Life in a Farming Town: In Defense of Becoming a Master of the Fine Arts

by Mike Ingram

For the last several months, I’ve spent much of my time in a cramped one-bedroom apartment in Iowa City, Iowa, hunched over a laptop computer, looking out the window at what has been increasingly bleak weather. Iowa City seems to have more weather than most places, and the locals talk about it in ways that go beyond the usual small talk. This is probably due to the surrounding farmland, but even a layman can’t help but take an interest: Since moving to Iowa in mid-August, I’ve seen several doses of Indian Summer, a couple of November dustings of snow, thundershowers that sounded like they could unsettle the foundations of my apartment building, and two tornado warnings. According to the locals, I should start bracing myself now for what could be one of the harshest winters in the last decade.

Against the backdrop of all this weather, I’ve been writing. I was writing before I came here — short stories, mostly, and the daily journalism that paid my rent and bills — but there’s been a new intensity to my work since I’ve arrived in Iowa City. This intensity, of course, has nothing to do with the weather, except in the way that strong winds and rain make a pretty good case for staying indoors. Nor does it have much to do with Iowa City, except insofar as Iowa City is home to the Iowa Writers Workshop, the oldest and most famous — or perhaps infamous, depending on who you ask — graduate writing program in the country.

The writing program here has its roots in the somewhat brazen 1922 decision of Carl Seashore, then dean of the Graduate College, to allow students to submit creative work in lieu of the more traditional forms of graduate theses. The Workshop began in earnest fourteen years later under the direction of Wilbur Schram and a rotating cast of visiting teachers, which in those early years included Robert Frost, John Berryman and Robert Penn Warren. Since that time, the Workshop has been home to scores of distinguished permanent and visiting faculty, and graduates of the Workshop have included the likes of Paul Engle, Flannery O’Conner, Donald Justice, Jane Smiley and John Irving, to name just a few.

The last fifteen to twenty years has seen a proliferation of similar graduate writing programs pop up across the U.S. as more and more schools have followed Iowa’s lead and begun to offer the master of fine arts degree in fiction, poetry and, more recently, creative nonfiction. According to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, in 1975 there were fifteen U.S. colleges and universities offering MFA degrees in creative writing; by 2002 that number had jumped to ninety-nine.

Why the sudden rise in popularity? Despite the names of distinguished graduates and faculty that are trotted out each year on university websites and in course catalogs, the degree itself doesn’t seem to guarantee any amount of practical success — this isn’t a law degree or an MBA, after all. Some MFA graduates will go on to publish books that are well-received, but many won’t, just as some non-MFA writers will find publishing successes while many more will find none at all. Writing, like any art, is a tricky business, and there’s no guaranteed formula for doing it well. The MFA does allow its recipient, at least in theory, to teach at the college level. But a quick scan of the academic landscape indicates this is more easily said than done. There are only so many teaching positions to go around, and lots and lots of people vying to fill them. So what are all these degree-seekers after?

This time last year, I was looking for answers to that question. Back then I was working eight-to-ten-hour days as a journalist in Washington, D.C., and spending my free time laboring over the busywork of graduate school applications: fine-tuning manuscripts, writing personal statements, procuring GRE scores and undergraduate transcripts, hoping my old college professors could remember enough about the rather shy and awkward kid I was six years ago to put together suitable letters of recommendation. Amidst this flurry of activity, though, I had some nagging doubts: Did I really want an MFA? Was this truly the path to becoming a better writer? Can I really survive winter in any of these Godforsaken places? (Of the six schools I applied to, only one — the University of Florida — was in a part of the country that could be described as “temperate.”)  

It doesn’t take more than a quick Google search to discover there are plenty of people who believe that an MFA is a capital-B Bad Idea, and who aren’t afraid to tell you — often at great length — exactly why. Coupled with the rise in popularity of these programs has been a (not wholly unsurprising) backlash. What is surprising, though, is the utter contempt many people seem to reserve for writing programs, which they see as nothing short of a systemic plot to undermine quality literature in America. The MFA route, according to some, is not a path to success; it is, in fact, a path to ruin or, at best, mediocrity. Of course one of the great facts of the Internet Age is that any crank with an opinion and a keyboard can post his rantings to the world. But many of the anti-MFAers seem to come from pretty respectable corners of the writing world. And I think at least a few of their concerns bear a little further exploration.


You Can’t Teach Writing, or Cattle Make Boring Artists

The most common anti-MFA argument is that writing cannot be taught. What’s interesting here is not the literal claim — which anyone who’s taken or taught a good Intro to Composition class would tell you doesn’t hold water — but what’s implied by those who raise it. I don’t suspect the anti-MFAers mean to suggest that the techniques of writing can’t be taught, but that there’s some other, more mysterious element to great writing that can’t, and shouldn’t, be taught. To the anti-MFAers, the audacity of trying to teach these mysterious elements strips great writing of the very mystery that makes it great: something akin to teaching someone how to create visual art by breaking down the roof of the Sistine Chapel into a kind of paint-by-numbers exercise.

