Sunday, October 11, 2015

Why an M.F.A. in writing is not worth the cost

My first course in graduate school was a survey on Melville. Melville is my favorite writer. The professor for the class was Brian Higgins, one of the great Melville scholars in the world. (I'm sorry to find out that Brian died in May.) This was as close to Heaven as I would ever find in life. He told a story about fellow Melville scholar Hershel Parker. A former student of Parker's drunk-dialed him in the middle of the night once, his plaintive voice pleading for an answer to the question, "My God, Hershel, what does Moby Dick mean?" Parker was reportedly proud of the answer he managed to scrape together while still half-asleep: "When you go up against the universe, you're likely to get the shit kicked out of you."

I hope you liked that anecdote. It cost me about $50,000.

It also illustrates one of the reasons I left graduate school after my M.A., instead of continuing on for a Ph.D. and a life centered around literature. Recently, Blake Kimzey, the guy who edited my story and who I was then a jerk to before realizing he'd actually done a good job, tweeted about his "Ahab-like quest to be a writer." Obviously, I identify with Ahab. Anyone who "gets" Moby Dick identifies with Ahab. I can imagine being caught up as a member of the crew on the quarterdeck when Ahab nails the coin to the mast and cries, "God hunt us all, if we hunt not Moby Dick to his death!" The whale for me in my twenties was to become a writer, to fire back at an indifferent universe with words. My words might not hurt the universe at all, but that wasn't the point. Get the whale or die trying. That was the point.

But less than two years later, I had pretty much given up the hunt. I think it partly had to do with reading the book The Comedy of Survival, by Joseph Meeker. Meeker looked at Western literature from an ecological perspective, thinking about how literature plays a role in survival. He felt that a tragic mindset, like, say, Hamlet's, was much less helpful to survival than a comedic mindset, like the hero of the Picaresque adventure Lazarillo de Tormes. The tragic mindset is willing to die for abstract causes. Meeker argues that this is unnatural. He recalls a story of an elk whose child was killed by a bear as the mother watched. The elk didn't track the bear seeking revenge. The elk didn't drink or suffer from depression. The elk moved on with the herd. What else could it do?

If Ahab were just taking a jet-ski and a harpoon gun on his own into the deep blue to seek the whale, we might be right to admire him.  But he sinks a ship full of people, people who went on board the Pequod for reasons of survival, to earn a living for families. He's an asshole, albeit a sublime asshole.

I didn't want to be Ahab, to be so focused on my own obsession that I brought down myself and others with me. I didn't have the strength to keep punching at the universe. I could either preach, unnoticed, on a street corner about the evils of a world that allows children to starve, or I could get a job and feed a mouth or two.

Mammon-the unavoidable reality
This is the main reason I wouldn't advise getting an M.F.A., or really any advanced degree in the humanities. School is a huge expense. The fact is that an advanced degree in the humanities doesn't pay for itself in most cases. (This is contrasted with an undergraduate degree in the humanities, which might actually be worth it. I believe this is because a lot of good jobs just require a college degree in "anything." My job is one of them.I still think you might be better off getting a specific, job-related degree. But I digress.)

Look, at 23, it's hard to accept that 40 years of claims adjustments for an insurance company or managing a call center isn't a bad way to spend your life. It's tempting to think that if you could put that off for a while and learn more, maybe you could make your dream of living for art and beauty and anarchistic freedom a reality. We tend to reinforce this idea in society with movies, TV, etc. about people who dreamed big and made their dreams come true. These stories tend to set up a false dichotomy between "selling out" and "remaining true to yourself." Ever see a story that celebrates a would-be poet forsaking a long-shot dream so he can help his brother pay for care for his special-needs child? A teacher who wanted to work in films, but who now tutors extra hours so she can pay for granola bars and school supplies for her students? A real estate agent who used to be a musician, who now works three jobs to pay for coyotes to take her family out of dangerous countries? Did any of these people sell out? Not at all. In fact, if you're planning to go all-in on trying to be a full-time artist, the odds are that at some point in time, you're going to owe your ability to eat to someone like this.

Let's say you decide you need beauty in your life. You get your Ph.D. Your best job prospect is at 42K a year teaching in Montana. You have a 300/month student loan payment. That's 3600 a year. To make that much after tax, you'd have to earn about 5000 gross, give or take. So your effective salary is now down to 37K. It's probably living wage. Unless you also ran up your credit cards for surgery for your pet Labrador while in school. And to fix the brakes on your old car. Now, you're down to 32K a year. You buy a new car, because yours has finally had it, and you finally got the job you were promising everyone you'd get, and can't ask them for more help. It goes on. Your decision to enjoy life at 25 can make your life miserable well into your forties.

