Wednesday, October 5, 2011

One Generation After the MFA Boom, What are the Effects?

There's an old MFA joke from the 90s that went something like: A few writers get together at a conference and 9 months later an MFA program is born. These were the boomer years for MFA programs.

When I applied to MFA programs myself -- twenty years ago or so -- I chose from about a cold dozen, narrowed down to about five and shipped off my literary samples to the world. Now Poets & Writers Magazine ranks the top 50 MFA programs in the country. ONLY the top 50? Things have changed. (According to AWP, I believe there are 145 full-residency MFA programs in the country.)

But what's changed, exactly? Let's go through some things that have been talked about and some others -- which I think of as important -- that haven't been talked about much at all.

1. The #1 thing people have bemoaned about the birth of MFA programs is the abundance of what people call the typical MFA story and/or poem. Maybe this has been true, in broad strokes. Maybe types of poetry trend harder than before. And, yes, I think the quiet domestic story of unsaid tension has loomed larger because of MFA programs, but I'd venture to say -- in fiction at least -- that there's much genre-blending these days, a certain wildness. The good teachers I know push students to find out what makes them essentially themselves and, unlike what others may think, the best teachers push students toward that essence.

I would venture, more largely, that the human mind only goes so far; it often reiterates -- I talk about that at the post Plot versus the Wilderness -- a flower bed of like flowers can be the result. But then, lo and behold, there's a fire in the flowerbed. Not new flowers but something ablaze. These are the moments you long for as a teacher -- or, at least, I do.

2. There's a related complaint that I've often heard -- one that I've NEVER understood -- that MFA programs just make more writers who produce more work and therefore create a snow-blindness of pages and pages thrown at NY editors, lit mag editors, and the ever-shrinking readership in America (by the way, I don't believe in the idea of the ever-shrinking readership in America).

This is a claim I've heard from a few older writers -- perhaps scared that there are so very many young cubs coming up the ranks, growing fangs and claws. The competition.

Honestly, I think that we're a stronger, more literary (and literate) nation if more of us engage in language -- deeply; if more of us are reading good books (to hone our crafts, yes, but we also hone our souls, if you ask me); if more of us are practicing empathy, which I believe is intrinsic to the craft of creating characters; if more of us are thinking of place, the strengths and frailties of humanity... Need I go on? To those with the snow-blindness complaint, I say, "Oh, please. Give it a rest. Let 'em write."

3. Here's one that haunts me a little. Writers and poets were once scavengers in the wilds and are now domesticated in academe. Does that change ourwork? Make us less lean and hungry? Or does it save us from starvation?

No one's written on the subject better than David Gessner in this piece for The New York Times.

Read the entire piece, but here's a taste,
"I do love teaching and recognize how lucky I am to be living for at least a part of each day in the real world, but while I try to be commonsensical, lately I have begun to feel something rising up inside me. A part of me misses the glee and obsession and even the anger. And a part of me worries that my work has become too professional, too small... Yes, my lifestyle is more healthful, but is health always the most important thing? ...After all, what would that part, my inner monomaniac, like more than to tear off his collar and sabotage the job that keeps him from running wild?"

Are our poems and prose better off? Worse off? Are we more stable -- less likely to wander off to Hollywood and die of a heart attack in a drug store -- like Fitzgerald? Or would we be better running wild? I'd venture: Answers may vary, writer to writer.

4. Here's one I've never heard someone (aside from myself) bring up. The importance for writers and poets to be connected to their fellow human beings. There is a link between poets and writers and suicide. I've written about it here. One of the things that keeps people from committing suicide -- look at Thomas Joiner's work on the subject -- is social connectivity, the feeling of being of use, not a burden. Before MFA programs, writers and poets lived scattered lives. The MFA programs united us. My MFA experience made me realize there were others like me. I formed early bonds, a network of important critical voices, and friendships. I was of use to those other writers and still am. Many of those early friendships have been lasting.

I've been thinking for some time that if you pair Joiner's research on suicide and the benefits of the MFA program -- even the simple fact that our poets and writers in academe have health insurance and access to care -- that there's a chance that MFA programs have saved some writers. And we've lost some too, sadly, yes.

5. And what about all of those MFA marriages? Like any good dating service, MFA programs screen for IQ (the GREs) and passion and interest and dedication (the application process). Put young writers with other young writers to marinate for a few years ... like-minded, maybe like-souled ... and marriages will result. Dave and I met at UNC-Greensboro's MFA program and were engaged in about a month (three months if you count the actual ring). I think of the first time I met Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin -- we swapped our stories, MFA-centric. There's Nicola Mason and Michael Griffith. Check out this writer-couple interview. And, in case you think the trend has ended, I add to the list fiction writer Josh McCall and poet Jen McClanaghan. (I can keep adding here...but why?) How many MFA marriages are there? I don't know.

There was a saying in grad school something like -- if you came in single, you'd leave married; and if you came in married, you'd leave divorced. It wasn't true, of course, but there is something about this sudden realization for an aspiring writer who may have never really met another aspiring writer to feel -- suddenly surrounded by them -- like they've found a family, a home.

6. And then ... dare I mention ... the offspring ... my own are so genetically right-brained, I'm glad they can stand up without listing to one side. Oh, the language genes, the narrative genes, the obsessive work ethic genes ... At three, one of my kids said to my father, "Are you mocking me?" And my father had, in fact, been using a slightly condescending tone ... He was, after all, talking to a three-year-old. (Add up the offspring of the aforementioned writer couples, including me and Dave, and you've got 9 of 'em. NINE. That's a lot of page potential or at least a few heightened college entrance essays.)

What I'm saying is that the effects aren't all in yet ... Some of the data is still (growing permanent teeth) looming ...