This kind of reasoning feeds into what I think is the underlying source of contempt for MFA programs: the idea that they are merely factories where writers take a ride on the assembly-line of technique and come out the other end as the blandest possible version of what it means to be an artist. In this view, the writer-as-finished-product is nothing more than competent. Wildly competent, perhaps, but only competent, stripped of the kind of individuality, quirkiness, and soulfulness required to make good, and lasting, art. By promoting this kind of process, the argument goes, MFA programs are essentially cheapening the act of writing itself, which in its purest form is an act of personal expression borne of a deep engagement with the world.

Jason Sanford, the editor of this publication, makes this kind of argument in his essay “Who Wears Short Shorts? Micro Stories and MFA Disgust.” Jason’s argument seems to rest on the assumption that there are good writers and there are bad writers, and all MFA programs are doing is teaching the bad writers to dress up their bad writing in the trappings of the good. He sees evidence of this, he says, in reading through the slush pile for storySouth — lots of stories that are well-written (competent) but otherwise disappointing. It’s hard to argue, of course, with the existence of these types of stories in the world. I’m one of four editors of a recently launched journal (Barrelhouse) and I can tell you that I’ve read plenty of stories in the last nine months that would fit into Jason’s “competent but bland” category. One doesn’t need to be a journal editor to encounter this type of fiction, though: pick up just about any literary journal and scan through its pages, and you’re likely to find at least one story that’s well-written but that doesn’t exactly blow your skirt up with excitement.

Where Jason and I disagree is in trying to identify the source of this phenomenon, and whether it’s, in the grand scheme of things, the kind of problem that needs to be redressed. To Jason’s mind, MFA programs are to blame, because (as mere writing factories) they’ve created this particular category of competent-but-ultimately-bad writing. I think that’s a little short-sighted. There have always been, and always will be, writers who are mediocre yet praised as brilliant, and writers who are brilliant yet hardly praised at all. There will always be stories and novels where the level of technical competence is disproportionately high and the level of emotional resonance is disproportionately low.  At the same time, there will always be writers with important things to say but who lack the necessary tools to say those things clearly or competently. This is the nature of art, and it’s certainly not limited to the writing world.

Perhaps more importantly, I don’t see any significant evil from having mediocre writing in the world. In any age, one could find writers who are not nearly so good as their press, and history seems to have a way of sorting these things out. The wheat will, at some point, be sorted from the chaff, and all of us may be surprised and humbled, years later, when we realize which was truly which. On a smaller scale, if some unworthy writing slips through the cracks and makes its way onto the pages of, say, The Paris Review, is that really the end of the world? Pick up a copy of The Paris Review from twenty years ago and see how many of the names you recognize. Do a little research and see which writers are even writing anymore, and which ones published more than a handful of stories. Furthermore, if bad writing is being published, who’s to blame? The writer, who is probably not a very good judge of her own talents? Or the editor, who’s supposed to be the arbiter of quality?

This view of MFA-program-as-factory also clashes with my own experiences over the past semester. So far, I’ve seen nothing that suggests a factory atmosphere at Iowa, nor do I think the program’s aim (intended or otherwise) is mediocre competence. This past semester I was lucky enough to study under Marilynne Robinson (Housekeeping and Gilead), and was consistently blown away by the level of criticism and deep-thinking she brought to bear on the stories we submitted for workshop. Marilynne’s interests seem to lie not so much in the line-by-line functionality of a story (though she’s quick to offer suggestions that can improve the clarity of a given line) but in loftier aims: the story as a whole and why it should be read, or written, in the first place.

It seems to me that we’ve started each workshop with an unspoken assumption: everyone in the class knows how to write a competent story. The trick, then, is to go deeper, to make those competent stories into something better, into works of art that have something to say about the world, or at least exhibit a reason to exist in it. In various workshops, this has involved delving deeper into a character’s psychology and trying to more clearly see the world through his eyes, pushing an odd and engaging voice into even odder and more engaging territory, and drawing out parallels inherent in the structure of a story told in a non-linear fashion. A little high-minded? Maybe. But certainly not a process with mediocrity as its goal.

I can’t speak for the workshop process at other MFA programs, but I can’t imagine it’s all that different than the one here at Iowa. Only the worst workshop instructor would encourage students to create stories that are safe or that don’t take risks, and only the most insecure would try to push her students into creating work that echoes her own.

