The MFA: To Hell with it, by Tyrel Kessinger
by Tyrel Kessinger
The list of things that bring me anger is vast. Cosmically vast. Yet there is one topic in particular that, as a writer, is a consistently sharp burr in my shoe: the preponderance of MFA affiliates in the current literary universe. Off the bat, I can easily see where an assumption of jealousy can be made, and you wouldn’t be totally off in that assumption. As an amateur writer/poet/freelancer myself, I have no wide name recognition, no fan base, something like 4 Twitter followers, and zero authorial comrades or high-faluting organizations ladling warm, cuddly helpings of critical acclaim upon my work. Which are all things all writers want, no? Isn’t that why we perform our art? Well, yes and no (and hopefully more no than yes). We all want at least a crumb of validation, or we’re liars. So, if participating in an MFA degree program facilitates these high-mark literary feats why wouldn’t any writer be stampeding forth to take part? Fortunately, there’s a very simple reason you shouldn’t: you absolutely don’t need it. There’s almost nothing about writing you can’t learn by reading voluminously and writing on your own. Obviously, as with anything you want to be good at, and that takes practice. Even the best writers from any background improve over time. But honing your writing skills can be done anyplace, anytime and by anyone. And for zero monies no less.
To scratch the surface, I want to highlight a few of the problems in much of the MFA writing I’ve encountered over the last several years. However, this is by no means a comprehensive list but more simply a look at some of the enervating trends of the literary world I’ve noticed.
Stale stories/plots? Check.
Stiff/unbelievable and/or overly verbose dialogue? Check.
The same old gorgeously arranged yet dull as watching paint dry passages? Check.
The lack of unbelievable/un-relatable characters? Check.
The overly somber tone? Check.
A lack of well-placed, well-timed dick and fart jokes (or even humor in general?) Check.
Which all leads me to another point. It seems to me that the core of the MFA education heavily relies on creating clones of a particular, (presently) in-fashion style of literary writing; an almost cut and paste method. I’m not saying don’t steal from the masters occasionally or learn to take hint. There’s usually a great reason great authors are great. But, are we really supposed to be impressed by so many of these tired tropes? A story about a troubled young man whose mother is dying from cancer while he tries to track down the father that has been absent for most of his life? Been there. A young woman moping around her hometown, contemplating her life while engaging in vague interactions with friends and family for some insipid and unknown reason? Done that. A husband and wife dealing with an infidelity? Yada. An old man/woman attempting to reconnect with a long lost or neglected family member? Yadayada. Spare us from the vagaries of such mind-numbing fiction. Sure, the words are often very pretty and deep and pleasant to look at, but a closer look will reveal simple a simpler truth. It’s like a Christmas gift from someone who doesn’t know you very well: a pair of plain white ankle socks wrapped in bright, shiny paper and topped with a perfectly knotted bow. Where is the risk? Where are the warts and guts and snot? Which is, I contend, the cornerstone of the greatest novels, stories and poems I’ve ever had the pleasure to consume. Now, I’m not advocating the dismissal of complex sentence structure, dazzingly descriptive, sophisticated language use or the opportunity for a writer to flex his or her literary skills every once in a while. (Think rhythm vs. lead guitar. Rhythm is optimal 90% of the time, leaving lead the other 10%–if that even!) On the contrary. I am absolutely all for these elements in higher-brow literary works. It’s what separates the Kroger “bestsellers” like James Patterson from the Steinbecks and McCarthys of the world. But these things cannot and will never replace solid storytelling. Take any one of the aforementioned boilerplate template plots from above. I don’t mean to imply that you shouldn’t use any of these ideas as subject matter and I don’t mean to condemn them. They are all aspects and facets of the human condition that many, many people in the world experience either firsthand or through others that have dealt with them. You can and should write about these things. The challenge is how can you do it outside this “box” that the modern literary world has found itself in; a world the current MFA model of writing has helped drive us into. There’s a way to present originality even through the same tired stories despite the fact that, much like an medium of art, most content has already been trekked. Yet, in this, so many MFA writers simply tread water. Worse, they’re being rewarded for it which in turn perpetuates this uninspired cycle of the current literary scene.
Your average Joe or Jane Wordwriter down the street, pouring their heart and soul, albeit a possibly lackluster talented heart and soul, into some half-cooked book or short story about a weed-smoking, transsexual Jesus coming to Earth in order to unite everyone in a cloud of marijuana smoke and happy, good-time tunes, generally lacks the pomp and arrogance of the MFA elite. Though this is not a plot I hope to ever encounter in my reading. Still, they are writing, hopefully, with unmitigated heart, and in a sense and style, if not wholly their own, theirs to manipulate as they please. And they certainly didn’t drop a handsome dime on a piece of elegantly framed paper that claims they are a properly licensed “writer.” What they have, talent or no, is what he or she wrung from their own bloody hands. Maybe they won’t get published, maybe they will, but I’m willing to bet the entirety of my inheritance (I have no inheritance) that making it through an MFA program, even the most established and revered one, would only increase their ability as storytellers by a pitiful modicum. Certainly, they might learn some right and wrongs, the “proper” way to pace a story, even some much-needed yet rarely possessed editing skills. But these are things that can be learned by planting your ass down in a chair and reading, writing, submitting, getting rejected, getting feedback, applying lessons learned, and re-planting your ass back down in a chair to write some more. Writing, especially fiction, is something that can possibly be taught, in a very limited capacity, but, according to the intensive research I didn’t do, at least 90% of it is an intuitive art. And I’m afraid that’s all MFA programs tend to do: teach individuals to write in similar tones and styles and that getting published is the main focus of our art, not the art itself. (But disclaimer: I LOVE GETTING PUBLISHED.) I’m too lazy to look up the quote directly but an author, possibly Faulkner, once said something along these lines: “the only way to be a writer is to sit your ass down an write.” The statement, I believe, was apparently made at a college lecture to a class full of hopeful writers. Translation: no school program or professor is going to make you a good writer. You will become one if you want, or you won’t; you will die trying or you will hang it up. If that ain’t gospel let the ghost of Faulkner come tell me what is.
