Friday, June 12, 2009

MFAs & the trough of despond

Like so many others who blog about books and literature, reading and writing, I read and feel compelled to comment about Louis Menand's piece about MFA programs in the June 8/15 issue of the New Yorker. Titled "Show or Tell: Should Creative Writing Be Taught," it's partly a review of the new book The Program Era by Mark McGurl, partly a mini-history of college writing programs in this country, and partly a consideration of the purpose and merit of such programs.

This won't be a rant. I have nothing against the MFA world. Except for how it's inaccessible for most of us. But that, inaccessibility, is not exclusive to writing programs. Higher education in general is exorbitantly expensive. It is not a right under capitalism. Simple as that. It is a privilege, attainable only at a cost that is unaffordable to many. The cost includes money, a lot of money, even at state schools, money that many people don't have and can't get even via student loans. The cost includes high test scores that for a myriad of reasons, not least that the public-education system in this country is so outrageously unequal, unequally funded above all, are also out of reach for many people. (For an education about the horrifically inequitable state of the U.S. public school system, I commend readers to the books of Jonathan Kozol, the dedicated, brave, compassionate, unwavering warrior who has spent his life fighting for and writing about the right to learn. I've read several of his books and recommend them all, especially Death at an Early Age, The Night Is Dark and I Am Far from Home, and his most recent, The Shame of the Nation, whose title pretty much says it all.) The cost also includes time, time that people who have to work for a living often can't afford; it's the rare program, undergraduate or graduate, that can accommodate the schedule of a full-time worker.

I hadn't intended to focus on this last point, the cost of education and in particular of MFA programs, because I have some things to say about the substance of Menand's piece, things that perhaps offer a different perspective than the other commentary thus far. Before I get to that, to what MFA programs are all about, what they do and don't do, it seems I've got to get my own brush with them off my chest. Warning: Skip what follows and wait for the next installment of what will probably turn out to be a several-part post on the MFA issue unless you feel like wading through my own personal sob story.

