Disclaimer: this is not about MFA programs as a whole. I have never attended an MFA program, I cannot speak with any authority about MFA programs, and I have many, many friends who are fine writers and fine teachers who have attended MFA programs. Some of my friends are fabulous teachers, instructors, professors, the kind of teachers who inspire generations of students to greater and higher things. My mother is a teacher, so I know exactly what thankless hard work it is and how talented you have to be in many different arenas. This is not a blanket statement, a rant, or an attempt to start a flame war. It’s just an honest question and a curiosity about a program I’m not very familiar with and am constantly confused by.
Okay, so now to the meat of the question. M. Kitchell had a great post on HTMLGiant yesterday about writing outside MFA programs. His post made me think about something I’d been pondering a lot lately. I’ve been watching and listening to many of my friends as they graduate or prepare to graduate from MFA programs and stress about finding jobs. Or even people who are currently on the tenure track or are adjuncts or whatever and are stressing about changing jobs or getting tenure or more permanent employment. And I have a question: why does it seem that for so many MFA graduates, the only job that they seek is the job of teaching writing?
Why don’t more MFA grads seek writing-related jobs outside of teaching? I went to school for theatre, and I knew many friends in art programs and music programs–and in our classes of students, only a handful would go on to teach in a university setting. Most people would take other jobs related to, or perhaps not at all related to, their chosen artistic discipline. In fact, in my program, our professors pounded into our heads constantly that we should not expect to find jobs as actors, that we needed to have other options, that we would always have some other job because that is how loving art and practicing art works. They also pounded into our heads that there are very few jobs for teaching in theatre programs, and that we should not expect to get those, either–that in fact it would probably be harder to get those than to make a living as an actor.
And indeed, most of my arts friends, including myself, are currently holding jobs that have nothing to do with academics and mostly we pay the bills through jobs that have nothing to do with art. Which is neither good nor bad; it is what it is. Many painters don’t want to teach painting. Many musicians don’t want to teach music. Many actors don’t want to teach acting. Many filmmakers don’t want to teach filmmaking. The musicians and painters and actors and filmmakersI know aren’t complaining, or at least not anymore than is usual. Waiting tables or working a desk job or making sandwiches is what you do. They still consider themselves artists, despite the fact that art doesn’t pay the bills. Maybe even because art doesn’t pay the bills.
Which leads me to ask why so many writers only feel like they’re writers if they’re being paid to write or teaching other people to write? Is this something unique about writers and their psyche, or is it something that MFA programs foster? Are MFA programs churning out new generations of teachers to grow and multiply and sustain a creative writing system that keeps getting bigger and bigger despite the fact that demand for literary fiction has not substantially increased?
And how many MFA students are not just qualified to teach, but talented teachers, natural teachers–the kind of people who would teach no matter what because they were born to do so? If they felt more secure about themselves as writers even if they weren’t teaching, would more talented writers take positions in other fields, maybe writing or maybe using other talents and coming home at night and on weekends to write instead? How much more varied and interesting might writing even be, in that case?
I’m sure people will see this as a smackdown on MFAs from someone who doesn’t have one. It’s not. I think MFA programs are great, and have sure turned out a lot of amazing writers, presses, magazines, and yes, fantastically talented writing teachers. But I do wonder if these programs are, intentionally or unintentionally, creating a weird little universe of self-sustainability that denies the rest of us the benefits of great writers in the regular work-world, and that pushes people who are not really gifted teachers into a profession they otherwise would not seek to join. And if that doesn’t hurt the many writers who really want to teach and because of the glut in the market either can’t find a job or end up teaching for minimum wage with no health care.
What do you guys think? Am I crazy? Off base? As an outsider, do I see more clearly or is my vision all screwed up? Set me straight, peeps.