Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Question of the PhD

This will be the last entry of the MFA/MFYou Newletter until August. We’re making the quite epic move from Fairbanks, Alaska to Athens, Ohio, with a lot of extended pit stops along the way, and surely won’t have the time (or the desire) to keep up with weekly entries during the month of July.

This week I want to talk about something that for some reason has been coming up a lot in conversations I’ve had with various professors in the program lately: the creative writing PhD. I haven’t completely decided how I feel about this at the moment so I’m going to give a bit of what I’ve heard other people say to start us off.

I heard a literature professor recently talking about her frustration that the creative writing PhD undermines the value of a literature PhD. She feels that since a literature PhD is a highly advanced degree involving extensive amounts of research and effort, a creative dissertation doesn’t come close to comparing with the work you do for a lit PhD and so the two degrees are uneven, though they have the same title. As a result, the mere existence of the creative writing PhD devalues the lit PhD, which so many people spend years and years slaving to earn.

The topic came up again at dinner last night when a creative writing professor mentioned that she feels the creative writing PhD devalues the MFA. An MFA in creative writing is a terminal degree; it’s meant to be as high as you need to go to be able to enter the field. If it’s possible to go “further,” that is, if you can also get a PhD, it would seem that an MFA may get to a point where it’s no longer terminal. She said that some MFA programs will not hire faculty members with PhDs in creative writing to avoid undermining the degree that they confer in their program.

Having just earned an MFA I can say that, after studying for and taking an extensive comprehensive exam, after taking three years of coursework, and after writing and defending a complete novel for my thesis, I do feel that a PhD in creative writing would be redundant. Especially now that I’m aware there’s such a controversy over it, I don’t know that it’s a good idea to pursue a further creative writing degree. It would especially be frustrating to get a PhD in creative writing and, as a result, find yourself barred from teaching at a number of MFA programs and holding a degree that offends people.

But what if you want to become a better literary scholar and researcher, and are interested in expanding your credentials as a teacher? And if a PhD in creative writing is slowly devaluing the MFA, what will you do if, in ten years, say, the MFA is no longer considered a terminal degree? Will explaining that you chose not to get a PhD in creative writing for ideological reasons help you get a job? And while there may be MFA programs who don’t want to hire people with PhDs, isn’t it possible that some PhD programs feel that hiring a professor with an MFA would be like hiring someone with a BA to teach in a Masters program?

It’s a complicated issue and right now I just don’t know where to stand on it. For me, I think I might try to get a PhD in literature down the road so that I have the more advanced degree, but not the one that can be seen as devaluing my MFA. I’m also curious to talk to the faculty at Ohio University, where my husband Damien will be starting as a creative writing MA student in the fall, because OU confers PhDs in creative writing and so they likely come at the issue from another perspective. It will also be interesting to compare Damien’s experiences as an MA student – an MA being a non-terminal degree – with mine earning a terminal MFA degree. We will definitely be revisiting this issue in the future.

Sunday, June 21, 2009


I’ve heard a lot of talk about how there is perhaps more inspiration for writing material outside of an MFA program, in that fabled “real world” everyone talks about. I imagine this is probably true, and in fact as I’m preparing to move to Ohio in a few weeks I’m going back and forth with what would be better for me: finding a good teaching job at one of the many community colleges in the area, or getting a regular job and stepping away from the very different world of academia for a while.

But I do think there is a lot of inspiration to be had in an MFA program, and for me a lot of that inspiration came from reading the work of my peers and instructors. All the other students in my program at UAF were absolutely amazing writers and most of them had very distinct styles from each other and from me. I think one of the most useful things you can do as a writer is expose yourself to a wide range of writing and experiment around with some of the things you see other people doing. This is different from just reading a lot, since in an MFA program you can then actually talk to and get feedback from the very people that inspired you.

In my program there were two people in particular whose work I was just blown away by and who as a result really inspired me to push myself to step out of my comfort zone and see what would happen if I tried this or that. (That’s not to say that I was only blown away by the work of two people; there were many people in the program whose writing really impressed me. But there are two in particular who really inspired me to experiment around with some of the things they were doing).

One was a fellow student, who is in my opinion the best writer in the program (or at least whose writing is my personal favorite) and who has this incredible ability to meld fantasy-type genre stories with absolutely amazingly well crafted, literary writing. The first workshop I had with her she submitted a story that everybody just fell in love with, myself included. It had a touch of magic and fairy tale-like fantasy but also very strong character and voice, and I was super inspired to try to experiment around with magic realism in my own writing – which has been very fun and I think has helped me move to the next level as a writer.

The other is an instructor in the program, award winning writer David Crouse, who in the very last workshop I took at UAF actually submitted his own work to be workshopped alongside the students. Not only was it super cool to get to workshop such a successful writer’s work at the same time as our own work, but I felt really inspired to push myself to be less, well, obvious in my writing. I’m well aware that my number one problem as a writer is that I’m often heavy handed and come right out and say things that it would be better to let the reader put together for him or herself, and when I saw how much it can work to, as he says, “withhold” more, I made an effort to try to work more on that in my work.

This is a different sort of inspiration, yes, than what people talk about when they say there is more inspiration in the real world than in an academic program. But it’s inspiration nonetheless and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Many Ways to Learn

Yesterday my husband Damien and I went to a panel discussion at the Alaska Book Festival. This Festival is still very new (this was the third annual) and it’s still finding its feet, so the variety of events is disappointing. Even so, every year since the first I’ve gone to at least one event and found it interesting and useful.

