I read Walt Whitman’s iconic work Leaves of Grass just before I decided to withdraw from an MFA program in creative writing in the summer of 2022, after completing about one year. Whitman’s poetry confirmed my belief that reading and writing poetry has never really needed a formal education prerequisite. I became inspired by his argument for accessibility in poetry. He once wrote of his most famous work
I entered the then-number 3 MFA program for two reasons: I wanted to keep studying literature because I hoped to teach, and I wanted the experience of graduate-level workshops that would keep me producing on deadline, something that helped when I became a newspaper reviewer some years later.
I found my 2.5 years immensely rewarding. I read books and poems I never would have encountered on my own, like the work of Hart Crane and a whole raft of contemporary British authors. All of that was inspiring. Likewise the enthusiasm of fellow students who made me feel I was in a giant writing group. And there were tons of readings I went to.
My lit professors were actually the most influential, especially a Wharton scholar, since 3 of my 27 books are related to Wharton: Edith Wharton's Prisoners of Shame (biography/litcrit), The Edith Wharton Murders (mystery), and Rosedale in Love (a rewriting of The House of Mirth). The mystery scored me my first review in the New York Times.
There are many ways to move forward as a writer, so anyone contemplating an MFA program needs to know what their goals are and do due diligence about the program, the faculty, student praise and complaints--and how much financial aid they offer. The info is not hard to access.
Mine helped me immensely despite a jerk professor in one workshop. I won a prize that launched my career.
This is a great piece, Natalie!
Thanks for writing about your experience, Natalie. I love learning how others navigate the question of to MFA or not to MFA. Over the past few years I've embarked on a DIY MFA of sorts, and it's been amazing. I've attended dozens of literary events and workshops, read hundreds of books, published dozens of pieces, and written thousands of pages, all without debt and mostly without leaving my home. Instead of being relegated to particular professors or peers, I take workshops with writers I admire and meet so many cool people along the way. I'm with you on the point about community involvement—those connections are wonderful, and while an MFA cohort can be hit or miss with them, there's a whole wide world of writers beyond those programs. If I were to find a magical unicorn of a program out there, sure, I'd consider pursuing an actual MFA, but plenty of writers have done just fine without (including everyone pre-1936).
That said, who gets published? Who wins contests? People with MFAs get awards and published in more "top tier" lit mags than those without. If your goal is to become a better poet, the University of DIY is fine, it has worked for me much along the lines Natalie lays out. If your goal is to teach, probably in an MFA program, you need an MFA and can live with the salary you're likely to earn. Community is not a tangible reward, but whichever route you take, it is the best reward.
Thank you, Natalie. I so love that line you quote from Whitman: “Re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem.” Right out of law school I was considering getting an MFA so I called James Alan McPherson the great short story writer and alumnus of my law school who was teaching at Iowa. I don't remember exactly what he said, but what I recall was that an MFA was valuable but he couldn't say it made a real difference in his craft. I think he said its great value was in the time to focus on the reading and writing. In the end, I decided against getting an MFA because I thought I could do that reading and writing on my own. It's much harder while holding down a job, but it's doable. If folks can afford an MFA or find a fully funded one, great; if they can't, you can do it the old fashioned way -- reading, reading, reading, and writing, writing, writing.
I wholeheartedly agree with you. There is one way that the MFA is helpful- in getting published in certain magazines. I Have 4 degrees myself- including Hebrew Literature MA, Ordination, JD and psychology- but I attended a few sessions and decided that I couldn't lay out more money for something I could do in some short workshops. Now I read voraciously and teach English where poetry is a big part of my curriculum. I don't publish that much because I am working on my memoir.
Yes! Thank you for putting into words what I have been wrestling with for years.
Hello. Thank you for sharing. Can something be better than nothing? A year of MFA is a whole lot of academic credit compared to say one undergraduate course or what I used to do, a monthly community workshop. I’m a poet and physician, child psychiatry.
Of course one can learn to write better through a variety of avenues, not only with the guidance of a graduate program. That said, I must note that the MFA degree, which is still considered a terminal degree and--generally speaking--required for university teaching, would be considered a "credential" (<in 2022, the Poets & Writers database listed 261 MFA programs. These programs do not offer a credential>).
Yeah, I feel this poet very deeply. I got a "free ride" at an MFA program for three years, and though being among the writers and participating in workshops was enriching, not to mention the teaching duties, which I feel gave me the most insight of all, it took me a number of years to "recover" from my MFA. I survived the program because I refused to "become" the poet my professors were trying to mold me into, and instead continued to assert my own personality in my writing. I think the only way to effectively teach any art is to find out what the aesthetic and personality of the student is, and help them to become a more authentic purveyor of that set of unique attributes, not to have a "one-size-fits-all" attitude where you try to make all students the same artist based on your own set of aesthetics, etc. I think there are programs that do this, but again, you can't really "teach" anything, but you can model for the student the enthusiasm and introspection a life-long student and artist needs to shine in their own light, not to imitate a teacher's particular idea of success.