On a related note, in his sweeping diatribe against the evils of MFA programs, Jason also saw fit to label those who teach in such programs as mostly “white, upper-middle class, and unacquainted with anything other than their little academic [lives].” I’m sure more than a few MFA faculty would take offense to this charge. Most, if not all teachers of creative writing, long before becoming teachers, were making their way in the world as writers, which means that with the exception of the rare literary prodigy, they were struggling through crummy day jobs, self-doubt and all the other attendant baggage that comes along with the writing life. None of them would be talented writers if indeed the only way they saw the world was through the lenses of white, upper-middle-class academia. As a prime example, next semester I’m taking a seminar with Iowa faculty member James Alan McPherson (Elbow Room), and while he may now find himself in the upper-middle-class tax bracket, that’s certainly not a position he’s inhabited his entire life. And no one has ever mistaken him for being white.

Just for good measure, this is what the Iowa Writers Workshop itself has to say about the business of “teaching writing”:

Though we agree in part with the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught, we exist and proceed on the assumption that talent can be developed, and we see our possibilities and limitations as a school in that light. If one can “learn” to play the violin or to paint, one can “learn” to write, though no processes of externally induced training can ensure that one will do it well. Accordingly, the fact that the Workshop can claim as alumni nationally and internationally prominent poets, novelists, and short story writers is, we believe, more the result of what they brought here than of what they gained from us. We continue to look for the most promising talent in the country, in our conviction that writing cannot be taught but that writers can be encouraged.

In the end, it’s that encouragement, I think, that’s infinitely helpful. We’ll come back to that point in a moment, but first let’s look at another common complaint about MFA programs.


It’s Not What You Know, But Who You Know, or The Stonecutters Run the World

In one of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons, Homer is grudgingly offered membership in a group called The Stonecutters after he discovers that his father is a life-long member. Suddenly the plumber who had ignored the family’s flooding basement plugs the leak, Homer gets a more comfortable chair at work, and during the morning commute he’s steered through a secret tunnel that bypasses Springfield’s rush hour traffic. Later, we watch as the Stonecutters swill beer at their secret headquarters and break into a musical number in which they proclaim their various successes — controlling the British crown, keeping the metric system from taking hold, rigging every Oscar night and making Steve Gutenberg a Hollywood star.

Of course the episode is a send-up of the various organizations — the Masons chief among them — that some people believe really do control the world. So what does all this have to do with graduate writing programs? Many critics of MFA programs seem to  increasingly see the degree as a stamp of approval that grants a writer entry into the shadowy world of publishing, whether or not that writer merits such an entry. In this view of the publishing world, those with MFA degrees are ushered into the smoky back rooms where all the important decisions are made, while those without such degrees are left milling about in the lobby. To bolster these arguments, the anti-MFAers trot out whatever writers they can find who a) have won awards or received grants or gotten sizeable book deals, b) have attended an MFA program, and c) whose work they dislike. This isn’t such a hard thing to do, of course. Just as it’s not too hard to find less-than-inspired short stories in the pages of prestigious literary journals, it’s fairly easy to find a handful of writers you don’t like who’ve been lauded by others. As John Gardner famously wrote, writers are particularly bothered by bad criticism, and every age, in its own way, is an age of bad criticism.

It makes for a fun, though ultimately meaningless game. Rick Moody’s writing leave a bad taste in your mouth? He’s got his MFA from Columbia. Don’t like the choice of Adam Haslett’s You Are Not a Stranger Here as a National Book Award finalist and a Today Show Book Club selection? Haslett’s a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. Don’t like David Foster Wallace? MFA from the University of Arizona. You get the idea. The problem with this game, of course, is that for every writer you hate, there are hundreds of people who will rush to his or her defense (I found Haslett’s book to be wonderful, for instance). And there are plenty of writers people love to hate who never went through the MFA “factory” (Jonathan Franzen and Dave Eggers are two that come immediately to mind).

Of course this kind of game is a natural human activity, especially when it comes to the arts. Any time someone wins an award, publishes a book, gets a film green-lighted, holds a one-man show at a choice Lower East Side gallery — and that person’s not you — a certain pleasure can be derived from playing a version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon wherein you “prove” that the spoils were gotten through “connections,” rather than talent and hard work. And just like in corporate America, sometimes these connections are in fact dubious. Sometimes untalented folks get ahead because they know someone important, while more talented folks go unnoticed because they don’t. Life’s not fair, and anyone who thinks we live in a meritocracy should dig a little deeper. The problem extends far beyond the writing world.

