or pointing out that I was indeed nothing special and not worth my needs being provided. In retrospect, this was the worst possible decision and outcome for me. There must have been workarounds. I had no idea what they were but I never really investigated what they might be.

Since those days, I’ve watched many a young musician cut through the crap and find ways to do what they love and are: musicians. Sure LA is full of frauds and counterfeits, full of wannabes who never make it for the sheer force of compression and limited opportunities. With the advent of the Internet, however, the work-arounds seem to have gotten a shot in the arm. So here I am again, facing a work-around or fail situation.

This time, older and presumably wiser, I’ve got a book of scribbled work-around possibilities, not the least of which are some local summer workshop and conferences. Funny thing about these opportunities, my undergrad advisor told me outright, “get thee to a workshop, two a year minimum.” She also pointed out as a parent I should be very diligent to choose based on scholarship opps and genre specifics.

Sounds like a plan for this year, part of the answer to the BIG question.


Am I a “real” writer?


Pressfield’s statement could be aimed at a specific group of people: noobs, because the question is more weighty  than the answer for that group of artists. As we are tested in our post-noobs phase, the fear may still be present but it takes on a different quality and weight. Confidence becomes the issue rather than fear at the core of our working life.

I was raised to believe I was talented but paradoxically, that others would know better than me whether or not that talent was valued or worth spending money on. When I was a noob I had plenty of fear to reckon with and this was always mitigated somewhat by the believe that I had something to say and the language skills to do so in an interesting way.

As I do the work—something Steven Barnes constantly, and rightly insists matters more than even talent—confidence becomes a partner with fear. The fear shifts from ‘should I, how do I, what happens if, I write something and show it to others’ to ‘is this really ready, did I apply enough craft energy to this, which publisher needs this.’ When you publish something, after the elation wears off, the fear morphs into, ‘Aw hell. Can I do that again?’ This latter iteration is where the confidence issue arises. Experience and repetition of the sale/publication breeds confidence and that cannot be counterfeit.

TC Boyle, for example is an author I would certainly consider “wildly self-confident” but he’s no counterfeit. He’s merely well branded and substantially experienced—and he does the work. A post-noob—establishing author, Angela White, is equally no counterfeit, she’s a pretty feisty and tested writer; she does the work, has enough experience to establish appropriate confidence. Both Boyle and White  are different personalities too, so their talent and ability tends to look correspondingly distinct.

I do see wildly self-confident counterfeits all the time in other areas. They are usually short lived, but they have their followings; fans who typically celebrity-hound personalities and tend not to be much focused on the creative content as the charisma of the self-confident counterfeit they admire, that day.

When I find myself asking, out of habits formed from my family of origin mostly, ‘am I really writer,’ it’s a kick in the ass, a warning sign that I’m not doing the work or working hard enough to produce content and put it in front of readers or publishers. My confidence struggle comes in the rewrites and craft-applied drafts because I don’t have enough credits banked to naturally breed consequential confidence. ‘Is this really ready’ or as Dennis Mathis put it to me, ‘is this a Bentley or a VW’ are the questions I struggle with everyday.