That headline is, of course, absurd. The vast majority of published books are written by authors lacking MFAs, and I suspect that few works of literature we now rank as great were written during an MFA program. That said, Committed: A Memoir of the Artist’s Road was my creative thesis in a low-residency MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and I don’t believe the book would exist as written without that experience.
Two recent experiences triggered this reflection on the role of an MFA in writing of a memoir or novel:
1. While reading a Facebook page for published authors recently I spotted a post by a newly published novelist. She wrote that a friend had suggested she pursue an MFA in Writing. This author said she couldn’t imagine why she would pay $40,000 when she was already published. A number of other authors jumped into the comments section, each decrying MFA programs as a waste of time and money.
2. Over the course of a few days tweets from two different readers of Committed appeared in my Mentions feed:
Both tweets refer to the end of Committed’s Part Three: The Southeast, the section of the book in which I travel with my 15-year-old daughter Marisa. The scene itself takes place in a grungy Savannah, Georgia, motel room, at the end of a long and emotional day; a mere seven pages long, it took two years and the browbeating of four MFA instructors to write.
When I wrote the first draft of Part Three in my first MFA semester, my advisor Kurt Caswell grew increasingly frustrated. He said I was holding back from telling my story, that “the narrator was hiding behind a screen.” In a gentle yet firm manner, he finally suggested I put that part of the book aside and skip to something a bit less emotionally intense; in other words, abandon the Major Leagues for a demotion to Double-A. I wrote would become an early chapter in Part Five: The Midwest, a lighthearted interview with two female authors in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He liked that chapter, but cautioned me at the end of the semester that I would have to learn to put myself on the page if I expected the reader to find Committed worth reading.
Over the second and third semester of the MFA program I sought to do just that. But I didn’t return to Part Three. In my second semester with Larry Sutin I focused on Writing Part Three: The South, and in my third with Sue William Silverman I finished Part Five and also wrote the first draft of the final section, Part Six: The West. It was with Larry that I first started writing honestly about my family’s history of mental illness and my own diagnosis of bipolar disorder. It was with Sue that I finally forced myself to lay out my own weaknesses and flaws, to truly put myself on the page.
When I began my fourth and final semester I was close to a complete rough draft of what is now Committed, but with an asterisk; Part Three was still dreck. For the first couple of months with Sascha Feinstein I wrote fill-in chapters in all of the sections but Part Three. Eventually there was no other section of the book that didn’t at least have a first draft, so I returned to the Southeast and my frozen-in-time fifteen-year-old daughter. And with Sascha’s guidance the section finally came alive.
In fact, the section took on a life of its own. Now, when I read that scene in the Savannah motel room, I also cry. It’s absurd, I know; I lived it, and I wrote it (and re-wrote it and re-wrote it). Somehow in that rewrite process the words went past myself, to a previously unseen place both vulnerable and pure.
Could I have reached that place without the MFA? Probably. I could have devoured craft books, like Sue William Silverman’s Fearless Confessions. I could have taken classes at a local literary center or online. I could have joined a local or online writer’s group. And I did in fact do all of those things, and they brought real value. But a full-time MFA program was for me what speed-dial is to a rotary phone. My growth as a writer proved faster than I could have imagined.
I will write more books without the direct input of MFA instructors, but I will bring to those books lessons learned at VCFA. Perhaps I will once again transport readers–including this author–to that special place. My MFA instructors will deserve some of the credit.