[Editor's Note: This is Part Three of a three-part essay; Parts One and Two were published on Wednesday and Thursday
I certainly do not mean to disparage the hundreds — the thousands, I suppose — of young writers who apply to and complete MFA programs. How somebody sets about writing a book is an idiosyncratic, unreproduceable process, and plenty of terrific books emerge from the galaxy of creative writing programs. (I mentioned earlier a list of books I taught to my students, because they were among my own favorites. Two are by writers who hold MFAs; a number of my good friends hold them as well.) I have no desire to promote a cheap binary opposition. I write here only of my personal experience. I didn't see what use an MFA would have been to me, and I still don't. If I had been writing that second novel within the comfort of a degree-granting program, I don't think it would have been any better; I was still at a point when the necessary work was interior.
Three reasons exist for taking an MFA. The first is straightforward: instruction. A student attends medical school because he wants to be a doctor, and because without the knowledge and training offered at the school he could not possibly become one; you need to know which is the kidney and which the spleen. (I use medicine as an example because of its special role in literature: look no further than Philip Roth's The Anatomy Lesson or Ian McEwan's Saturday; let alone The Magic Mountain and Cancer Ward.) An MFA program, like a medical school, confers a degree on its graduates; it would be logical to assume that it educates them in its given discipline, as well.
But a writer's education has always been in the world. That isn't to say that an aspiring writer has nothing to learn in classrooms or from mentors, only that there is a diminishing marginal utility to the classroom education of writers. Even the program literature from Iowa expresses a "conviction that writing cannot be taught but that writers can be encouraged." John Ashbery sought out support from Auden, Hemingway received Gertrude Stein's; in The Ghost Writer, about the young Nathan Zuckerman's similar pursuit of spiritual sponsorship from the eminent writer E. I. Lonoff (probably a substitute for Bernard Malamud), Philip Roth diagnoses the religious aspect of all this "laying on of hands." I could name others. But the writer's task is one of temerity; at a certain point he must strike out on his own, and take succor only from himself. All that encouragement has to end somewhere.
A second reason for the MFA is credentialing: those with MFAs teach at MFA programs; and some who do have only a scanty record of publication. An MFA can secure a job down the line. Louis Menand, in a recent piece in the New Yorker, on Mark McGurl's The Program Era, mentions that there are, apparently, 822 degree-granting creative writing programs in the United States. Somebody has to staff them.
The MFA credentials a writer in a second way: the degree may prick up an agent's ear; it's something to put in the query letter. But, with the possible exception of Iowa, no one program guarantees an agent's attention; 822 programs will produce a lot of writers with MFAs. Even with an MFA you're still part of an enormous undifferentiated lake of aspiration. You still have to write query letters; and you still have to put stamps on those envelopes. And, unless you are fortunate enough to win one of the few available fellowships, you are spending an awful lot of money for the privilege.
The third, and most compelling, reason to pursue an MFA is its generous harvest of time: for two years all those hours are yours to write in. But, as just mentioned, all but a lucky few are paying dearly for those hours. More important, the flabbiness of so much time doesn't test a writer. When I was a teacher, the strictures of those two hours at the end of my working day, even if they didn't leave me with a published novel, gave me a more useful resource, determination.
None of this is meant as advice; it is simply an account of the process by which I made the decision, both at the end of college and then while I was a teacher, not to apply to MFA programs. I never planned to siphon material from teaching; I haven't written about teaching and as of yet I haven't been inclined to. Teaching was important because it was a real job, a profoundly involved one, which gave me a set of concerns unrelated to writing, and which tested my resolve as to how much writing actually meant to me. That was the education.
Some good fiction has been written about creative writing programs — Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys and Francine Prose's Blue Angel come immediately to mind — but we don't need much more. More, of course, has come since those novels, and more will continue to come; a greater and greater number of writers possess as the signal experience of their lives the MFA program. But one's material ought to come from somewhere else, I think. If a writer has money, and he has his material, then perhaps an MFA program is useful for its purchase of time; but then the writer must also subject his fiction to the calisthenics of workshopping.
Everyone's experience of a creative writing workshop is different, of course, and I have mine. I took two of them in college, during my freshman and sophomore years. I loved the professor, who was a terrific writer and an uncommonly generous teacher, and I admit that I did find comfort in his encouragement, but the rest of it I could have done without: the careless and often ungrammatical "critique" letters from other students; the hasty effort to write my own careless critique letters; the slapdash urgency of producing stories on deadline; the weird atmosphere of jealousy and angled praise; the incredible unreasonable anger that came whenever someone I thought was a lesser writer criticized a story of mine — or, worse, a sentence. There is a reason that most writers have no more than four or five trusted, vetted first readers.
It is surely the case that, as Menand asserts at the end of his piece in the New Yorker, the experience of a creative writing program is, for some, rewarding in itself. But I suspect that the vast majority of the students enrolled in MFA programs aren't seeking an intrinsically rewarding experience; they want a firm step in the direction of publication and the life of a writer. I now recognize the vast difference between wanting to be a published writer and working to write a book that satisfies me — a book that I myself would want to read. I'm not sure I would have learned the same lesson inside a hothouse of other people who desperately wanted to become published writers.
Oddly, I came away from the profession of teaching with the sense that it shares at least one important trait with the profession of writing. As part of the Teaching Fellows program, I was enrolled in Master's classes; but what I actually learned in those classes over the course of two years could have been condensed into a two-hour seminar and a ten-page handout. The rest was garbage. Teaching, I came to believe, can't be taught. It is something you have to do.