[Editor’s note: the following post is by a former MFA instructor who did not wish to be identified.]

Recently, there was a bit of an internet dust-up over an essay at The Stranger by a former MFA instructor. In “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One,” Ryan Boudinot unleashed a scathing indictment of the creative writing MFA industry. Despite the furor over the piece, its illumination of the problems with the overproliferation of MFA programs—that there are too many programs with no standards, and that this is adding to the student debt crisis and fattening school’s coffers at the expense of students and teachers—is important, and worth examining further.

Without a doubt, Boudinot’s essay has its problems. It’s smug and occasionally tone-deaf, and a line about a student’s childhood abuse memoir, while clearly meant to be hyperbolic, was in poor taste. But the blunt quality of the piece unfortunately overshadowed some salient, hard-hitting real talk about the MFA industry, and the blowback attacked his more inflammatory remarks while neatly avoiding the substance of his essay.

The result was slew of similarly smug, moralizing blog posts, comments, Facebook threads, and tweets, where people wagged their fingers at Boudinot and lectured a whole lot of nonsense, including that all graduate-level teachers should encourage a love of reading in their students and be willing to teach them self-reflection and self-discipline, as if they were young children instead of people in a master’s program receiving the highest degree in their field. (Author Nick Mamatas rightly took one of these posts to task for its mealy-mouthed equivocating.)

You don’t need an MFA to write. Unlike practicing medicine or law, there is no degree whose successful completion stands between you and your craft. You can write to your heart’s content in private, sell short stories to magazines, publish a book, publish fifty books, all without an MFA.

So why are MFAs useful? Strictly speaking, there are two potential benefits that are unique to MFAs: having a (university) teaching credential, and having funded time to focus on your craft. The latter only applies to funded programs, of course, so when it comes to unfunded programs, the only real potential benefit is the ability to teach at the college level—which, given the glut of MFA graduates and the trend away from hiring tenure-track faculty, becomes a dicey proposition at best.

You’ll notice I didn’t include “getting feedback on your work” or “a writing community” in that list. That’s because these things are available many places outside of the MFA framework. You can join a writing group in your community or online, you can hire someone for a private consultation, you can have a writing buddy, you can attend local readings and literary events, you can take any number of workshops or seminars, go to writing festivals, and so on. I similarly did not include “having a credential” as a benefit, because having spoken to editors and agents about this issue, it’s clear that the surfeit of MFA programs has resulted in MFAs being completely worthless as a credential (with the exception of a few select top programs like Iowa, UT-Austin, and Michigan). The reasoning seems to be that if anyone can get one, what does it say if you have one? Not much.

People have been criticizing Boudinot for suggesting that talent is “born,” not made. His point, however blunted by his rhetoric, is fundamentally true: there are some for whom written expression and the gifts of narrative come naturally, and others for whom it does not. For some reason it has become taboo to suggest that people might not be able to do whatever it is they set their mind to. A diet of inspirational narratives in which all it takes is a dream and a montage to reach your loftiest ambitions has clouded common sense. We’ve managed to confuse the fact that a good writer could be anyone with the idea that anyone could be a good writer. (Hat-tip to Pixar’s Ratatouille for that profound lesson.) Case in point: I myself enjoy singing, and frequently fantasize about singing for large audiences (and in musicals, and in nightclubs—you get the idea). But even if I practiced for eight hours every day, there would be limitations to what I could ultimately do, because I simply don’t have the gift of song. Years of singing for pleasure has yielded some minor improvement in the quality of my voice, but that’s all. And there’s nothing wrong with this, no moral judgment attached to it. But if I wanted to be a professional singer more than anything in the world, I’d eventually have to come to terms with the fact that that would never happen. That would be painful, but that wouldn’t make it any less true. To say otherwise would be intellectually dishonest.

So who benefits from MFAs? People sneer about their function—“You can’t teach good writing!” is a refrain uttered often enough—but that’s not what they’re for, is it? They’re meant to take people with nuggets of potential—gifts that already exist, but need nurturing—and bring them into contact with talented writers and teachers, and other students who are roughly around their level, so that they might all potentially advance together, and learn from and alongside each other. (And if the program is funded, give them a bit of a break from the demands of full-time work so that they might refocus their energies.)

It is, of course, impossible to know who will be “the real deal” from an application, and even harder to guess who will be successful in the long run. (And what does success mean? Critical acclaim? Aesthetic longevity? Money?) There are writers who attend the most prestigious MFA programs who never write again. There are people without MFAs whose fiction will be taught for hundreds of years. There are people who have very comfortable, mid-level writing careers, some with MFAs, some without. There are people who shun the idea of writing as an art form, write commercial books, and become millionaires. There are people who do the same, self-publish their e-book, sell four copies, and never try again.

