• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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FAQ – Should I Get an MFA

Two young people (did I actually say “young people”?) asked my opinion recently about whether or not to get an MFA. This is a tough one. It really depends on two things: where you are in your writing life and if you can afford it. You do have to ask yourself the tough questions: would I rather have an MFA from Columbia or a Jaguar XF?

There are great programs out there, and taking two years to devote to writing and reading can be a formative time. Unless you are a stone cold idiot, you will come out a better writer than when you went in. Or, like me, find out that you’re a good editor, or teacher. Really fun is the community of writers with their orgiastic jealousies. Be prepared, know yourself, try not to cave to the style of the day.

Then there’s the faculty. I would definitely check that out before you write a check. I had the great good fortune of studying with Richard Howard, Denis Johnson (fuck me dead) Bill Matthews, Pamela White Hadas (my brilliant mentor), with Dan Halpern, Tom Lux, and for visiting writers we had Margaret Atwood, Harold Brodkey, Coleslaw Milosz (as we fondley referred to him), and others. That was all worth it. That was fantastic. As was finding my bff and best reader, the poet Jean Monhan.

Whoa, sorry for that little side trip down memory lane. I think getting an MFA can be very valuable, but you want to be in the right place for you and you don’t want to go bankrupt. Being a writer will take care of that soon enough. If you go, focus on your craft, read your eyes out, listen most to your critics, and try not to have a crack-up.

Would love to hear what other MFA survivors have to say, as well as those who avoided it altogether.

3 Responses

  1. I stumbled upon your blog while linking your book,The Forest for the Trees, to a blog I’m trying to start up. As it happens, I’m looking to convince my former MFA classmates to collaborate with me in an effort to continue the community we had. (If your so inclined, see http://mypostmfalife.wordpress.com/).

    This was by far the best thing about the MFA, the community. I was beyond lucky to be accepted into a small program at the University of Minnesota, which takes just 15 students each year. Also, it was free. Along with tuition waivers, the program provided funding in the form of teaching assistantships for all. The guaranteed funding helped foster a spirit of mutual support and non-competitiveness, which I hear can be a real buzz kill at other programs where only a few TAships are available.

    The problem with well-funded programs (besides being few and far between) is that they tend to coincide with high profile research universities, where professors are often more interested in their own work than actually meeting with you about your writing. In the last year of my MFA, nearly half the faculty was away, either on sabbatical, or teaching in the lit department, or winning a MacArthur grant, or just teaching one semester because they’re Regents’ Professors and can command that.

    The long and short of it: the MFA was the best three years of my life. It was the first place I felt like I really fit. I did leave with a nearly complete manuscript, which I’m in the process of revising. Lots of people from my program have published books and won awards. The MFA was like an apprenticeship, where you’re allowed time to be creative and be inspired and mull over what kind of writer you want to be, to experiment and refine your voice. But if you’re in need of a lot of hand holding, know that you’ll need to be proactive.

  2. I just finished reading “The Forest for the Trees” — you sound like my dream agent! (Long background in editing, funny, hard-working, caring, a poet — perfect.) I will probably pester you with a carefully written query after I am done writing my novel.

    Weighing in on the MFA: I had the great fortune of going to UVA, where Ann Beattie would instantly return your emails, Deborah Eisenberg would take you out to lunch to discuss your comment-peppered manuscript, Chris Tilghman would tell great and valuable anecdotes inside and outside of class in his terrific WASPy John-Cheeverish voice, and John Casey would invite you to his summer place in Pennsylvania. My teachers were truly so open to meeting up, to working with me, to providing me guidance. All I had to do was ask. My classmates were amazing and I loved them, though we devolved (inevitably) into an orgiastic mess of recrimination and scandal by the end of the program. What else can you expect when you throw a handful of narcissistic writers and poets together, pour alcohol over the whole thing, and shake the box? (Btw, I LOVED your description of the cowboy poets in your program — that is precisely how I have always described the alcoholic, macho, brilliant little boys who were in my class. I passed your paragraph along today to my fellow fiction ladies, who found it hilariously apt.)

    Anyway, I would like to say that as indisputably amazing as Columbia’s program is, I and many others I have talked to — both students and teachers (hello, Michael Cunningham!) — see it as the writing world’s biggest scam. How can they justify asking writers, not doctors or lawyers or MBAers, but WRITERS, to pay $30,000/year, not including the costs of living in the country’s most expensive city? I think it is criminal. Michigan, Brown, Iowa, UVA, UTAustin, Arizona, Cornell, UCIrvine… I could go on and on with the lists of places that will pay you to attend school there, which is the way it should be for low-profit degrees like MFAs, which are pretty worthless in and of themselves.

    What is wonderful is submersing yourself in a world where like-minded, intelligent people are as obsessed with writing — with the right phrase, the perfect capture of a character, the latest publishing scandal — as you are, and for two years you can give no real thought to the real world other than to write about it. What those two years did for me was to ignite a flame for writing as a profession that still hasn’t gone out.

    Thanks for the great read!

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