But aren't there things more important than money, just making it through? Of course. But know what you're choosing. If you want to live for art and beauty, please, don't have a family. Not until you finally make it, or find a decent fall-back plan and pay off your debts. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the decision not to have kids. If more people chose it, the world would probably be a better place. Just know what you're getting into.

All this is moot if you have a family to take care of you. And there's nothing wrong with that, either. If your family is fine footing the bill while you try to get your career off the ground, well, that's kind of the whole reason people work hard: to be able to offer their kids a chance at their dreams. Go for it. Also, if you have a scholarship or T.A. deal with the school, and can get through without debt, that's another matter altogether. But I still don't think that an M.F.A. is the best way to go about becoming a writer, for the reason below.

The workshop: how to waste your time in a pointless meeting without even having a job

 I got an M.A., not an M.F.A., but I took five graduate level workshops. Two were in novels, two in short stories, and one in poetry. I know what awaits you as an M.F.A. candidate. You will be put into workshops with about ten or so students. You will take turns reading work from other students, probably two per class. You will get your work looked at every four or five weeks. You'll try to provide good feedback to other students, but you'll have a hard time with it. Some work will strike you as very poor. You'll wonder why that person is in grad school at all. What advice do you offer to fix a manuscript that is rotten from beginning to end?

Some students will seem to get the basics of writing, but will write about subjects that bore you, or in a style you already decided you hated back in high school. You'll try to offer helpful suggestions to the guy who writes all in stream of consciousness or the girl who writes entirely in second person. You'll feel like you weren't very helpful.

When it's finally your turn to get feedback, you'll find that the other students had as much trouble figuring out what to say about your work as you did about theirs. You'll wonder if some even tried, or if they are just cruising until it's their turn to go again. Soon, you'll start to do the same for them.

The 60-90 minutes spent discussing your work will be mostly a waste of time. Each student will offer their half thought-out critiques. They have other classes and jobs and families, and your work is the easiest thing to fluff on. One student will have something semi-useful to say that kind of interests you, but then he'll be shouted down by the one student who never shuts up (the same one you can't believe is actually in an M.F.A. program). The one person who won't have much to say is the professor, the one person in the class who has presumably published some work of renown, and whose opinion might, therefore, matter. The professor will hand you back her copy of your work with her comments. These will be margin notes and half a page of general thoughts. For this, you have just borrowed $5,000 at 4% interest.

I'm sure there are advocates of the workshop. I'm sure some professors run them in a more useful fashion than this. But I have a feeling the situation I just described is the rule, just as it's the rule that most meetings in any organization are an incredible waste of time. The people running the meetings seem to be incapable of determining purpose, scope, and method and then keeping everyone on task.

Contrast this with Carve magazine's literary services.  If you want to just get general thoughts and a line-by-line edit on a 6,000 word short story, you can do it for $150. General thoughts only on a 4000 word story is just $50. (For reference, in most semester-long workshops in grad school, you'll probably get your work looked at twice.) For that money, someone who has at least published some work will give you reasonably considered feedback. It isn't perfect feedback, maybe, but from my experience, it is better than almost any feedback you'll get in a graduate program. The most expensive package they offer is $1500. For that, you get three months of intensive coaching. This includes up to 50,000 words reviewed, if you've got that much. You get six meetings, and weekly in-depth feedback. This would probably equal more individual care than I got in four semesters of grad school combined.

Plus, these are things you can do while you continue to work. That means you'll not only be not getting into debt, but you'll be getting new life experiences to write about. (Even writers are bored by writing about being a writer.)

Your adviser in graduate school is not going to be your best friend

I had three workshop leaders in graduate school. Cris Mazza, Gene Wildman, and Luis Urrea. All three were fine people. Luis is a goddamned beautiful human being. I had just enough self-respect in graduate school to refrain from being his stalker. Cris was my adviser. She surprised me by treating me most of the time like she thought I was kind of smart. Gene's class must have led the league in curse words, but never in an angry way.

They were three really nice people, and fairly talented. I didn't really like Cris's subject matter in her books, but it was clear she could write. None of them gave me a cold shoulder. I had occasional e-mails and meetings with them.