And admitting someone to an MFA program is never an exact science. In a way, you’re trying to gauge someone’s potential energy. Do they already have something going for their work, that they would they benefit from a focused, intensive program in which aesthetic questions are being asked, artistic goals are being set, and pointed critique is being offered? When reading applications, programs are looking for students who already have something going for their work. Maybe they write unnervingly unsettling worlds, or lucid prose, or masterful characterizations, or can weave a tight, juggernaut of a plot. (Or, ideally, can do many of these at once.) Whatever it is, it catches the reader’s attention. Anyone who has read magazine slush piles knows what it’s like to slog through writing with no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever for hours until stumbling upon exciting and wonderful and real.

In an MFA program with standards—and by that I simply an MFA program that selects what it believes to be the best candidates from a pool of applicants—you end up with a group of writers who, for better or worse, rose to the top of that pool. When a program offers funding—that is, when the school believes enough in its program to provide tuition remission, and fellowships/TAships—the applicant pool increases and the quality of the resulting class will be, generally, higher. Even given aesthetic biases, variations in taste, etc., you end up with a class of writers of a certain potential caliber. In these programs, the gap between students with the lowest and highest potential energy is fairly narrow. Again, what they will do with their careers is unknown—everything from discipline to market forces to sheer dumb luck could affect the overall outcome of their writing lives—but they’re all on a similar playing field. This isn’t everything, of course, because program directors aren’t psychic and writers all levels of talent can be terrible workshop participants, but it is something.

But there’s another breed of MFA program out there, proliferating constantly. These programs have nearly 100% admittance rates, fund zero percent of their students, collect outrageously high tuition, and often pay their instructors very little. And because there are so many people (rightly or wrongly) clamoring for MFAs, they have no incentive for standards, either—no incentive to reject any person, no matter how badly they write. One person’s money is as green as the next, after all. If you’ve received an undergraduate degree and can type on a computer, you’re in.

That sentence requires careful observation, so I’ll write again, and expand on it a little: If you’ve received an undergraduate degree and can type on a computer, you can be admitted to a master’s degree program in creative writing with no other qualifications. Unlike, say, a terminal degree in physics, where a student would have to display not just adequacy in basic math but singular skills when it came to their particular subdiscipline of physics, an MFA applicant applying to one of these programs does not have to demonstrate any proficiency in their “field” beyond being able to put words onto a page. That this is a statement that can be written truthfully is astonishing, damning, and depressing.

In this scenario, a talented applicant who has been diligently improving her craft for a decade can be admitted alongside a person who doesn’t believe in negative feedback, has only read four books in his entire life, and doesn’t have a clear sense of how a comma works, how to write a character, or how a plot is constructed. (There is no shame in not knowing these things, of course, but there’s also a place where they shouldn’t be, and that’s the terminal degree in the field.) And so in these programs, the gap between the students with the lowest and highest potential energy is massive.

There are several problems with this setup. First, it makes teaching wildly difficult. How can an instructor, no matter how compassionate or gifted, have a unified conversation with the class about aesthetics or craft when there are students who can barely process or discuss the assigned texts or workshop stories?

As for the students who shouldn’t have been admitted in the first place: MFA programs are two years long, three at the most. If they enter below the standard of where a master’s student should be, the entire two years will be spent catching up to, at best, where they should have been when they entered—and then the program is over and they’re several years out of the job market, possibly in a hole of student debt, and sporting a functionally useless degree. And then what?

Last, if you’re a writer attending classes with a random mishmash of people who fall into the above category, some of whom refuse to read, others who are using the classes as a very expensive form of therapy, and so on, how useful will they be to you? When talented students get caught up in these programs—by accident, or because of its proximity to where they live, or any other reason—their time is cheapened and made infinitely harder by classmates who don’t have the wherewithal to provide valuable critique, or who is being taught by an underpaid teacher stretched thin by too many classes and too many energy-sucking students. And so that program has benefitted no one, except the university, which is making a tremendous amount of money. (There are almost three hundred MFA programs currently open in the US alone, with more cropping up all the time. Here’s your reason why.)

It seems unfair to excoriate people like Boudinot for pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, when the problem should be traced back to its source: the schools who treat MFA programs like cash cows, admitting as many students as they can cram into their classrooms or foist onto their online instructors, with no consideration for the damage being done to the students who should be, and want to be, in an MFA program. These schools do a disservice to their students—both the prepared and unprepared—their instructors, and the academic standards they supposedly value. They should be ashamed of themselves and shuttered for fraud. The problem isn’t the MFA itself—it’s the overabundance of programs that act like for-profit online universities—taking advantage of desperate people who don’t know any better.

