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What I Write About When I Write About Writing Programs

April 18, 2015

Lately, friends and lovers, a bevy (I don’t know how many that is but for the purposes of this sentence let’s say it’s three) of my Facebook friends (“friends”) have posted links to articles in praise/derision/deprairision of MFA programs. Q. Bigdealius Maximus, professor in perpetuo at Cambroxford-on-Wealthshire-upon-Thames University, proclaims in smooth academic prose and somehow without using a single expletive that they’re a masturbatory (he doesn’t even use “masturbatory,” he’s that classy) waste of time on top of heralding the demise of literature as we know it, whereas Suchity Such who’s published 47 best-selling poetry collections and lives in a house that she bought for herself with money avows & avers that she “would definitely still be a part-time buffer at Toenail World” if it weren’t for her Berkeley MFA. And on and on.

I’ve always had strong feelings about writing programs and courses, many of them ambivalent if not downright hostile, and now that I’m about to start an MFA I feel implicated when I see these articles. Each one comes across as a throwdown challenge, like, Okay, now justify your shit, beotch. Despite having obviously applied to an MFA program, and having responded with a hearty FUCK YES I’LL COME TO THE U TO THE B TO THE MUTHAFUCKIN’ C AND TRANSLATE OLD GREEK SHIT INTO NEW ENGLISH SHIT HELLLL YEEEEEAAHH within twenty-six seconds of reading my acceptance e-mail, I’m still uncomfortably straddled on the ethical fence about the idea of paying tuition to get a diploma in a skill that I believe I was born with and have been developing mostly on my own since then. I don’t believe any form of creativity can be taught, or at least not in the way other things are taught, where one person who knows the things stands at the front of the room and tells them to the others and the others write the things down and memorize them for the test and use them in subsequent semesters as a foundation upon which to build their knowledge of further things. I learn writing by reading, I learn writing by writing, I learn writing by rereading my old writing and wanting to kill myself articulating to myself what does and doesn’t suck about it and either editing it or lighting it on fire. I assume/hope all writers would say that. Yet, provided I force myself to succumb to the idiocy of writing a cover letter by April 30, my application for a TA position will get in on time and I’ll end up standing or sitting in some place with desks, imparting the things (oh god, what are the things??) to students, or as university admin people now consider them and implicitly require instructors to treat them, “paying customers.”

And that’s another thing I’m hostile about: basically all the stuff that’s going on in universities right now. Out-of-control short-sighted hypercapitalist garbage is one reason why I left my PhD. Retiring professors are not being replaced, new staff are not being hired, nobody can rise in the ranks to anything, and the vast majority of the real work is being done by sessionals working for peanuts and grad students working for peanut shells. Any program that the government or whoever decides won’t necessarily immediately lead to a job in that field–i.e., in today’s cash-worshipping world, any program that isn’t related to business or finance–is considered expendable and meaningless; humanities and arts departments are subjected to cut after cut or eradicated altogether. Meanwhile management and admin staff and marketing motherfuckers and businessdouchebags are riding the Gravy Train.

Humanities Sessional Instructor: Perhaps I could please have a few drops of gravy with my peanuts?
University: NO YOU CANNOT. You will teach eight classes this year. We will pay you $12,000. You will be unemployed from May through August. You will reapply for this same terrible job in May, and in late August we’ll let you know if you’ll be rehired. P.S. Don’t forget, you must write many unnecessary articles and present at many conferences in your free time. P.P.S. Remember, you went to university for 15 years, all along receiving scholarships and assistantships and positive feedback from tenured professors, to achieve your PhD. You’ve put your entire adult life into this! It’s your identity! You are so successful on paper! And you’re 36 years old, so it’s not like you could start another career! [Giggles like Floki from Vikings]
Humanities Sessional Instructor: Okay, no problem. Sorry to bother you.

Fuck it all, I say. Except now I can’t just sit back in my brown armchair spouting the eff word, because I’m going to be participating in this BS. I’m going to be one of the peanut shell people: again! A grad student on a golden escalator to nowhere: again! Simultaneously a customer paying out the ass for a broken and, according to the people who run my country and province, valueless product, and a bottom-tier employee serving other customers. A perpetuator of the pyramid scheme.

