There’s a lot of differing opinions when it comes to whether a writer should get a MFA. In a recent interview I did with Marge Piercy that will be coming out in the Spring 2012 issue of The Pinch, she says writers need to have life experiences in order to be better writers. We need to work on oil rigs, be fire fighters, doctors, travel the globe. Writers in academia have little time to explore the world, thus they must draw off of other writing to be inspired, and/or they are forced to “publish or perish.”
I applied to a MFA program because I wanted the time and space to work on my poetry. I was writing, but at my best, not very frequently. I didn’t know what I should be reading to help my work improve. I had submitted to literary journals before, but always stopped right after the first rejections rolled in. I had the idea that maybe my work needed something, and a program seemed like the way to go.
Today, half into my second to last semester, I’m so grateful I went to one, and especially the one at the University of Memphis. My first semester, I was shell-shocked around writers. At my first Southern Festival of Books, I was too much of a chicken to stand in line to get my book signed by a poet I heard read. They were who I wanted to be, yet I couldn’t even talk to them. Same thing at AWP. Went to a bunch of amazing sessions, talked to no one but the people in my group. I went to a session where Nicky Beer, James Allen Hall, and two other poets talked about how they organized their manuscript. I had really enjoyed the session and ended up buying Nicky Beer’s and James Allen Hall’s first books. Again, too much of a chicken to talk to them.
Through working with The Pinch, I had the opportunity to solicit Nicky Beer and James Allen Hall. Nicky Beer didn’t have work she could send me, but when it came time to pick a poetry judge for The Pinch’s annual contest, I was able to ask her, and she accepted. I solicited James Allen Hall as well and he submitted work. We published one of his poems in the Fall 2011 issue.
Over this past weekend, The Pinch celebrated the release of the Fall 2011 issue with a party. Six contributors came, which is an amazing turn-0ut (Chris Gavaler, James Allen Hall, Angie Macri, Alex Stein, Jannell McConnell, and Glenn Shaheen). I also was able to go to breakfast with James Allen Hall and drive him home after the party.
Networking is an important aspect in this business, and it’s one I hated the most when I came to a MFA program. I didn’t want to have to talk to people, let alone for a long enough time to be “friendly” with them at other places. It’s taken me over 2 years to get over that. At the Southern Festival of Books, I was able to comfortably talk with Darren Jackson, the editor from Grist (I bought his book, had him sign it, talked to him–not a big deal, but in the past, my God), Bobbie Ann Mason, William Pitt Root, and others. Then, at the release party this past weekend, I had a really wonderful time talking to James Allen Hall about his work and what he did to get where he is since I so admire him.
For me, experiencing the world and writing on my own would not have made me a better writer. I needed structure. I needed space. I needed someone to guide me, make suggestions. John Bensko is an amazing professor. I’ve learned so much from him over the past couple years, and I greatly respect him. Some people have made the assertion that once you join an MFA program, your writing will be too dependent on workshopping. That has not been the case for me. The longer I’ve been in school, the better I’ve been at editing my own work, and every piece I write does need time, and sometimes, I just need to let it have that. I have a lot of confidence in my own ability to edit today.
I also really needed to work on something like a literary journal. It taught me the business aspect of writing, got me to solicit writers I wanted to talk to, got me in an “in” in situations where I wouldn’t have felt comfortable talking to someone before (“Hey, I’m _______ for The Pinch.”), got me reading submissions and seeing what we looked for to get a sense of what other journals were probably looking for as well.
Not all people might need to attend an MFA program, but for me, it has been invaluable. From the outside, the writing world seems big and frightening. From the inside, it’s rather small, and that’s why those relationships and how to manage those relationships are so important.
Did you get a MFA? Why or why not?