Which finally brings me to the wind-down, my final jab (for now) at the hallowed grounds of the MFA sanctuary. In a world of “not what you know but who you know” MFAers get an immediate and very robust leg to stand on from the get-go. They have writing mentors that examine their work and make suggestions, and often the “brigher stars” of these programs make deeply personal connections to established and connected writers teaching these classes. Though there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Here would be the juncture at which you could say, that yes, on this point indeed, jealousy does corrosively scour my heart like an unimpeded poison. What writer wouldn’t appreciate such an ace up their sleeve? (Another disclaimer: I WOULD!) Much like the fields of other professions such as medicine or law, being connected to a respected institution’s writing program can give a would-be writer a helluva leg-up in promoting their name and finding their work published in higher profile platforms and on a much more rapid fashion than the do-it-yourselfers like Jane and Joe Wordwriter. However, unlike writing, medicine and law are fields almost wholly learned through the teaching of. Practice still applies, as does raw skill, but within these areas of knowledge, as opposed to writing, trial and error is not an admirable method of learning. What I’m getting at is that having your work read and published by the upper crust, or even the mid-level crust, of the literary world through connections alone does in no way warrant an acclaim of talent. Printing houses, literary magazines, etc., will publish writers with connections to other known writers and colleges that bring in more readers, and thus more money, which they dearly need to function. So, I don’t blame them for their practices, I just bristle at the idea of being told it’s what passes for good, quality writing when all I see is the same old tripe and swill produced en masse in these MFA writing mills. That is to say, I get why they do it, but I sure as hell don’t have to like it.
The origin story of my anti-MFA rage is certainly a dark and long one but one incident in particular helped to fill my tank of vehement—and yes, most likely overdramatic—hate. A few years ago a writer named Karen Russell, a product of Columbia University’s MFA program, came to my attention. She was named one of the “5 under 35” by the National Book Foundation in 2009. As a matter of fact three of those five had MFAs under their belt and the other two have extremely close ties to Harvard. Her first novel Swamplandia! (just look at that edgy use of an exclamation mark in the title!) was named by the New York Times as one of the best ten books of 2011 and she was nominated for a Pulitzer in 2012, among other awards as well. Look, I’ll be the first to admit, that’s a sizeable amount of impressive feats for anyone at any age, and let’s face it, every unrecognized writer’s idea of a perfect nocturnal omission. At the time I was perhaps not quite as jaded and completely excited to read Swamplandia! Oh, but how my cynicism proceeded to harden. What I found was every bit of the same, tired style I’ve been maniacally ranting about here. Beautiful, yet sleep-inducing word structure and sleep-inducing plod that I’ve since come to expect from the large majority of other MFA writers I’ve had the displeasure to experience. I slugged through page after page of tiresome detail and a maddening go-nowhere fastness before conceding to my distaste and closed the book in silent protest. It is, essentially, a well-designed theme park without any working rides. I found myself angry and rabidly disappointed. If Karen Russell and her ilk were getting published, getting all the attention, who is being ignored? What intriguing, original, satisfying storytellers were getting glossed over in exchange for this “venerated” author who seems to have made it on connections alone? Every novel ever written, from the worst to the best, the published or unpublished, is a feat that one should be proud of. But that doesn’t make it good or palatable. I can build a chair if I had to but you probably shouldn’t sit in it. So I repeat: I don’t want to take away from how hard it is to actually write and finish a novel. But this argument also applies to the poetry and prose aspect of writing. Mrs. Russell has written several same ol’ same ol’ short stories as well, published in her predictably MFA titled collection St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves, which, of course, first appeared in many of those venerable, top-tier journals we’d all sell our children to get into.
I get it, I do. “Making” it as a writer of fiction is about as hard as making it in a rock band. It’s rare, to say the least. But in turn, compare all the successful artists and bands with music degrees from Berklee, for example, to those without. Yeah, yeah, I’m sure there are plenty of people who aren’t among this sacred fold of the literary gentry finding deserved—or undeserved—notoriety and seeing their work regularly published. But I have a Holmesian hunch that those submitting with MFA backgrounds and/or college and professorial connections are rising, unfairly and disproportionately, to the top of many editor’s lists. Oh, of course, life ain’t fair, but I’m still gonna cry about it. What the hell else would I do with my time? Write?
*One last disclaimer: my main goal here is to stress the need to move away from letting an MFA status steer the course of modern day literary efforts. There are obviously plenty of very good MFA writers out there and that I enjoy reading. I just believe these people had the talent regardless of the schooling. Although, to be fair, we might not have heard of then if not for their connections.