Kenji Liu: ”I never seriously considered it because (1) I had already gone to grad school for a MA in social justice anthropology and had received a fantastic education, and (2) my student loan debt is fantastically high. My MA education exposed me to a wide range of thinkers, activists, and writers whose poetics were intellectually fierce, socially relevant, and extremely well-read. It exposed me to thinking about writing and authorship as something that happens in relation with others, to communities, and not as a lone artist/scholar.
By comparison, most MFA programs I’ve witnessed through my MFA-going colleagues and friends often focus on the act of writing at the expense of a broader humanities education. At worst this results in creative writers who don’t have a broad range of experiences and perspectives to draw on, and who can’t think about writing as a social act—ill-prepared to think about the intersections of race, gender, class, etc. in their own writing and that of others.
From what I’ve witnessed, this leads many writers of color I know to seek the support they need in other departments, because they can’t depend on their fellow students or even their professors. Creative writing, like any other art, doesn’t happen in a social vacuum, but it seems like many MFA programs assume it does. I would not be happy in that kind of environment. That said, I don’t oppose the MFA route for anyone if that’s the best option. I’m just not convinced an MFA program is always helpful. It can also be traumatizing if you don’t have good filters and boundaries.
I’ve never experienced anything that has caused me to think that I was denied consideration because I don’t have an MFA. I do have an MA, but I have no idea if that matters to a publisher. I read an interview where a publisher stated that their interest is actually peaked when they notice a poet has a non-MFA background, because the resulting poetry might have a unique, cross-disciplinary approach.
I do know that having a graduate education helps the quality of my writing. Most publishers I’ve encountered are concerned with whether they think your writing is good, period. How they define good is complicated. But what might be more of a hindrance is if they look at my name and assume all kinds of things about Asian Americans.
MFA programs haven’t been around for very long. In the scheme of things, the majority of writers, including famous, well-respected writers, did not become awesome because of an MFA.
I’m a VONA three-timer, and the resulting networks have been invaluable. I can’t overstate this. I’ve also sought out more established poets and asked for their advice or opinions on my work. Many poets of color are very friendly and supportive of other poets of color, because we know the publishing odds are often against us. I try to do this for others when I can. Lastly, for several years I’ve been a participant in The Grind, an online writing community whose sole purpose is to generate new writing. I’ve written or revised a poem almost every single day since mid-2012, and before that I wrote daily every other month. When writing every day, you can’t help but grow your work. All of this, along with reading a lot, has been my MFA.
From what I’ve seen, neither the MFA or non-MFA route is easy. If you want to do an MFA, I think you have to be ready to go in with clear goals, an excellent sense of boundaries, and the motivation to get what you’re there to get no matter what. You also shouldn’t go into debt for it. If you don’t do an MFA, you also have to have clear goals, and cultivate the community you need to hold yourself accountable. You have to get out into the world and go to readings, get introduced to people, volunteer, and get noticed. It really comes down to whether you’re willing to work, and to develop the kind of discernment you need to develop not only your skills, but also your community.”
Cathy Camper: “My undergraduate degree in English almost made me quit writing. The creative writing classes steered you towards the school’s literary journal, and towards academia, both mostly white. When I tried reading literary journals, I was bored by stories written by mostly white academics about academia, or unknowing people writing about cancer, working class jobs and people of color as exotica. They say to get published, submit to a literary journal that matches what you’re writing. I rarely found one.
As an Arab-American, my writing came from my Arab side. None of my family taught me directly to write, but college classes never connected to the writing voice inside me. The only class that did connect was African Literature taught by Calvin Hernton, where I discovered voices of people of color that didn’t adhere to white rules.
As I graduated, my dad was dying of cancer. I couldn’t afford a degree that didn’t guarantee a job. I realized what I wanted to write wouldnever earn the kind of money I’d need to live on, and besides, I wanted health insurance. I got a library degree instead, because it guaranteed I’d have a wall of books at my back for the rest of my life, and for the cost, it taught me how to search for the answer to anything in the known universe. I also got a first-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. That fulfilled the meditation we were taught, ‘With body and mind together, anything is possible.’
I decided to write ten short stories as a challenge. I thought it would take a year or so. It took over ten years. By the time I’d completed them, I’d forgotten I’d set that goal. During that time I took community ed writing classes, I went to a writers’ retreat, and I worked fulltime as a law librarian and a children’s librarian. I got married, we bought a house, I got divorced, and I moved and started over completely.
I kept writing. I sent stuff out; I got a few things published. I got hundreds of rejections. I joined writers’ groups, I kept sending stuff out. While I kept trying to publish in mainstream venues (and sometimes succeeded), I also got involved in DIY communities, including POC workshops, an Arab literary journal, zines, comics, small press, punk and hip-hop. Both communities brought me equal success, and both communities fed each other.
Going it alone may require more willpower, less guidance, and at times, less camaraderie. But I’d suggest that going it alone also means that when you come out a writer on the other side, you are uniquely you. You’re not part of a style or school, you are a style, and your style is its own school. And you won’t be in debt, because your schooling was your free-range life (and nothing compares to a well-lived life when it comes to generating the stories you need to write). I wrote a kids’ science book about giant prehistoric insects, short stories and essays (some of which actually got published in literary magazines), and interviews, reviews, zines and a graphic novel (and its sequel) about to be published calledLowriders in Space. I wrote whatever the hell I wanted. I became the kind of writer I wanted to be.
To MFA or Not to MFA, Part II
Interviews compiled by Vanessa Mártir