Twice within the last 10 years I made a pretty thorough investigation of the graduate writing programs in this country in hopes that I might find one at which I could study should they find my writing worthy and accept me. I failed. Some highlights (or low lights) of the tale:
  • The main issue was cost. Which turns out to be complicated. Sure, sky-high tuition prices rule out the crazy-expensive programs (which is most of them) that cost upwards of ten, twenty, thirty thousand dollars a year. It's not merely that I don't have that kind of money. It's also that even if by some miracle I could get approved for a student loan there's no way I could take on that kind of debt. For all their fellowships and awards, these go to only a small proportion of admitted students, and even for them amount only to a patchwork of aid supplementing the lion's share of costs that the students themselves have to pay. Only a few programs cover the full cost of tuition for all students. But even this isn't enough. Tuition is only one issue. What about paying the rent, buying groceries, what about transportation costs, health care and so on? How, in other words, to support yourself, even if tuition is covered? If a student doesn't have a trust fund (a concept I'd never even heard of before I started investigating MFA programs and how people pay for them) or parents to support her/him, the financial hurdles are far higher than mere tuition. I may be wrong about this, but to my knowledge there is only one program in the country that offers both free tuition and money to live on. That's the one at the University of Texas at Austin.
  • Even if unbelievable luck hit and I was one of the six or so per year that UT accepts, I'm not about to move to Texas. Not yet, anyway. My lover Teresa is from San Antonio and we've carried on a 21-year-long conversation about when/whether to move back there. The reality is that no move can happen except to a place where we can both make a living, have health benefits, and so on. Not to mention that I heart New York. (I mean, the other night I was changing trains at the Times Square subway station when I heard an angelic sound that pierced my heart. I found a crowd standing in a rapt circle around two young women who were singing opera. This is an art form I know nothing about. All I know is that the beauty they were creating stopped me in my tracks, and that all around me people likewise paralyzed were standing with tears rolling down their cheeks. How could I ever leave a town like this?) So, without moving, what possibilities were left?
  • Low-residency programs. Uh yup. If you have the kind of job that you can up and leave for two weeks twice a year. If you have the kind of money so that you can afford to travel across the country for the residencies twice a year. And if you can pay for the kind of -- yow! crazy high! -- tuition and residency fees these programs charge.
  • Ultimately, for me, the question came down to whether there was any MFA program in the NYC area that I might find my way toward. There were several that appealed to me. There are the CUNY programs, which are about the cheapest thing going and which I thought I might be able to beg borrow or steal enough money to manage. Hunter College, however, makes it very clear that it is a full-time day program. Scratch that. I daydreamed for months about studying writing at Brooklyn College with Sapphire, Michael Cunningham and others on the faculty at that time. My heart was broken when I took a train to the Brooklyn campus to meet with the program's acting director only to be told, in contradiction to the impression I'd gleaned from their website at the time, that theirs too is open only to those who can attend full-time during the day. Queens College was about to start their new MFA program. I had an exciting email correspondence with one of the founding faculty members, a gay novelist I admired and would have loved to work with, and he explicitly told me that yes, classes would be at night and yes, it would be possible to go slowly part-time through the program while working full-time during the day. Then, when the program actually opened for admissions and I checked in with its director while I was preparing my application, she told me that no, I had been misinformed and no, the program would only be open to those who could devote themselves full-time to the study of writing. I was so disappointed. And so angry. CUNY is supposed to be the school for the working class of New York City. Yet if you work for a living you cannot study writing at CUNY. There was one exception: the program at City College. I spoke with the director there and yes, it seemed that I could work full-time and go through the program part-time at night. I came very close to applying, but in the end did not. More on why in a minute.
  • Around the same time that the Queens College program was starting up, so too was a new MFA program at Rutgers University's Newark campus. I daydreamed for a good long while about that one as I had about Brooklyn's. The faculty is wonderful. The thrust is very much up my alley: their slogan is "real lives, real stories," and they're very clearly oriented toward writers from the working class and oppressed communities. Classes are at night. Alas, the Rutgers program's out-of-state (damn! just across the Hudson!) tuition, although nowhere near as exorbitant as that at many others, was still not within my reach and with my full-time job I'd be unable to try for a teaching assistantship to defray the expense. I gave up on Rutgers. But I've been cheering them on from afar. I was thrilled for the first group that just graduated with their MFA degrees and wish them every great writerly success.
  • Then there's the university where I work. My nemesis of over 25 years. Exploiter of my hourly labor, it did dangle the tantalizing potential benefit of nearly free tuition. It's one of the top programs, gets scads of applications, accepts few, but what the hell, I tried. Twice. After the first rejection I didn't plan to apply again, but a few years later when my MFA fantasies started up again I dove back in. I knew a recent graduate of the program who was also one of those who read the new applicants' writing samples. He kindly gave me some advice about my application, read some of my stories and suggested which one I should submit. He assured me that, with this story, I was a shoo-in for acceptance. He was wrong. Rejection #2. With that died forever my MFA dreams.
All avenues seemingly closed to me except City College, why did I ultimately opt out of trying that route? It was partly financial, because as low as CCNY's cost was it still would have been difficult and I was scared about how we'd swing it. It was partly fatigue. I'd sort of worn myself out with all this nutty mix of daydreaming, research, hope and hopes dashed, rejection, resentment, and through it all an ongoing internal debate about whether it made any sense for me anyway to try for an MFA. What was I seeking? What did I want from such a program? Could I get it any other way? It was also partly fear that prevented me from applying to CCNY. I was at that point in my early 50s, hadn't been in school for many years, got scared that I wouldn't be able to handle it, the pressure, the work, the balancing act. I also have to admit that it was in large part disaffection, loss of confidence about my writing and the future of my so-called writing career, a sinking into cynicism, even a dip in the trough of despond. As in: oh fuck, who'm I kidding? I'm not a part of that world and I never will be. They don't want me. I'm never getting published. My work will never be read.

If you have in fact slogged through the tale of my brush with MFA-dom to this point, I owe you an apology. When I set out to write about Menand's New Yorker piece it was not with the intention of talking about myself. It's been self-indulgent of me to do so but I seem to have needed to get it out of my system before climbing back up to higher ground, which I will do with the next installment. I also want to make clear that I'm aware my story is highly particular and not particularly representative. It took the whole stew of 50-odd years of my life, all my crazy-ass years of activism, work, inept money handling, activism, work, activism, etc., to trap me in that corner where I toyed with and then backed away from the MFA idea. All this is my responsibility. Those were my decisions all along the way.

There are working-class and oppressed people who are faced with much more difficult situations than I have ever been and who kick, punch and claw their way toward achieving their educational goals -- people for whom I have so much awe and admiration that I can't even begin to express it, how they inspire me -- and I have to close by sending them all the highest possible respect. Especially those who are making it through MFA programs and getting those writing degrees. They are strong and smart and talented and tough, and by breaking down the walls of a system that is constructed, whether by design or not, to keep them out, they are enlarging and enriching the future of literature. I salute them.

So how is the MFA system, broadly looked at as a whole, designed? What is its purpose, intentional and otherwise? Of what does it actually consist? Whose interests does it serve? And what about the writing that emerges from it? Soon I'll try to dish up some coherent thoughts about these questions, all of which Menand's New Yorker piece addresses, but mine will be from a red reader's perspective.