Friday, June 12, 2015

The Ivory Tower and Me: In Defense of Writing Degrees

Why is Guy In Your MFA hilarious? Because it's true; if you've taken a creative class, odds are that someone's been that guy. (Perhaps even you.)

Arguments about whether or not writing can be taught, if the proliferation of MFA programs is negative, if "MFA fiction" is ruining the state of modern literature have been discussed ad nauseam. I admire people who have their degrees in mechanical engineering or architecture or something adventurous while writing on the side. Indeed, there's plenty to be said for a path that has nothing to do with studying writing (more novel fodder, after all).

But what if all you want is to sit in a circle with your classmates, printed copies of your work in front of them, leg bouncing nervously in anticipation of being either praised or lampooned?

Hey, if you can handle people asking, "What are you going to do with a writing degree?" and chortling about your job possibilities, you'll find there are numerous pros:

  • Critique: Learning how to take it...
When I was a wee freshman in an upper-level class, my classmates eviscerated the opening pages of my nonfiction assignment. They took no prisoners. Welcome to college!

After, the professor took me aside to ask if I was okay with how the workshop had gone.  

"Yeah," I said. And you know what? I was.

I knew the workshop wasn't about me; heck, nobody knew me. It was about the words on the pages, and the best course of action was simple: improve. 

  • ...And dish it

In classes where your grade partially hinges on your written critiques of your classmates' writing, you're quite aware that "interesting" and "cool" (or "???") doesn't cut it. By the time grad school comes around, you're expected to mark up excerpts with insightful commentary and participate in class discussions with meaningful statements (although your lexicon may have changed out "cool" for the more sophisticated "organic"). 

Bottom line: being able to handle public critique -- and provide it constructively -- is an art well worth learning. 

  • Spreading your wings: Sending out your work into the abyss
There was one inevitability to class with Dr. Boynton; at the end of the semester, we were required to submit our work to at least one literary magazine and provide her with proof that we'd done so. The message was clear: if you want to write professionally, you have to put your work out there.

This was not a case of "do as I say, not as I do." Instead, Dr. Boynton would open her mailed responses from magazines in front of us (back when Submittable was still a fawn learning to stand on its legs). She'd read out loud the response. Sometimes it was a rejection and other times an acceptance. In those moments, she was as vulnerable as us when we hit send.

  • The inner circle: Building a system of trusted writers and mentors
There's nothing better than having that friend who will read your way-too-autobiographical found poem and love you anyway. Or connecting with someone you don't really know but whose work you admire and being able to hang out after workshop to tell them that. Or sitting in a class full of poets and fiction writers as you communally attempt to write screenplays for the first time. Or having mentors who push you to succeed but celebrate the steps you take along the way. 

Knowing you've found your tribe and maintaining those relationships years later? Priceless. 

Diana Gallagher's contemporary YA novel, Lessons in Fallinglands on 9/8/15 from Spencer Hill Contemporary. She holds both a BA and an MFA in Writing, earning her many a "what are you going to do with a writing degree?" in her lifetime. Learn more on her website or come say hi on Twitter!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you! I'll tell my students about you and link to this post so that they can see what success looks like. Nothing like alumna advice!