Near the end of my MFA, someone asked what my plans were after graduation. Before allowing me to answer, he said, somewhat wistfully, that he thought I should move to New York City and “live a little” before writing anything else. In the moment, I probably nodded politely and smiled, as I’m prone to doing, but his suggestion frustrated me. How, after living for two years on a barely-sufficient stipend, did he expect that I’d be able — or want — to fling myself across the country to a city with exorbitant rent prices where I had no job, no insurance, and no community? And what did he mean by living? Had I not been living during the two years of my MFA, during which I moved to an unfamiliar-to-me city, taught classes at the university for the first time, learned to edit a journal, found my way into a community of writers, and struggled in draft after draft to improve my own prose?
Instead of moving to New York City, I did what might be considered the opposite; I started a PhD in creative writing in the middle of Oklahoma, which I’m finishing up now. During my years here, I’ve certainly grown as a writer and a teacher, and had the opportunity to build lasting relationships with people who have supported me in innumerable ways. But I also have remained aware of the problems within academia: there is a food pantry for graduate students in the room across from my office, for example, a lack of diversity within my program and many others, and a job market that dwindles every year. Sometimes I think back to that person telling me to move to NYC, and I wonder who I might be now — as a writer, as a person, as a professional — had I “lived life” rather than pursuing another degree. I’ve probably thought about his offhand comment more than I should, but it also seems to encapsulate some of the larger conversations about the function of MFA and PhD creative writing programs and the various pros and cons of making a life as a writer within or outside of academia.
More interesting to me than prescribing one way of life over another, however, is to examine the challenges and sources of nourishment in each, and to wonder about the possibilities that exist beyond a reductive dichotomy. The essays curated in this reading list illuminate problems that exist within MFA and PhD creative writing programs, explore the idea of mentorship both within and outside of the academy, and offer insight on how to live a fruitful writing life without the support and constraints of a formal program.
1. MFA vs. NYC (Chad Harbach, November 26, 2010, Slate)
Chad Harbach theorizes about how MFA programs are influencing both the craft and professional development of fiction writers, as well as impacting the landscape of publishing, in this viral essay.
It’s time to do away with this distinction between the MFAs and the non-MFAs, the unfree and the free, the caged and the wild. Once we do, perhaps we can venture a new, less normative distinction, based not on the writer’s educational background but on the system within which she earns (or aspires to earn) her living: MFA or NYC.
Related read: Which Creates Better Writers: An MFA Program or New York City? (Leslie Jamison, February 27, 2014, The New Republic) and “MFA vs NYC”: Both, Probably (Andrew Martin, March 28, 2014, The New Yorker)
2. Going Hungry at The Most Prestigious MFA in America (Katie Prout, Lit Hub)
The idea of writers living without substantial income is one that’s sometimes romanticized, as Katie Prout notes while listening to an audiobook of A Moveable Feast, in which Hemingway says that “he and Pound agreed that the best way to be a writer is to live poorly.” One month away from turning 30, Prout writes about the realities — which include food banks and multiple jobs — of living with very little money while pursuing her MFA at Iowa.
I’m an instructor at the university where I attend the best nonfiction writing program in the country, and I make approximately $18,000 a year before taxes. When I was denied a second teaching assistantship at the university this summer for the upcoming school year even though I already had signed a contract with the offering department, my director explained that it was in the school’s best interests to look after my best interests, and my best interest was to make sure that I had time [to] write my thesis.
3. Every Day is a Writing Day, With or Without an MFA (Emily O’Neill, November 27, 2018, Catapult)
The requirement to relocate and the insufficiency of fully-funded spots are just two of many reasons why MFA degrees are not possible for many people, as Emily O’Neill explains in this essay about how she nurtures a writing life outside of the academy.
I don’t have an MFA. It often makes me feel like the man on that mortifying date to admit this to writers I don’t know well. So many people who write are academics or at least aspiring to an MFA or PhD, and mentioning I don’t feel specifically drawn to the demands of graduate school is often seen as a sin against literature.
4. Woman of Color in Wide Open Spaces (Minda Honey, March 2017, Longreads)
After two years, Minda Honey longs to escape from the whiteness of her MFA program, and plans a trip to four national parks, not realizing that “80% of National Parks visitors and employees are white.” Weaving together moments from her travels and memories from her writing program, Honey lays bare the lack of diversity in both spaces.
When I’d first started my MFA program, I thought it would be an escape from the oppressive whiteness of Corporate America. I thought without suits to button my body into, I would be free to exist. But Academia proved to be just as oppressive.
5. How Applying to Grad School Becomes a Display of Trauma for People of Color (Deena ElGenaidi, April 17, 2018, Electric Lit)
When consulting with people about how to apply to PhD programs, Deena ElGenaidi’s advisor tells her to play up her minority status in her personal statement. ElGenaidi explores the problematic and pervasive nature of this advice, while also discussing what it means that minority students and people of color are encouraged to use their trauma in order to be admitted into academic programs.
The experience taught me that society, white America specifically, regularly asks minorities and people of color to tokenize and exploit themselves, talking about their cultural backgrounds in a marketable way in order to gain acceptance into programs and institutions we are otherwise barred from.
6. The Mentor Series: Allie Rowbottom and Maggie Nelson (Allie Rowbottom, ed. Monet Patrice Thomas, March 25, 2019, The Rumpus)
How do writers balance the challenge of seeking publication in a difficult fast-paced market while nurturing their craft? And what role do mentors play in a writer’s development? In the inaugural installment of “The Mentor Series,” a series of interviews between mentors and students curated by Monet Patrice Thomas, Allie Rowbottom and Maggie Nelson ruminate on these questions and more.
Allie Rowbottom: I remember once, after I finished my MFA thesis, you advised I take my time and sit on the project. You said something about not publishing too young, or rushing out of the gate, and I’ve thought about that a lot now that I have published—one of my biggest challenges (or strengths?) as a writer is that I push myself. Now that my first book is out in the world, I feel an urgency to produce more, at the same time I worry that rushing never makes for solid work.
Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.