Thanks Lee. This has turned into a fine discussion. When I think of Pancake, as I mentioned in a post before, the name John Kennedy Toole comes also to my mind. The author of "A Confederacy of Dunces." Just like Pancake, Toole took his own life. I don't know the exact circumstances but I do know that Walker Percy is responsible for Toole's "discovery" and publication after his death at his own hand at age 32. In fact Toole's mom took the manuscript to Walker Percy who contributed the introduction as you will discover, if you happen on a copy of the book. Pulitzer Prize winner. Can you imagine? It makes me cringe to think of all of the writing that editors have rebuffed and snuffed over the years. Work we will never know. And it offers us a cautionary tale for editors and especially for writers who see their work tossed in the ash bin daily now because editors are overwhelmed or worse, because they have succumbed to the postmodern mob instead of championing a true writing meritocracy. Instead, we seem to have a social commentary bureau in charge of every publishing house. Thank goodness for the advocacy of McPherson and Percy. And by the way I think a lot of Walker Percy too. Particularly his late novel The Thanatos Syndrome. But...I am a sucker for Southern Writers and Louisiana. Percy was a UNC grad if my memory serves. Great writer.
Natalie this is a beautiful piece. I too look to the past for inspiration. More than once in his writing Wendell Berry laments the specialization that has come to dominate our world practically and intellectually. This holds true for the "craft" of writing as it has been packaged and commoditized as something to teach for a dime. There are four Irish Nobel laureates in literature. Having read Heaney, Beckett, and Yeats along the way I decided it was about time for me to get to know Bernard Shaw. Shaw was born a lower middle class boy in Dublin. He didn't attend Oxford or Cambridge or even Trinity College Dublin. He came up a harder way, like most of us. But he, as an autodidact, became the foremost playwright of his generation. And a respected music and literary critic. A novelist. And his plays earned him the Nobel in 1925. Reading his Wiki bio is well worth the time. I'm reading his play "Man and Superman" now and fully agree with him, that first, a writer has to have something to assert. That can't be taught by an MFA program can it? And Shaw said he would not pick up his pencil merely for the sake of art. Sometimes I wonder about people who apparently dedicate themselves to writing "creatively." According to Shaw that is a suspect endeavor. Maybe they should first set out to develop what it is they want to assert. That is what I also hear Mr. Whitman saying in your quote where he calls other poets detached. Whitman had something to assert. He knew it deep in his heart and intellect. And he brought the style to bear on it only afterward.
Read backward my dear people. That is where the truth lies. In old books, perhaps more than in new MFA Programs. And most of the treasure is off copyright, to boot.
Wow, I can't believe that someone who is obviously intelligent enough to become a physician did such little research before signing on to an expensive program when they were already six figures in debt. I have an MFA and the only way I would ever recommend one is if you are already wealthy enough to afford the program or if it's fully funded. I did the latter and had a great time even though unfortunately, half of it turned into remote learning as it was in the middle of COVID. An MFA isn't a prerequisite for a writing career, and I don't think anyone has ever claimed that. It is also not a good way to break into academia as creative writing jobs are given to those who are already publishing regularly, and other tenure track English positions like literature are usually set aside for those with a PhD in that particular subject. I'm sorry you didn't do your due diligence since the downsides of MFAs have been written about for at least the last decade if not longer. Good luck with your poetry, you're doing the right things now and not digging yourself into a deeper financial hole.
Natalie, you are creating your own MFA at your own pace and in sync with your tremendous responsibilities as a physician and parent. 👏👏The book “Portable MFA in Creative Writing” by the NY Writers Workshop helped me reach the same decision. Also, I paid off (finally) my graduate degree in my field and would never take on that student debt again. I’m certain with your current degrees and writing accomplishments, if you wanted to teach in the future, who knows, perhaps an instructor not requiring a MFA or developing your own workshop for creative professionals? I’d take that class! I did want to mention Iowa conducts summer workshops for graduate credit. I believe up to two classes before a student is required to apply to the program. A great experience and a short-term peek at the commitment required as a student. Thanks for sharing your story.
I’m with you on this. In addition I would also like to add that the overwhelming desire of many poets, veteran and amateur alike, to have their work published is, to me, more of an attempt to stroke one’s ego, to revert, in a sense, to the excited kindergartener’s cry of “Look at me!”
As a poet with middling interest in publishing my poetry (other than the wish to avert any sudden crash of my electronics, their current home) I’ve watched on the sidelines of many social media poetry groups as you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours cliques develop with the seeming obligatory kudos to each in order to receive the same from them.
I would rather write for my own personal gratification and thought development.
In my view a published book of one’s poetry should be a celebration of accomplishment in and of itself, public acclaim be damned.
A collection focusing on one subject, location, time, event or poetic form would be well worth reading.