The dilemma, when this argument is applied to the MFA debate, is two-fold. First, MFA graduates who never experience any sort of professional writing success far outnumber those who go on to greatness. Second, even if it were true that an MFA gives one entry into a shady publishing cabal, MFA admissions are about as close to a meritocracy as you can get. Basically what happens is this: You submit two or three short stories (or novel chapters, or a sheaf of poems) to a school, some or all of the faculty review your writing, and then said faculty picks the writers they believe show the most promise. Now, certainly, this is a subjective process. I have no doubt, for instance, that there are plenty of writers who applied to Iowa this past year who have more talent than I do, and will someday prove it. But that’s just the nature of what can’t be anything other than a subjective process. At least no one’s basing their acceptance/rejection decisions on your parents’ income, or what university you went to as an undergrad (in some rare cases, writers have been admitted to MFA programs without ever completing an undergraduate degree).

My point is this: MFA programs don’t hold up as playgrounds for the privileged elite in the way that, say, Ivy League schools or certain law programs do. Sure, not everyone can rig their life in a way that allows for two or three years of graduate work, but for those who can, the opportunity is there. Most schools, Iowa among them, offer very good financial assistance packages, so that while you’re not exactly getting rich as a student, neither are you accruing mounds of debt. And for those who can’t get away from their careers, or their families, there are a number of well-respected low-residency programs that allow you to earn an MFA mostly from home.


Why choose an MFA?

There are a number of ways in which the process of getting an MFA can be helpful to a young writer, but in the interest of space I’ll concentrate on two. Notice here that I said “process”: in a sort of Zen way, I think the process of obtaining the degree is in many ways more valuable than the degree itself.

I said earlier that I think encouragement is one of the chief benefits to the MFA program. Let’s face it: we live in a society that doesn’t put much of a premium on quality fiction, and it puts even less of a premium on quality poetry (at a recent trip to the local Barnes and Noble, I was able to find five copies of Jewel’s book of poetry but not a single book by Philip Levine or Louise Gluck). Unless you’re lucky enough to stumble into a posse of talented writers (it helps, I suppose, to live in New York City or another large city center), the work of being a serious writer is a pretty lonely and discouraging business. So the gift of community is one of the most precious gifts a young writer can receive: a group of people who value writing as an art form and as a suitably important thing to be doing — not just as a hobby, but as a possible career, or even a calling, if you go in for that sort of talk. My friends in D.C. are some of the greatest people in the world, and truly they’re my friends for life. But to them, writing is “that thing Mike does sometimes” or “some lame excuse for not going out to the bars on a Friday night.” This isn’t their fault, of course: they all have careers of their own, most of which I know little about, except that they involve suits and, I think, computers. At Iowa, I’m surrounded by people who understand what it is I’m trying to do, who know the frustration of spending an hour on a single paragraph of a story just to delete the whole thing when you realize it’s superfluous. People who know the highs and lows of the writing life, the strange mix of ego and almost depressing humility that accompanies this type of work.

What I also have are people willing to read my work, and not just in a passive way. People like to picture Hemmingway roaming through Spain or Africa and dashing off stories of his adventures in solitary, and certainly time in solitary is something every writer needs. But Hemmingway also communed with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein; T.S. Eliot had help from Ezra Pound; Ray Carver found a sympathetic teacher in John Gardner; the list could go on and on. No writer lives, or writes, in a vacuum, and there’s much to be gained by surrounding yourself with talented people who are willing to not only read your work but read it seriously. MFA programs, of course, aren’t the only places where one can find this community, but they seem to me to be pretty good places to go looking for it.

The other important gift MFA programs have to offer young writers is the gift of time. At Iowa I have two years (some programs stretch that into three or even four) to devote myself almost entirely to my craft (I’m also teaching, which is time-consuming, but also a lot of fun). This allotment of time has an effect, I think, not only on the quantity of work a writer is able to produce, but on the quality of that work. Most writers need time not just to write, but to think about their writing, to stew in their own juices, to make tentative starts and stops, to chuck whole stories or novel chapters in favor of wholesale revisions, to play around, to take risks, to fail.

Maybe, in the end, this is one of the best thing an MFA program can offer: the permission to fail, miserably, nobly, over and over and over again, until you start to learn that it’s only by opening yourself up to failure that you can ever hope to have real success. It also makes for a kind of put-up-or-shut-up situation. No more can I make excuses about having to work late, or having too many social engagements, or not enough hours in the day. Here, I’ll be forced to write, forced to fail over and over again until hopefully, one day, I’ll have some success.

Mike Ingram counts himself as a southern writer, having spent his childhood in Charleston, S.C. and the part of Florida usually referred to as either Lower Alabama or the Redneck Riviera. He is one of four editors of Barrelhouse, a new journal of fiction, poetry and nonfiction, and is in his first year in the MFA program at the University of Iowa.