I just don't think I got $50,000 worth of advice from them. Not really their fault. They were working on their own writing, their own careers. They had families. It's not like they could clear their schedules to spontaneously invite me to a six-hour dinner after class. (They'd have had to pay for it, too. I was fucking broke.)

I have to imagine this will be the case for most grad students. I think one reason people pay big bucks is the hope that an adviser will help you get a break, will put in a good word for you with an editor somewhere. Maybe that an adviser will generally adopt you and make your success the whole purpose of his/her existence. That you'll cry and hug her when you accept your Nobel.

Someone may have a different experience, but I just don't think this is going to happen. I think you'll get responses to e-mails that answer your questions, albeit not in an expansive way. I think you'll get office hours meetings if you ask for them. I think you'll get a half a page of feedback each time it's your turn to go in a workshop. But you're not going to get a literary parent figure. Advisers have their own agendas, and they need to have boundaries.

Writing is hard work, and there is no substitute for knowing the basics and just writing

I got through an M.A. in English without ever reading Shakespeare in college. I've read a fair amount on my own; it just was never part of a class I took. (Probably because we spent way too much time reading bullshit literary theory to spend time on actual literature.) Likewise, I managed to collect a graduate degree "with a concentration in creative writing" without ever reading a single book about how to write. I think I believed that writing couldn't be taught, that I'd just read the greats and something would happen. I hardly ever even read anything that had been written after, say, 1975. I didn't even know what contemporary literature looked like.

Maybe my graduate program assumed we had read books on how to write in undergrad. Maybe I wrote well enough to make it look like I had some idea what I was doing, but not well enough to succeed. But I can't understand how I can get an M.A. or M.F.A or whatever without ever being required to read books of "craft." (I hate that word, but that's really what I'm talking about.) Thinking back, it's obvious a lot of students besides me had never read about how to write. If we had, we wouldn't all have made so many point-of-view mistakes.

Rather than waste time, I think it would have been far more useful to have readings on craft included as part of the curriculum. Once we all had a common vocabulary, we could have spent our workshop hours much more usefully.

I don't understand why the basic model isn't this:

1) Know the basics of your craft and prove you can use the terminology
2) Submit every week
3) Get feedback from your professor every week.
4) Apply feedback and submit again the next week.

Why do other students even enter into it? You could certainly look to them for moral support and a sense of community, but the guy who supposedly knows something should be the one giving you most of the advice. For $5,000, it seems like you ought to be able to expect that. Carve is offering it for $1500.

At some point in time, if you want to write, you're going to have to learn the basics of how it's done and then write a lot. Unless you're very talented, you'll have to write a whole lot of stuff that isn't very good before it all clicks. (I say "talented," not "smart." You can be very smart and not really "get" writing.)

A lot of people say the benefit of an M.F.A. program is that is forces you to have the discipline to write by a deadline. I think that if you need an external reason to write, you will never have the discipline to write. I knew a lot of guys in the Marine Corps who came in fat and were hoping they'd learn the discipline in the Marine Corps to be in shape. They're all fat again now. An M.F.A. is not a deus ex machina to get you off your ass (well, for a writer, I guess "on your ass," technically) and in front of the keyboard. If you can't get yourself to write on your own, you won't be a writer.

If you've written and written and written and read up on how to write and then written and written and written some more, and you're still not getting anywhere, and you're willing to take the anchorite vows of making it as a writer or bust, then go try a graduate program. But if you haven't already filled a library with attempts to succeed before you get there, I really don't believe you'll succeed afterwards.

And that's why I'm done with the blog

My purpose in posting so much about doubts and difficulties as a marginally gifted writer was to help people struggling with similar situations.  If someone else with thirty stories, one publication and five encouraging notes from editors could see that it's not just them throwing their hands up in exasperation, maybe they could at least face the frustration knowing they're not crazy or alone.

But I can't do as many things as I'd like to do. I can't blog about writing and write and do my day job and take care of my family and floss and lift weights and wash my clothes and, hopefully, get back to volunteer work again soon. So the blog has to go. I thought a couple of weeks ago that I could just write about all the things that bother me about fiction writing and exorcise them and be done, but really, I haven't even scratched the surface. Maybe if I actually, you know, succeed one day at fiction, I'll write about all the problems I had breaking in, and people will actually care because I finally figured it out. But for now, I'll worry about solving the problems rather than recording them in excruciating detail.

