Writing Outside of an MFA Program
Hello everybody, my name is M. Kitchell and I don’t have an MFA. In the height of all of the recent posts about MFA programs, teaching creative writing, etc (all very valuable posts), I thought it might be worthwhile to offer a dissenting voice, if only in the sense that I neither have an MFA nor do I have any interest in getting an MFA.1
My interest in making this post is not out of any sort of bitterness or idea that MFA programs are “stupid” or whatever, but rather an exploration of the alternative. While I was an undergrad student at a state college working towards a BFA in Photography, I was convinced that I wanted to attend an MFA program in creative writing. I was already writing, both on my own and in the limited number of creative writing workshops that my university offered, but I had no idea where to go from there: asking some professors I had a vague idea of how to submit to journals, but I had virtually no idea how the “industry” of publishing in general functioned.
My thought, being someone who wrote & wanted to eventually be writing things that people other than my peers were reading, was, at first, that it was necessary to attend an MFA program. I knew that whether I was in school or not I would keep writing, but the problem was I had no idea how to function as a writer. I don’t mean this in any sort of romanticized notion of “the writer,” clearly that pretense is dead. What I mean by this is that, rather than enrolling in an MFA program to “learn how to write,” I wanted to enroll in an MFA program to learn how to navigate the contemporary world of letters.
I thought that the inherent networking of an MFA program would be a necessary step towards publishing a book, that learning the ins-and-outs of submitting stories to various journals would result in more publications (and at this point I literally had not even tried to submit a story to a journal yet). I liked the idea of going to school for writing because I like writing, I like forced deadlines, I like having to produce work.
So, I applied to a limited (very limited compared to some of my peers) number of MFA programs. My portfolio was lackluster, I didn’t really manage to get the number of letters of recommendation I actually needed, and holy fuck my personal essays (or whatever they’re called) were atrocious. I was also applying exclusively to what I viewed as “experimental” programs that accepted a very minimal number of applicants while maintaining an enormous pool to choose from. Not surprisingly, I did not get accepted to any of the three schools I applied to.
At first I was like, “well fuck, I guess I’m not going to be a writer.” That’s stupid of course. After the disappointment wore off I decided to be a little more utilitarian about it. I decided that everything I actually thought I needed to learn from an MFA program, I could teach myself. I don’t want to ignore the value of a professor or the workshop environment, I’m sure for many people these are absolutely necessary things— but as I said, I wasn’t as interested in these aspects outside of my regular desire to continually be learning and honing craft.
The first thing I did was realize that it was writing that was important, and that the only way I could improve my writing was to, you know, just keep doing it. I think it’s hard, coming out of an academic environment (especially one that is ostensibly the art-school model) in which your creative pursuits are regularly shoved in other students’ faces and there’s a requirement that the work be talked about. It was really fucking hard to be not annoying at first; anytime I wrote something and considered it “finished,” I’d want to show it to my friends, I’d want feedback immediately. Of course, outside of the classroom no one is obligated to give you the kind of information that the workshop inspires a lust for. I basically wanted to be able to listen to whoever I had forced my story upon talk about my work for 15 minutes. Not only is this egomaniacal, but it’s also insane.
So the first roadblock that I at least had to get over was the necessity of trusting myself. Learning how to be comfortable with your own artwork, regardless of the medium, is something that I really think the workshop/critique environment makes hard. Everyone wants the approval of others. Even maligned goth kids need the approval of their angsty friends. It’s, of course, also ridiculously hard to accept the fact that you just spent what feels like an infinity of time on something that nobody seems interested in immediately interacting with. The unfortunate reality here is that there’s really no option other than to deal with it. This is still hard for me: when I finish something I want to show it to people. Sometimes I do anyway. I also like to see new work from people whose work I admire. That dynamic doesn’t change. But I certainly, generally, am not immediately ready to offer 20 minutes of discourse on the work I’ve read, nor do I expect anybody else to offer as much to my own work. That’s OK.
