One of the better critiques from 2014 of the MFA in Creative Writing industry, and the whole problem of MFA graduates’ sense of entitlement, came to mind recently when I reread Maya Angelou’s celebrated quote: “Some critics will write ‘Maya Angelou is a natural writer’ – which is right after being a natural heart surgeon.” Because, yes, I do very much endorse the view that creative writing is a craft-based discipline. Stephen King’s On Writing is subtitled A Manual of the Craft for a reason. Language is a means of communication because it works by common norms, and these can be refined and honed through natural genius or sheer hard work – often done alone or with a teacher or mentor, and sometimes advantageously developed in focus groups and even MFA program-style settings. No Romantic dogma about “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” is going to disguise the fact that you need to work at how to say what you want to say well, and writers and critics have been writing and arguing against that particular Romantic doctrine almost ever since it was voiced.
That isn’t to say, though, that the MFA pipeline is the ideal conduit to creative and commercial success. And there are some fairly obvious and easy-to-digest arguments for why an MFA in Creative Writing could be exactly what you do not need to be a successful writer – on whatever terms.
For one thing, there’s the personal biography. For better or worse, marketing machines love life stories. If your potted biography is interesting, if it throws off handy hooks for marketers, you’ll be far more likely to be picked up by publishers and readers. Regrettable, perhaps. But inevitable.
Then there is the awkward issue of the novel as empathy engine. Neil Gaiman and many, many others have spoken and written at length on the value of literature, fiction, and the novel as means to build empathy and understanding of other viewpoints and personalities. Now, how much human sympathy are you going to have if your experience of other ways of life and other human situations is limited? Perhaps you’ll have the personal gift of immediate insight into others’ minds and hearts – good if you do. But it wouldn’t hurt to have some insight into their environment, social circumstances, and all the other external factors that come from actually living alongside them as well.
Finally, there’s the problem of the loneliness of the long-distance writer. As Ernest Hemingway put it, “writing, at its best, is a lonely life.” You wonder how much of his almost insanely dramatic existence was overcompensation for that. And yes, some writers are fated to emulate Emily Dickinson and go through their creative lives in seclusion. But Emily Dickinson, to my knowledge, never enrolled in an MFA program. So if you are making that deliberate choice to develop your gift via the academic route, why not fix the parts that the typical MFA syllabus won’t reach?
Even the most ardent MFA advocate shouldn’t have much trouble fitting this into the program and even timetabling it. Take a year out. Do something stupid. Devote yourself to some activity or great cause that has nothing whatsoever to do with writing. Get drunk. Travel. Fall in love. Make mistakes. Absorb great ideas. Embrace the world. At the end of the day, you’re far more likely to have something worth writing about. And even if you don’t get a book out of it, at least you’ll have had a life.