To MFA or not to MFA

I just Googled Heidi Pitlor for info so that I could write up a blurb about her upcoming reading at the Harvard Book Store. Got completely distracted by the top link, to this four-year old Village Voice literary supplement piece: Young, Gifted, and Workshopped.

Right now I've got a few friends who hate their jobs and are just deluded and brilliant enough to Cooking up a Book Dealwant to go back to school for their MAs, but I don't know many who think about going for an MFA as though it's a make you or break you life choice. For the most part, grad school is either a way into academia or a guaranteed break into the higher earning bracket of your chosen field. When you get an MFA in fiction writing, though, you're spending a couple of years in proverbial isolation, workshopping your heartbreaking short stories with ten other doe-eyed, equally heartbroken people who write in equally heartbreaking ways that are actually, probably more heartbreaking than yours. So now you get to be insecure about your god-given talent. Especially if you go to the Iowa Writer's Workshop (more competitive than HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL!), a place that, for me, inspires a reaction akin to a death (what the hell do you do in Iowa City except hang out in the cornfield and sit in front of your computer, wishing you were as good as the other geniuses in your workshop) alternating with utter and complete joy (um, two years to concentrate on nothing but the craft and study in a place that has churned out more famous writers than I can bear to think about--my raving fantasies about luxurious book tours and offers to be the celeb writer guest judge/taster on Iron Chef have no outlet other than this). Even if it isn't Iowa, you're basically saying yeah, I'll put my life on hold for a couple of years and happily go into debt, and I won't even come out with a real Masters. It's a Master of Fine Arts--which means you can get out and teach, but that's it--all the while hoping that an agent sees your school on the letter you stuck in with your unpublished, unsolicited manuscript bound by nothing but your own terror and the sweat of your intelligently furrowed brow.

I'm intrigued by the article's discussion of the fact that so many short story collections, and even novels, are getting, as Pitlor describes, too "workshoppy." I easily fall for a really gut-busting epiphany or a neatly tied up ending that isn't quite disastrous, but isn't all sugar and happiness either--readers like to imagine they're reading something that could actually happen, I think. The piece does make a good point, though, about crisis points escalating in an all too familiar manner, contrived resolutions that are overly tidy, revelations that are satisfying but fit too well in the puzzle. Workshoppy, indeed. Except isn't that what thousands of new writers are going to school to learn how to do? Does this mean getting your MFA won't get you any closer to Oprah's couch on Book Club day? Frankly, that's a frightening thought on many levels.

Of the examples listed, I guess I can agree that the ever-present Steve Almond falls into that category--even knowing that, though, I still adore him. I'll read him anyway. So it doesn't matter that he's "workshoppy"--because he's marketable. But does that make him even worse? Are MFA grads just a manufacted products of their own manufactured environs? My head hurts. 

Oh yeah, and I'm kind of in shock and awe over the mention of Raul Correa, who used to be my creative writing instructor back at a summer writing program I was in when I was 16 (yep, I liked my summers to be as nerdy as possible). I remember him telling our class about his book, which was still in drafts at the time. I have to get I Don't Know, But I've Been Told now, immediately, yesterday. This is the same guy who used to tell our class over and over again that "bad writers borrow, good writers steal," (so true), and now he's got a novel long out with a narrator that Publishers Weekly describes as "a cross between Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield." And PW doesn't mess.

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