(This is not to say that there aren’t problems with privilege, institutional prejudices, and aesthetic biases in MFA programs. There are, absolutely. But you combat those biases with diversifying your faculty and application readers, and providing funding so students can afford to attend, not simply opening up more and more MFA programs until everyone who has the passing notion to be a professional writer can sign up.)

It’s true that in his essay, Boudinot seems to conflate “serious” reading with a specific kind of serious reading (people have pointed out that his worship-worthy suggestions are a very particular brand of white dude literature), but his point is still valid: part of being a writer is aggressively shaping your own canon. That canon can contain whatever you want it to, but you have to be willing to expand it, to receive suggestions, to read new work and offer more specific observations than “I didn’t like this” or “It confused me.” You have to open to reading whatever is handed to or suggested to you, and articulate how you think it succeeds or fails. That’s how you grow as a reader and writer.

And to suggest that instructors at the graduate school level should be required to coddle their students, beg them to read and do their assignments, and prod them into meeting deadlines is ludicrous. As someone who has previously taught at one of the latter types of MFA programs, I can say that they’re littered with students who can’t do the work and students who won’t do the work. And therein lies the source of Boudinot’s frustration, and the frustration of grad-level creative writing instructors everywhere, who need the employment but can’t speak up about these frustrations until the school is in their rearview mirror.

If you don’t like expanding your reading tastes (or reading, period), if you can’t meet deadlines, if you have no desire to receive feedback from other people, if you have no interest in improving your work, if you just want an echo chamber instead of a critique, if you aren’t interested in questions of craft, if you think writing is a get-rich-quick scheme and are looking to write the next [insert blockbuster here], if you can’t handle rejection or criticism, if you have no desire to revise, and if you’re not comfortable with the idea that some stuff you write will never see the light of day, then don’t get an MFA. You don’t belong there. (Also, all of these qualities will make being a writer very difficult.) It is a waste of your time and money, and the time of your instructor, and your classmates who have potential and who care about their classes.

Just because you can get an MFA, doesn’t mean you should.

27 Responses

    • Rebecca

      As a former instructor with a top-flight residency-required MFA program, someone who received an MFA from the same program, “award winning writer” and all that, couldn’t agree more. To be even blunter – Everyone who uses a knife and fork isn’t considered a chef. Or can be. Regardless of how many years of “study”. And building an entire cottage industry around the premise that a few years of study will make someone a chef is not only ludicrous, but deceitful and profane.

      Reply
    • Margaret

      People arguing over MFA’s… hilarious.

      I guess what they say is true. In academia, the fights are so vicious because the stakes are so small.

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    • John Doe

      This essay is right on point. The administration of every strapped little liberal-arts college out there sees a standards-free, no-subsidy MFA program as a potentian bonanza and tries to strongarm the English department into teaching one. Sadly, lots of English departments are willing to do so. I have seen some of the results firsthand. One is the stroking of people doing “identity politics”; I’ve seen students praised for writing narcissistic stuff about their victimhood when they can’t punctuate sentences, or for that matter create a complete sentence. I also once caught one creative writing teacher teaching another what the passive voice is. The same ignorant teacher of poetry thought meter involves setting down a rigid pattern rather than creating a play between the time signature of a meter and the irregularities of the spoken language. Absolutely disgraceful.

      Reply
  1. David Stevenson

    Many good observations here, and, at least, not as tone deaf as Mr. Boudinot’s little screed (much of with which I agree). If MFA programs are honest about what they offer and what pursuing the degree might do for a student, what is the problem? Is there a glut of MFA holders out there? Uh, yeah, also a glut of MBA holders and attorneys, and nitwits with undergraduate degrees. I direct a low residency program that is quite selective and does not fund its students. Our in-state tuition is about as low as anywhere in the country and our out-of-state about equal to most programs. What I am wondering is: what is the source of the myth that programs such as ours are “cash cows?” Ours certainly is not, pretty damned far from it. This has to be an unexamined assumption on the part of the author. Check it out. Of course an MFA is not for everyone; there are as many paths to good writing as there are people traveling those paths.

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    • Richard Grayson

      Well, you don’t offer any evidence that MFA programs *aren’t* a cash cow, just as law schools are — or were. The reason is that they are relatively cheap to run. I taught at the School of Visual Arts, and the costs of equipment and dedicated classrooms for undergraduate students of photography, animation, film, sculpture, painting, etc., were much higher than the cost of an MFA program. The same goes for any graduate program in the sciences, which require expensive laboratories and other equipment and facilities. (Law schools — and I worked in several of them — are also relatively inexpensive, given that you can cram 60-100 students into first-year doctrinal courses.)

