Poets & Writers and AWP recently released (and didn’t) their 2011 MFA program rankings to much web chatter and debate. The basics: P&W gives a list of popularly-voted-upon programs, focusing largely on program funding, teaching load, and placement of grads after graduation. (Oddly enough, the P&W survey was compiled from the responses of prospective MFA students, not current students, graduates, or faculty who would have cause to know actual merits of the program.)
The AWP takes a bit of a strange approach, (I’m going to refer to this as the “oh, snap!” approach) by failing to give any rankings at all on its page titled “AWP’s 2011 Ranking of MFA Programs.” AWP claims “You should approach your choice of a writing program as an artistic choice. Word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, or stanza by stanza—you will make millions of such choices as a writer; and, ultimately, each choice must be your own.” But the AWP offers a bit of a cop out in saying that “If you plan to write a historical novel related to the snubbing of women’s careers in science and medicine, for instance, you should probably choose a program where a strong practitioner of the historical novel is in residence along with those writers who are experts in feminist narratives and criticism.” Because, really, if even the AWP isn’t prepared to help students find those programs in some accessible manner, how then are students to make the best artistic choice?
More interesting to me than the pretty dubious methodologies of both organizations is the idea that one studies writing in order to teach. To me, the idea that writers must pursue a teaching career seems like an infinite feedback loop: people learning to write, writing, then teaching writing to those who will learn to write, write, and teach others. Where did this confluence of writing and teaching come from? What makes it seem as though this were a natural combination? Both writing and teaching writing are hugely time-intensive–if one is doing them correctly, that is–and exhausting. To do one well is often to do the other poorly. To me (and remember: I’ve been teaching since long before I went into the MFA), they’re not an ideal pairing. The fact that the creative writing powers-that-be seem to push that pairing as the legitimate option is downright strange.
One of the best things about my own MFA program at Northwest Institute of Literary Arts (the world’s only fully accredited, free-standing MFA program) was the lack of such pressure to teach. Among my classmates were an aerospace machinist, a copy editor, a record label owner, a speech writer, a graphic designer, a museum curator, and an alpaca farmer. Not one of us came to the program with an eye toward quitting our day jobs to teach Freshman Comp. In fact, I don’t think it crossed any of our minds. We went to the MFA program to learn how to write. And we wrote. We wrote a lot. We juggled our day jobs and our creative work the way many writers before us have. A large percentage of us have books either out or on the way, and many are agented for new works. We learned from an eminent faculty, and we formed community. We learned the business and the craft of writing. And we thrived.
So if any prospective MFAs want my completely unsolicited advice, here it is: screw the teaching job. Forget the Freshman Comp, the teaching loads, and the post-grad placement. Your calling may be to write, but your job may be outside the academy. Be a plumber, be a line cook. Be a salesman or a doctor. Let the career and the writing have nothing to do with each other if they must. But learn to write, and then get on with the writing.