MFA—Recipe For Success or Disaster?

By Kate Monica

“Does any (MFA) program really improve anybody, as much as simply identifying them? And, after identifying them, not ruining them?” —Chang-rae Lee, On Such A Full Sea

“University of Otago” taken by Ulanwp on June 29, 2014 (Creative Commons)
“University of Otago” taken by Ulanwp on June 29, 2014 (Creative Commons)

Getting an MFA seems like the natural progression for any English major looking to take a swing at making a career of writing. At first glance, it sounds like a dream—it provides participants with a small, passionate community of writers devoted to nothing but honing their craft for two years of uninterrupted creative immersion. A lot of the struggle of writing is finding the time—between school and work and the occasional social interaction, working on that short story collection or novel you started freshman year can fall to the wayside. The luxury of having two years to focus solely on perfecting your literary voice couldn’t be more enticing.

In December, with graduation looming at the end of the semester, a few of my friends and I began looking into different graduate programs. At first, we all agreed that getting an MFA in poetry would undoubtedly be a step in the right direction. Poetry isn’t exactly a cash cow—if we wanted to make a living as poets, we would need to teach to supplement our income. We already knew that an MFA was not a vocational degree, and having an MFA would not guarantee a teaching job. But it would certainly help, and it would give us the time, resources, and networking opportunities to start publishing enough that eventually we could have the credentials we needed. Getting an MFA seemed like a win-win-win situation.

Then I read an article by Steve Roggenbuck, a self-described “internet poet” and video artist who has amassed a large following on social media for his funny, poignant YouTube videos and six poetry collections. Roggenbuck, a controversial cult-icon equal parts admired and admonished for his experimentalism and understanding of Internet and meme culture, is not the kind of writer one would expect to flourish in academia. What attracts readers and viewers to Roggenbuck’s particular brand of art is his steadfast dedication to being un-pretentious and accessible. Personally, when I first stumbled upon Roggenbuck, I was energized and elated to see someone interacting with a traditionally careful, melancholic form in such a freewheeling manner. He seemed to be actively subverting all the standard values and conventions of poetry in a way that bordered on parody. I couldn’t tell if he loved poetry so much he wanted to create his own brand new take on the form, or if he thought it was stupid and was making fun of all of us for taking it so seriously.

Needless to say, when I found out he had written an article about his own MFA experience, I was surprised to see he had even attempted to enter such a straight-laced wing of the art world. It just didn’t seem compatible with who he is as an artist. The article, however, which has since been deleted, delves into all the reasons Roggenbuck felt an MFA was not right for him. Thanks to a smattering of ‘think pieces’ reacting to Roggenbuck’s initial article, a few of his choice quotes remain:

“my #1 main problem with my MFA experience:

i was seeking feedback from people who had different taste from me. why did i think that MFA students and older poets in academia would be an ideal writing group for me? they’re not really the main audience i’m trying to reach. some were a closer fit than others, but usualy i disregarded most of the feedback they gave me, because their comments just reflected how much they didn’t ‘get it.’”

The article had many more reasons outlining why Roggenbuck felt compelled to leave the program at Columbia College Chicago, but this seemed to be his biggest issue. To me, it seems like Roggenbuck may have been being a bit close-minded. While it’s frustrating to come up against a wall of disapproval when you’re trying to do something new and innovative, feedback can almost always be used productively. Even if his professors didn’t seem to “get him,” I’m sure some of their advice was valuable in at least encouraging him to look at other methods and styles to investigate in order to fine-tune his voice. Still, his comment does bring up an interesting point: can getting an MFA too early in your career do more harm than good?

For many young writers, the only consistent ‘voice’ they have is the voice in their head telling them their stuff is terrible. Writing without a backlog of awards and publications and legitimate credentials is more an exercise in self-doubt than anything. For a writer coming straight out of undergrad without the kind of world-weary, quiet confidence that comes only with age and experience, a small community of like-minded writers could hurt their chances of developing a truly unique voice and sensibility. Being insecure and malleable could work against their inner impulse to defend their own stylistic choices if their more established peers and professors seemed to disagree. While a willingness to absorb feedback and take criticism is necessary in order to grow, being too quick to abandon their own instincts might rob young writers of their courage to be truly creative.

Taking into account the overwhelmingly positive reports I’ve gotten from professors and grad students about their own MFA experiences, and the occasional unfortunate encounter poets like Roggenbuck have had with the program, the only answer to whether or not an MFA is the right choice depends on the individual. I think that at the right time, with the right amount of confidence, an MFA program can be an ideal petri dish for growing your creative talents far beyond the bounds of anything you could’ve imagined.

It’s all about being in the right mindset. If, as a writer, you feel you trust your own instincts enough to know when to take criticism to heart and when to stick to your guns, then an MFA program should definitely be something you can handle with grace and positivity. But for a lot of undergrad writers just now entering the world after existing almost exclusively in the vacuum of academia for their entire lives, confidently disagreeing with professors or peers goes against the grain of what they’ve been taught.

Excluding all the other important factors that play into deciding on a graduate degree, including the cost and length of the program, being mentally prepared for such an intensive artistic endeavor is the determining factor on whether the experience is beneficial or detrimental. As with anything, it may only be a matter of time.

Kate Monica is a senior English major at UConn and the Poetry Editor for the Long River Review.

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