Tuesday, August 4, 2015

In Defense of the MFA

I sometimes wonder whether or not I made a mistake by getting my MFA.  Despite my extra time in school and a great deal of work, I have become neither rich nor famous.  I’ve published a handful of stories in literary journals, but was paid almost nothing for them.  I managed to land an agent for my thriller novel, but after five different publishers rejected the manuscript for five different (sometimes contradictory) reasons, we amicably parted ways.  I ended up self-publishing the novel along with a book of those previously published stories and a humorous novella.  I could have accomplished all of this without saddling myself with thousands of dollars of debt.  So, why have I come to the conclusion that I made the right decision? 

1) My work improved.  By encouraging public reading and providing me with a ready-made audience, my program gave me an extra incentive to push my writing to its maximum potential.  And through direct correspondence with faculty mentors and by submitting to group criticism (emphasis on constructive criticism) in writing workshops, my work benefited from the perspective of others.  Twice, I was lucky enough to leave a workshop at the end of revision day dizzy from a breakthrough I never would have had on my own.  

2) I had one of the greatest experiences of my life.  My faculty mentors included a regular contributor to the New York Times, a MacDowell and Yaddo Fellow, a finalist for the National Book Award, and a Grammy winner.  My workshop leaders were equally esteemed; Melissa Pritchard wrote “shattering” on one one of my short stories and I still haven’t recovered.  I got to drink bourbon on the second floor of the Seelbach Hotel with multiple bestselling authors and a gang of rowdy poets.  Everyone should be so lucky.

Some will argue that I could have saved my money and found my own readers.  They will say that I don’t need an MFA to write, that I can just pick a genre and practice until I’ve mastered my craft, and then work even harder to find an audience because an MFA isn’t going to do that for me anyway.  They will contend that no professor, no matter how good a writer, can teach another person to write well because on a certain level writing can’t be taught.  They will say these things and, depending on the day, I will agree with them.

But if I had the chance to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Christamar Varicella graduated from Spalding University’s low residency MFA program in 2004.  

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