What Are We Really Buying?

The reason people want M.F.A.’s,
take workshops with fancy names
when all you can really
learn is a few techniques,
typing instructions and some-
body else’s mannerisms

is that every artist lacks
a license to hang on the wall
like your optician, your vet
proving you may be a clumsy sadist
whose fillings fall into the stew
but you’re certified a dentist.

middle stanzas from Marge Piercy, “For the young who want to,” 1980

We were in Burlington last Thursday, stocking up on some groceries we can’t get locally. I joined Nora in the checkout at Healthy Living, putting cheeses and unusual produce onto the conveyor, and spotted this month’s Poets & Writers at the checkstand. (You can tell a lot about the nature of a grocery store by what they consider plausible impulse purchases.) So, on impulse, I bought it.

I think the magazine exists any more to advertise MFA programs. A quick count shows 37 display ads for MFA programs, 59 display ads for workshops and conferences, and eleven display ads for contests, along with pages and pages of classified ads for contests at twenty or thirty bucks entry fee each. It’s an aspirational magazine, for those of us who want to.

I’ll admit, I’ve been tempted to enroll in an MFA program myself now that I’ve been writing fiction seriously for a few years. And every time I think to myself, what is that sixty thousand or eighty thousand dollars going to buy me?

Enrolling in an MFA program purchases three guaranteed things:

  • Smart people to talk about books and stories with
  • Deadlines
  • About a dozen or so people, faculty and fellow students, who have to read your work carefully and think about what it’s accomplishing

That’s really it. The credential itself doesn’t accomplish much, especially in an academic job market where permanent hires in creative writing are scarce as four-leaf clover. The networking varies, as networking always does, with the horsepower of the school. If you go to an MFA program with a bunch of faculty who all publish in “the little journals,” then those are the doors they might be able to help you open as well. If you go to the University of Michigan’s MFA, they have keys to bigger doors. (And they don’t advertise in Poets & Writers, because they don’t need to. They already get sixty applicants for every student spot.)

The thing is, writing is just hard. We have to create the entire structure all over again every time we sit down to work, have to make our own deadlines and pretend they matter. We have to read other writers and try to figure out what it is that they’re doing, for better and worse. Finding readers is maybe even harder. And there are days when the structure is so far beyond our grasp, and readers are so difficult to even contemplate, that sixty thousand dollars feels like a fair rate.

I’ve done three writers’ conferences as well, one a great big name that cost $3,500, the other two more humble events that cost about $1,000 and $1,500. And they’re selling the same things: colleagues, structure, and readers.

We are a gullible lot, we writers, we aspiring artists. We have entered into work for which we are perpetually unprepared, and will remain forever. We want to believe that the work is knowable and achievable, and so we buy a knowable and achievable structure, even though it’s only a proxy for what we really want, only the box that the work can fit inside.

We’ll talk tomorrow about other ways of achieving the same three goals without spending quite so much money.