Sunday, October 24, 2010

A topic after my own heart...

I don't post much stuff about me personally here, but one thing that might be relevant for you to know is that I'm currently engaged in applying to MFA programs. I've got my recommenders all lined up, my statements of purpose written, and my writing sample picked out (I think). I've even started all of the applications with the intention of getting all of the materials for which I am personally responsible turned in by November 15th. The cost of applying will be roughly $1000 for 7 schools and 1 fellowship program, due in large part to the fact that I've attended five different colleges at this point and at two official transcripts per school, that price adds up. I'm not writing to complain about the price tag, though. I am a grad student already, obviously, and am getting an MA degree from Western Washington University (which has a great program for both writing and literary criticism) where the Bellingham Review is housed. I know applying to programs costs money, and while I would prefer it cost less, these are the realities of the world.

The reason I'm writing is because of this article by Anis Shivani, who is known for his screeds against the MFA program model of becoming a writer. The article was a slog to get through (the medieval guild thing got tiresome about three paragraphs in, but Shivani continues leaning on that analogy throughout), but raised some fundamental questions. I have often thought of the value of doing work outside of an academic setting, of drawing on experiences one gets delivering pizzas or standing behind the front desk of a hotel or whatever it is that Shivani expects a writer to do to pay the bills (I got a BA in English from Eastern Washington University, a really great school where I learned a lot, but Shivani graduated from Harvard, so it's hard to imagine his experience and mine really being all that relatable).

I worked at hotels throughout the latter part of my undergraduate education, actually, and while I did meet interesting people, the fact of the matter remains that I was exhausted at the end of the day and writing was a bit of a chore. Combine that with the relative lack of a support system for my writing while I was doing that work; I had a few writer friends, but they were as busy as me and had little time to read my short stories, and I can't imagine that with my them now getting married, having kids, and working demanding jobs that they'll be freeing up more time for me in the future.

I've never been in an MFA program (though I feel like Western's MA program comes close in a lot of ways), so I can't judge for myself, but I imagine that the biggest boon a program can give a writer is time to write and people interested in working with you on your writing. Here at Western I have a great cohort of peers, some of whom I really admire as writers. The professors I work with are talented and always willing to help me out by taking a look at my work. And this is just an MA program ("just" not meant in a pejorative way, but to differentiate it from an MFA program). I imagine that the dedication that comes with an MFA program's faculty and peer group is all much the greater because everyone in the program is there specifically to write.

I've heard from people, most of whom have never been to an MFA program, that the workshop model stifles writers into writing certain kinds of fiction, poetry, or nonfiction, but I've never experienced that. There are certain rules of good writing, but I've never had a workshop leader tell me that there are rules that cannot be broken. Genre works are generally looked down upon, I guess, but I have a hard time thinking Shivani doesn't sneer at science fiction or fantasy or romance writing himself, so that's clearly not what he's talking about. And even within workshops I've seen genre works presented, taken on their own terms, and criticized respectfully by writers.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm not dissuaded from applying by Shivani's article, nor do I take his criticisms all that seriously. I understand that my chances of actually getting into an MFA program are quite small, even though I know my writing sample is solid, but it doesn't feel like a waste of time or money to me. I'll continue writing no matter what happens, of course, and I'll continue submitting stuff to journals and working on novels, but I don't think looking for a place that is going to encourage me to write and where I'll be surrounded by others who have the same goals will hurt my writing in any way. The programs to which I'm applying are diverse, each having its own take on what an MFA program should be, and so I don't buy Shivani's argument about MFA homogeneity. But wherever I end up and whatever I end up doing, writing will be a part of me.

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