to mfa or not to mfa*

* and, arguably, whether or not you are a seminal artist

It has finally happened.  I’ve joined the ranks of self-referential media.  Oy.

This article is written in response to Connie Schultz‘s response to Maria Popova‘s review of Francine Prose‘s book, Reading Like a WriterLa Ronde, anyone?

In brief, Popova states that she dropped out of a PhD program because it stifled her creativity.

If in school at a terminal level, one’s creativity should be one’s own lookout, no?  Isn’t it a question of incorporating crit-think and masses of new information into one’s own voice – of course, letting the voice be influenced when those stimuli are productive but having or learning the discernment to stay one’s own course?

In the second paragraph of her review, Popova quotes Prose – and what a name for a writer – calling writing “something that cannot be taught”.

I’d argue that nothing creative can be taught.  Ever.  Period.  Creativity is an individual spark, and while we can learn how to make structures in which its flame can flicker or flare, we can be taught how to feed or starve it, it is each person’s own gift, own responsibility.

Much of the conversation among writers in my assorted circles addresses figuring out what to write about – I’d say, if you don’t know what to write about, DON’T WRITE.  It’s like singing.  Everyone owns the instrument, but it takes a great deal of study and daily practice and skills beyond supporting sound and forming understandable words to do it professionally.  Most in the first and second worlds possess the knowledge of reading and writing (or have, at the least, the opportunity to learn these things), but that doesn’t mean that everyone has anything to say or an interesting or compelling manner in which to say it.  So I’ll amend my earlier statement and say, go ahead, write, sing, play tennis, study calculus, but give up trying to do it in on the world stage, give it up if it doesn’t also fulfill you in unique ways that have nothing to do with garnering others’ attention.

An actress who attends a play-reading group to which I belong often says to me (and everyone), “I can’t write!”  She’s literate, intelligent, a good actor, and in truth knows how to put pencil to paper, but has nothing much to say, yet still feels pressure* to be playwrighting.  I was in that same boat well into my 50s, had even worked as a tech writer-editor at LANL over 14 or so years, ergo, I certainly knew how to put words together in syntactically correct and interesting enough ways.  People pretty consistently asked me why I didn’t “do” creative writing and I routinely answered that, despite a truly interesting life, I had nothing much to say.  Since 2008, when the creative urge took such a huge chunk out of my viscera that not writing is no longer an option, the fount of inspiration could not and can not be stayed.

The real challenge in my current MFA program is adding the requisite writing to all of my inspirations – my fodder file boasts nearly 700 ideas – and I argue that this is a useful skill to learn because some work is commissioned, being paid to write sometimes involves writing to a specific task.  But the success of that endeavor arguably depends on one’s already understanding and nurturing one’s creativity as well as the structures in which it plays.

A favorite aphorism – I think it’s mine, that I’m not quoting anyone else, but if I am and you know it, please correct me – Craft can exist without Art, but Art cannot exist without craft.  My definition of Art?  The creative spark housed within a rigorous craft.

But this started out as a question of whether or not to seek a terminal degree.  Yes, a very long digression, but if you’re still reading, welcome again to the trampoline that is my mind.  Anyway:

Sorry, universities of the world, which have discovered that the terminal degree is a highly remunerative cash-cow, but my answer would be a conditional “no.”  (here’s the advice portion of the proceedings) Unless you intend to teach, in which case the terminal degree is crucial to getting a job, to obtaining tenure; or unless the school to which you’re going offers something you really will learn from; or unless that school offers a fabulous and otherwise-unobtainable network on which to build a career; or unless they’re paying you to be there: get a job and do your creative work on your own time.

In any case, share your writing when you have something to say that will enhance humanity, don’t merely imitate or vent or excrete your life experience.  Are you helping others to understand or assimilate or endure or celebrate the human condition?  No?  Then why are you writing?  Breathe fully, spend time with your loved ones, find ones to love, do the things that give you pleasure, that fulfill you, rather than stressing out!  You don’t *have* to write, you don’t *have* to go after a terminal degree, but you do *have* to live your own life to your own expectations and desires, or risk that ubiquitous deathbed regret of wishing you’d spent more time ____________ (fill in your own blank).

Being a creative artist is only fulfilling if its PROCESS fulfills YOU.


how utterly sad, that creativity has become a stressor in today’s world

©2012 all rights reserved

graphics credit Shane Willis


One thought on “to mfa or not to mfa*

  1. I’ve been going in whirlwinds in my mind deciding whether or not to go MFA or not. I just want some experience before I consider advancing my education. This article helps a lot to put it more into perspective. I can’t pidgeonhole my process, but I do know it needs nurturing, whether by experience or 24,000 tuition fees.

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