      My own MFA program at Brooklyn College in 1974-76 cost $450 a semester (about $1950 in today’s dollars). If a student can get an MFA in your program for $7,800, then I think you are probably correct that it’s not a problem, especially if students are living with their parents, as I was.

      But forty years ago, you could basically find a full-time teaching job, if at a community college, with an MFA. There were only about 25 MFA programs in the US back then, and there was a lot less competition. I am and was only mildly talented as a short story writer but found it relatively easy to get my stories published, to get a book published by a commercial New York publisher (the company approached *me*, without my ever querying), and to get artist colony residencies, a Bread Loaf scholarship, and a state arts council grant.

      This is not a humblebrag, because I am absolutely certain that I would not have gotten any of those things had I been 10, 20, 30 years younger. I went into an MFA program when I had to explain what it was to everyone I knew.

      I’d say at least three out of four MFA graduates I’ve known over the past four decades stop writing entirely. Even worse, most of them stop reading.

      Reply
  2. Annabelle

    If you honestly think that Boudinot’s piece was “a scathing indictment of the creative writing MFA industry,” you must not have read anything but the headline. It was a scathing indictment of his former students and a shocking demonstration of his own inadequacies as an instructor. Every comment he made was about the perceived inadequacies of his students; nothing was said about the programs themselves. As for Boudinot himself, the only things he seems to succeed at in the piece are pretention and arrogance. Hardly a yardstick to for writers to measure themselves by.

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    • CA

      The author here is clearly implying that Boudinot’s local concerns are an analogue for a larger, more systemic problem. Of course Boudinot was writing about his students at his institution. That’s never been in question. Here, the author is more or less explaining that Boudinot’s observations (however poorly articulated) are symptomatic of something much larger happening in MFA programs around the country. Something that needs to be discussed frankly despite how much we love to hate Boudinot’s piece. By ignoring the issue and focusing on how much we “can’t even” Boudinot, we are being willfully ignorant. And that does a disservice to MFA students and instructors.

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    • Richard Grayson

      Until today, I was unaware that Ryan’s piece would garner any controversy at all. I am very far removed from the world of creative writing programs and I am totally shocked at the response it got. Your comment seems to me — granted, I’m an elderly know-nothing — typical of the hysteria I’ve just seen in the last hour. Some people read things and seem not to know whether to scream or eat a banana.

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  3. Douglas Penick

    The promise, or at least assumption, in MFA creative writing programs is that there exists a canon of models and teachable techniques which will enable a student to create excellent, or at least passable, literary art.

    Since many authors, editors, agents, and, of course, teachers are products of this system, this form of academic writing is omnipresent in the US. Anyone looking at the range of little magazines, new fiction, new poetry currently appearing here will soon detect a vast expanse of relentless sameness. The lack of formal exploration and the utter reliance on the authority of autobiography to provide authenticity are hallmarks.

    Of course, MFA writing programs have been the principal form of support for almost all American writers in the last 45 years. Only a small percentage of writers can support themselves and their families by writing alone. This is perhaps even more the case now as the market for literate fiction declines in the US, and the editors at traditional publishing houses, will only take risks that they can justify in the dense chain of command to their bureaucratic superiors.

    The result is a time of extremely conventional academic fiction and poetry where the notion of ‘craft’ often is an escape from deeper uncertainties and challenges.

    This is the world that faces the world of anyone drawn to writing these days. There is however a vibrant realm of remarkable and sometimes painfully original writers working with skill and art all over the world. It is possible find very different colleagues and audiences.

    Please don’t lose heart.

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  4. Nikolai Google (@NikolaiGoogle)

    “I myself enjoy singing, and frequently fantasize about singing for large audiences . . . But even if I practiced for eight hours every day, there would be limitations to what I could ultimately do, because I simply don’t have the gift of song.”

    There are all these places around the United States, called music departments, where qualified teachers would teach you how to sing. They’re kinda like MFA programs in creative writing. You should check one out.

    Reply
    • Richard Grayson

      No graduate music program would take a student who just wanted to sing. Sorry, your analogy is incorrect. Unless you have experience with graduate music programs you’d care to share?

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  5. Samuel

    I thought Boudinot’s piece was interesting and spoke to many of my misgivings about the MFA system. That tacky comment about the student who had been abused, though, that was cold and unnecessary, but it doesn’t discredit everything else he said.