Thanks to everyone who read, and the few who even commented. If you'd like to leave a comment in the future, I'll probably see it eventually.

I wish any aspiring writers the very wildest of success, but I also wish success in life to those who give up writing to tend to more important, other things.

UPDATE: 11-7-2016

I wrote five more stories since this post. Two were published: one in Bartleby Snopes, and one coming up soon in The Potomac Review. That story was actually selected by two journals on the same day, leaving me in the unprecedented position of actually turning a journal down. I had a short story collection win honorable mention in Leapfrog's 2016 fiction contest.

I wrote my novel in the spring of this year. It was a farce about my day job. I sent it off to a few literary agents, but haven't heard anything back. I doubt I will. It's apparently very hard to break in. I could always go the self-publishing route, but I just don't have the energy to expend in self-marketing. It's a pretty good bet it would be one more ignored, self-published book on the digital heap. Even if I did score a traditional publishing contract, apparently that hardly means I'd get much readership.

I've been getting rejected hard lately with stories I sent off to the major league journals. I've sent what I thought was my best work to many of the journals from this list of the best in the country. One got form rejected in five days. None have gotten so much as a "we liked it, but can't publish it right now."

Fiction is hard, and it's unlikely to ever get you fame or fortune. That's really all every writing program should tell its students.


  1. True story: I haven't submitted any work in almost a year. Everything I submitted has eventually come back. Other than the one publication from Baltimore Review, I got all rejections, about 30 in all. But five of them were rejections with a note, meaning the journal liked the story and considered it before choosing not to go with it. One final story had been stuck in consideration since November 4th of last year. Two hours after posting this final entry, I got this note from them:

    "Thank you for sending us "XXX". We appreciate the chance to read it. Unfortunately, the piece is not for us but we do wish to sincerely apologize for the unusually long delay in our response. We had some problems with Submittable during the time period in which you submitted and some pieces were not in the cue. Your piece did receive a mixed vote from our readers, and we did admire your humor. If you submit to us again, we will read your story in a more timely manner."

    So that's a total of six positive rejections--for six different stories. If things had worked out just a bit differently, I could have had seven publications instead of one. I'm not sure how to take that.

    1. How seriously should I take a journal that can't spell "queue" right?

  2. Jacob - just came upon your blog while doing some research about a writer I am reading in BASS 2014 - Nicole Cullen. Overall, I really like your general take on writing, grad school and all things related. Some of your posts made me think you sucked some of my own thoughts out of my brain on many sleepless nights wondering what the hell I'm doing and have been doing for so long. Really love your mention of Carve services - I'm going to consider them.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I wondered sometimes if I was discouraging people from something that might have been bad for me but good for them. When I got out of the Marine Corps after six years of hating it, I was really happy the few times I had a chance to talk people out of it. But now, my wife teaches kids whose lives are so awful, I actually find myself thinking that the Marine Corps might not be terrible for them. MFA programs must work for somebody, right? Or else they just wouldn't do them? Or is everyone there just silently buying into it because they figure that's what you have to do to gain acceptance into the guild?

      I do know that I don't like a lot of the work that comes out of this system. The BASS, for example. I only like about 1/4 to 1/3 of the stories in there. Judging by the fact that even the editor of the 2014 BASS admitted that most of the people reading it were writers themselves, I have to think the public agrees that workshops aren't producing stuff that really moves them.

      I did reuse Carve again recently, but I haven't even bothered to read the feedback. I decided in the meantime that I hated the story so much, it wasn't even worth trying to fix. I think I'm getting worse from reading so much literary fiction in a style I don't really want to write in. If you use them, I'd be interested to hear what you think of it.

    2. my friend: be your own standard. there is no fiction industry despite the efforts of universities to create that illusion.

  3. Update: apparently, I did not correctly remember who Brian Higgins was telling his middle-of-the-night drunk dialing story about. It wasn't Hershel Parker, though. Someone e-mailed Parker the link to this post and he blogged about it, calling it a "story people tell about you if you live long enough." ( I tried to comment on it and offer my apologies/rationalization for thinking it was him, but it hasn't gone through. I wonder who it was that Brian was telling that story about. I assumed it was Parker because we talked a lot in that course about Parker's biography of Melville. It's been almost 15 years. I guess my memory isn't that clear. I think I'm going to leave it up as Parker for now, because it makes him sound witty and cool, so it's not doing him any harm.