The second thing that seemed totally alien to me at the start was the idea of publishing. Clearly there are an infinitude of literary publications in the world, both online and in print. Like, I imagine, almost everybody, when I started submitting stories to journals there was little rhyme or reason to my tactics. I was submitting shit without reading the journal, mostly just throwing shit at the wall and seeing what I could make stick. This is also dumb. After a particularly intense 3 months of submitting multiple stories daily and not hearing anything back or getting rejected (I also had no idea how long an ‘average response time’ was for this shit), I realized that what I was doing was stupid. Publishing for the sake of publishing seems insane. I had to stop and try to figure out why it was that I wanted to be publishing these stories I was submitting.
Clearly the direct answer for this question is: I want to publish stories because I want these stories to be read. Excepting very few people in the history of mankind, I don’t think there’s anyone who intentionally writes stories that they don’t care if people read. I mean, especially if they’re publishing these stories. When I realized that I wanted to be publishing stories because I wanted these stories to be read, I started to consider context. I realized that, in reading lit journals (which, thank god, I had finally started doing), it almost never happened that I would encounter a story or poem that I loved in a journal that I loved nothing else inside of. When I was finding work that I was excited to be reading, it was generally within a context in which there was a lot of work I was excited about. I feel like this is a revelation that presents the status of the editor to the world (the world here, in personal experience, being my world of course). An editor plays an important role; that of the coordinator, that of the human being who curates the experience of reading. So, of course, there is a consistency. That is what the editor should be aiming for. Some editors say that the only thing they’re looking for is “good work,” but clearly that editor doesn’t exist in a vacuum of objectivity, so really that means the editor is looking for “work that he or she likes,” and generally that quality alone is enough to offer a consistency. Most university-run journals, excepting a few, were always boring to me; they were scattered and random and I had no interest in trudging on and on.
These things all seem so amazingly obvious to me now, but it’s shit that I needed to know desperately. Things that I thought I needed an MFA program to figure out. Clearly this wasn’t true. I don’t mean to imply that I’ve “made it” as a writer or anything, but I’m comfortable with my level of publications, where they are, how they exist in the world. I’ve never had a desire to teach; somewhat accepting the fate of the man with a job he hates that he pays the bills with while he makes art in his free-time. Of course, in the best possible world I’d be able to magically subsist based on profit from art alone, but that’s rare, I’m ok with that. When I consider what the difference would be right now if I had attended an MFA program instead of, you know, not attending one, I think (though who can be sure?) the primary differences would be as follows:
- I would be significantly further in debt. My initial plan was to only attend a graduate program that I received full funding for, but if I had been desperate to be in a program I imagine I would have eventually said “fuck it” and taken out the loans.
- I imagine my writing “style” would be different. It might be better, it might be worse, but if anything 2-3 years in an environment of peers and professors shaping my work, it would certainly be different than the style I have developed simply by writing what I want to write (while reading a shit ton).
- I would have read significantly different (and in all probability, fewer) books over the last 3 years. This is a situation where I’m glad I had the autonomy: I love reading and read a ton, but I like to read what I have the whim to read when I want to. Shit doesn’t affect my head-space as well otherwise. Sure, I could have discovered something fantastic that I wouldn’t have read otherwise while in an MFA program, but clearly the reverse is true as well: if I were in an MFA program and had my reading basically laid out for me, I would have never had the opportunity to spend the time that I have spent finding new shit to read.
- I’d probably still be just as unemployed as I am right now. It seems to me that fewer and fewer people are getting hired as professors or instructors out of Creative Writing MFAs, especially as more and more English & Creative Writing PhD programs pop up. This seems extremely fucked to me, but that’s a story for another post.
All in all, I’m fully satisfied with the decision I ultimately made to not attend an MFA program. But, I do want to emphasize that that was my decision; it doesn’t need to be yours if you don’t want it to. I just wanted to offer the idea that you don’t have to attend an MFA program to consider yourself a writer. You just have to write.
1Note: To be fair, if an MFA program would like to specifically invite me to enroll in their program without me having to spend any of the money I currently don’t have to do as much, and then offer both to pay for my full tuition and also provide a stipend to pay rent & buy food with, I’ll be there in a god damn second. I think you’d have to be an idiot to pass up living for free for a couple years.