    I’ve been a reader since I can remember, and I considered myself a writer even before I began writing with some seriousness a year ago. I haven’t told anybody about my writing, though I’ve submitted some stories without success. And as I finish school in the next year (I’m finishing college now, after having taken 4 or so years off), I’m hesitant about the whole MFA thing. I always have been. It seems indulgent and counter-intuitive to the very nature of writing, but it also seems like more and more of a necessity in the life of American writing.

    I’m taking a creative writing class this semester; I thought it would be interesting. It isn’t; it’s insufferable. I can’t see how people actually do this for years. With ever minute my mind is hardening against applying to MFA programs, even top ones. Yet I would like to publish perhaps at some point in the future. I don’t know. I suppose I’ll just see what happens.

    Anyways, I’m more inclined toward Boudinet’s piece than this one.

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  6. Hannah

    This is a thoughtful and well-articulated article, and it opens an important question which I hope future articles will address. The author seems to suggest that the solution to this problem (which plagues many professions, including my own) is for students to seriously consider their own inadequacies and make responsible choices about graduate school.

    That’s ridiculous. What aspiring writer is able to tell whether he or she has potential, or simply hope? This distinction especially difficult to see for aspiring writers who haven’t had the privileges afforded by a graduate program: time to write and a community of writers.

    It seems to me that the responsibility for limiting these abusive systems is in the hands of the institutions. One difficulty might be the fact that even for successful writers, it’s very hard to support yourself (or your family) on writing alone. Without these programs, very good or even middling writers who support their income by teaching will be out of a job. Who, exactly, is planning to advocate for that?

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    • Samuel

      Writing isn’t a “job”. It’s a calling, but it doesn’t require you to dedicate every second of your working life to it, which is another reason the MFA thing seems silly to me.

      You can very easily support yourself while being a shitty, middling, or great writer who doesn’t teach writing. Become an editor, join the Foreign Service, work for an NPO, become an accountant or get your MD or JD or PhD. And then, when you have time, write. You may not be part of a “community of writers”, but that’s probably for the best. If you’re writing for a social life then you have no business writing in the first place.

      It seems to me that a writer is capable of many professions, and to teach writing should be a thing of last resort unless you have a genuine love of teaching and are a capable teacher. Even then, to write and teach writing has never struck me as the most simpatico of relationships.

      And even if you are eminently capable of teaching and love it to your core, there is still the question of whether a writer should even take a writing class. Because if not, then even those teachers who love to teach really don’t have much business doing it in the first place.

      But it’s a self-sustaining institution now, the MFA, which means these questions are just pointless musings. So there’s that.

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      • Michael Kay

        Anyone who takes writing seriously knows that for every page of quality writing one comes up with, there will be anything between four and four hundred pages of absolute drivel, no matter how talented the writer. This doesn’t account for time spent editing, doing admin, networking (a necessary evil if one wants anyone to read their writing), discussions with agents and publishers, the list goes on… if writing is indeed a person’s calling, then it is a full-time commitment – novelists who live interesting lives do so when they are on a break from writing. Murakami gets up at 4am and writes all morning every day. Tobias Wolff doesn’t take a day off for Christmas. Before he got famous, Ray Bradbury was completely impoverished. It is not just about selling, its about making sure everything you write is as good as it can be.

        Any other full-time job also requires a full-time commitment – if one is a full-time manager, one’s mind has to be focused on that, including when they are not at work – that’s what really makes it full-time. The thing about teaching writing is that at least a fraction of your mind can can afford to be focused on writing (that, and the time off).

        One can be a writer of quality literature in their spare time, but for one it will not get the readership it deserves (people who willingly write in a vacuum can barely, if at all, be considered writers, as their writing contributes nothing) and for two, it will not be as good as it could be. Not without that full-time commitment. Is an MFA the best way to approach that? Is teaching? I’m very skeptical myself.

    • Michael Kay

      Whilst I am generally in agreement, the teachers themselves are paid very little and most of the funding goes back to the institutions.

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    • Richard Grayson

      “Without these programs, very good or even middling writers who support their income by teaching will be out of a job. Who, exactly, is planning to advocate for that?”

      Not Charles Ponzi, certainly.

      Reply
  7. Hannah

    Thanks for pointing out the discrepancies between programs. I wonder if anyone is putting pressure on the accrediting body (AWP) to have tougher standards in terms of curriculum, funding, etc. Unfortunately, it’s probably to the financial gain of AWP to have as many member programs as possible. Maybe they aren’t technically even an accrediting body? I do think there’s a need for tougher standards on the schools to make sure they’re offering something worthwhile in exchange for those tuition dollars!

    Reply

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