At a gut level I am certain that, conceptually, writing programs and courses are BS. I mean, if you get in, you’re probably already pretty okay at writing. So what the hell are we going to be doing in our classes, if not being taught how to write? Workshopping, is a big part of the answer. This lame-looking verbed noun (the awful terminology writers insist on undermining their own professional legitimacy with will be the subject of my next post) foreshadows the often precious and superficial nature of the activity. It creates a mental image of a retired person spending his/her Tuesday afternoon sipping lemonade and tinkering around with a broken toaster in the shed out back, and that impression is pretty much not inaccurate. Workshopping is a “too many cooks” situation that can and often does result in the watering-down of literary voices: no writer is immune to insecurity, and what student isn’t intent on pleasing and impressing the (biased, blind-spotted, flawed, human) professor at the head of the table who hands out the grades? Occasionally–and I mean very very fucking occasionally, like every bit as occasionally as you fall in real love with someone–you meet one of your fated first readers in a writing class. (Will this happen to me? Is there a classmate I’ve been waiting all my life for, or is s/he waiting for me? Only the gods know.) Slightly more often, a comment made during a workshopping class is actually helpful to the writer’s work: a deleted comma or a changed word or a different title can change a poem. I’ve been on the receiving end of such feedback a handful of times in my life. But it’s not like that happens every day or even every month.

So, what, I’m paying $10,000 for a small handful of punctuation changes and line break suggestions, and a chance to give them to others? No, that can’t be right.

People on both sides of the “Should MFAs exist” issue point out that in many countries, having an MFA is becoming increasingly necessary in terms of being published and gaining credibility. That is definitely true. I haven’t even started my program yet and already certain people have started sniffing around me in ways they wouldn’t have pre-February. And I know that beginning in September I’m going to be handed opportunity after opportunity that never would have come within a 683-km radius of me otherwise. I know that having this degree is going to lead to fewer rejections by journals and more serious consideration from publishers who receive my manuscript of old Greek shit translated into new English shit. This feels unwarranted, unfair, and uncomfortable.

But then, how much of the abovedescribed credential worship really pertains to MFAs specifically and how much of it is just features of the critical-thoughtless world of today? It’s not only in the arts that you now suddenly need expensive dumb-assed credentials to get anywhere. You need a diploma/certificate/degree/whatever for every job on the planet these days. For effity sake, I had to go to school for a(nother) fucking year to get a certificate in order to be eligible to apply for $25,000/year (not exaggerating) jobs teaching ESL, and every school I’ve applied to teach at has cared more about that certificate than about any other aspect of my education–as though my ability to teach grammar is a result of the grammar course I took in that program and not the ten years I spent learning and teaching the languages that English came from. The world is just one big uninspired lazy HR department. Of course it’s almost always BS for anyone to give a crap who has an MFA and who doesn’t, and of course a writer’s writing should speak for itself, but here we are in the actual world and we all have to find an acceptable path through it. What are writers supposed to do? Not write, out of spite? The moral high ground is BS too.

What finally made me stop feeling guilty/annoyed at myself about applying to UBC in the first place and being, uh, not unstoked when I got in was realizing that writing is my means of connecting with people and every writing course I’ve taken has provided opportunities for many kinds of connection, regardless of how helpful or educational it was in itself. Writing is often characterized as a lonely or solitary activity (some malcontent with uncombed hair scribbling on a sheet of paper, a single light bulb in his 5′ x 3′ kitchen hanging dejectedly over his head), but the actual point of it–unless you’re as gangsta as Salinger, just sitting alone in your house atop a tall hill of manuscripts you aren’t interested in letting anyone else see–is communication. For me, writing classes take the aloneness out of writing, and when I look at them that way, rather than as “once again paying someone to teach me how to write poems” or “paying for hour after mostly pointless hour of workshopping [cinnamon cocks, I despise that word]” or “paying to have my work taken seriously,” I feel much less like punching the universe in the balls. For a person with, uh, not uncrippling social anxiety, meeting people in the usual ways (e.g., leaving the house, being in places that other people are in, talking to some of them) is not a viable option. I just can’t make myself do it. Two years in an MFA program, irrespective of its conceptual/actual weaknesses and limitations, will lead to friendships and professional connections that I definitely couldn’t have forged on my own. Depriving myself of a crap ton of chances to meet and connect with likeminded people–plus be introduced to books and poems that I need to meet and haven’t yet, one of the main perks of hanging out with writers–would be a much stupider decision than doing an MFA could possibly prove to be. And if my voice is anything but stronger and more distinctive when I come out of it, that’s my own fault.

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