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The Value of MFA Programs

It really says something that the comments to this interview on Salon between Curtis Sittenfeld and Iowa Writers Workshop Director Lan Samantha Chang are far more interesting and honest-sounding than the interview itself. I don’t mean to beat on MFA programs (I know plenty of people who are good writers and had great experiences); it’s just that this interview sounds wholly canned. There are plenty of pros and cons to getting a Creative Writing MFA, so if you’ve got the people and the venue to explore them . . . why not do it?

For instance:

Do you think, “Fine. Criticize MFAs. Who cares?”

No. It’s so fascinating to me that smart people waste, or spend, an enormous amount of effort criticizing people who love to read and write. You know?

I mean, people enter the MFA system, and some of them are paying money to do so, because they love to read and write. Bottom line. That’s not a sin to me. I feel that people have a lot of reasons for pursuing an MFA and they’re not all the reasons that the critics of the MFA program would necessarily accept and understand. For example, I think when you go to an MFA program, it gives you a different orientation toward time, generally.

How so?

You have time to think and to pursue something that you love. That’s pretty basic. I mean, if the program is supporting you, which I think it should. I think an MFA program should fund its students.

Versus:

It’s not that MFA programs are a bad thing exactly, but they do have a tendency to become a bit insular, both in the writing that comes out of them and in what gets published. The poetry world is especially guilty of publishing to and with the same set of writers, and it concerns me that some very talented people are going by the wayside as a result.

As an avid reader and a professional person who works with literature for a living, I can usually spot pieces that come out of an MFA program pretty easily, especially short stories. They often have a sameness that is worrisome.

Again, I’m not saying all MFA programs are bad. Often, schooling can help a good writer become a better writer. No one can teach greatness, of course.

What I am saying is that it’s very, very easy to get faddish, lazy, or fall into bad habits, and it’s very easy for cronyism to spring up as well. I wish some of these programs would be more wary about that.



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