Yesterday’s panel discussion was perhaps the most intriguing yet. They had a nice range of panelists: a published writer, a self-published writer, an editor for a small publishing house, and a book reviewer for the local newspaper. The topic was publishing and marketing and with such a range of perspectives we learned about really the whole process, from how to make yourself stand out to get that book deal to begin with to how to market your book once it’s out there.

This is the sort of practical information that we all need to know if we want to move beyond writing stuff that we deem brilliant and then stow away in our desk drawer forever and actually writing stuff that is actually going to be read. I left the panel discussion with a page and a half of notes that I will probably revisit over and over again from now on.

Another quick anecdote and then you’ll see (I hope) where this is going: when I was an undergrad, I took a class on Latin American Women’s Lit (we read some really cool stuff in that class, by the way). One day during class the teacher stopped in the middle of a lecture and frowned at us. She wanted to know why none of us were taking notes on what she was talking about. Somebody pointed out that there are no tests in the class, just essays, so why would we need to take notes? The teacher was enraged. She said that when she graduated from college she had boxes and boxes of notes, which she’d hung on to ever since and had gone back and reviewed numerous times. Were we really just concerned with whether or not we would be tested over the information? Didn’t we want to actually learn this stuff?

As you can imagine, all of the students in the class (my young bratty self included) thought she was being absurd. You actually think we’re going to keep our college notes forever? We burn them in a primal celebration at the end of each semester. We do what it takes to get whatever grade we want and once we get that grade we move on.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned through my many years of student and then teacherhood, it’s that most people aren’t really interested in learning the things that you’re forcing them to learn (or that they feel they’re being forced to learn). But let someone go out and pursue knowledge on their own and they’ll take notes, they’ll listen closely and they’ll even look up the information later.

When I was a grad student, I was appalled by how many of the students would not do the assigned reading, and hardly anyone ever took notes during class. I’m serious! These are people who were working themselves as English teachers, who had Bachelor’s Degrees in English, and who theoretically had made a decision to really commit their lives to Literature, either as writers or scholars, and yet many of them still totally slacked off at school (and I have to admit, I slacked off sometimes too). But I’ve noticed that at Book Festival events or that sort of thing, most of the people take notes, many of them ask questions during the Q and A after, and pretty much all of them seem excited to learn what the people on stage have to teach.

The variables are so different when you’re seeking out knowledge on your own versus learning it in a formal academic program. Still, I think either way it comes down to whether or not you're willing to put the effort in. One thing that I think it’s always useful to remember, though, is that the knowledge is out there. There are writer’s groups. There are conferences. There are Book Festivals and readings and all manner of other literary and writer’s events (many of which are free!). It seems that ultimately whether you grow to the point of being able to reach success has much more to do with your own will to actually do it than whether you were accepted into or joined an MFA program.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

On Shyness and Being Socially Awkward

You always hear about MFA programs as first and probably foremost providing you with a community of writers. It’s the promise of that community, of at last finding ourselves part of a group of people that we actually have things in common with and can talk to about literature and about writing (and about music and comic books and independent films and . . .) that lures so many of us to these programs to begin with.

As for me, I’m extremely reserved, socially awkward, and I just don’t feel comfortable at parties or in large groups of people. I’m fine one-on-one, or in very small gatherings, but put me in a situation where there’s a ton of people there and I can’t help but fade into the background and stop talking altogether. Well it turns out that the way people get to know each other in this sort of community environment is by having large parties. Of course. How else can an incoming group of new students and a massive group of current and past students get to know each other but to just mingle together and, well, talk.

This was very difficult for me, and when I first got here and started hearing about a party at this stranger’s house and a party at that stranger’s cabin, I opted out. I knew, even at the time, that I should go to these parties to get to know the other people in the program, but knowing that you should do something and actually doing it are two very different things. Plus I had the comfort of having family in town so I didn’t feel this pressing urgency to make friends.

So as you can imagine, I didn’t get to know the other students the way they got to know each other, and once everybody developed relationships with each other they stopped having large parties that everyone was invited to and started hanging out in smaller – or sometimes still large – gatherings, to which they only invited the people with whom they had become friends. Obviously. And I wasn’t one of those people.

It wasn’t until my very last year in the program that I started forcing myself to come out of my shell and get to know people in the program, and once I did I was horrified that I had waited so long. I have met some of the coolest, funniest, most intelligent, most any-other-positive-word-you-can-think-of people in the program here and it makes me sad to think I could have been hanging out and developing close friendships with them from the start.

But something that I’ve come to realize in this past year as I have gotten to know people is that most of the people in the program see themselves as socially awkward and most everybody in the program is at least a little bit shy. I think the stereotype is true: writer’s are generally of an introverted nature. If I had realized that from the start . . .

It’s way less scary, I think, to push yourself to get to know people if you know that it’s scary for them, too. But making the effort is well worth the reward, because while yes there will be people in an MFA program, just like everywhere else in the world, that you just don’t click with, there’s a good chance that there will be more people that you really will. If you’re shy and afraid to say the wrong thing (or not sure if anybody will be interested in anything you have to say, which is how I usually feel) just remind yourself that most of them probably feel the exact same way. Just like everything else in life, you get out what you put in. That community doesn’t build itself.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

MFA/MFYou Issue Two

Hot off the presses . . . or, freshly uploaded from my computer to yours anyway: Issue Two of MFA/MFYou. I'm excited about the excellent fiction and poetry we were able to put out in this issue, thanks to the hard work and good writing sense of our fabulous MFA/MFYou contributors. Check it out, you won't be disappointed. And if you still haven't had a chance to read Issue One, don't worry. You can find it in our brand new MFA/MFYou Archives.