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Who’s cooler? Creative Writing MFAs or PhDs in English?

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In one of my earlier lives, the one before I knew that people don’t need accredited papers to make them worthwhile (though I loved the hell out of my education and would damn anybody who told me it’d wasted my time, not everybody is like me), the one before I had this blog, the one when I was only a mother in theory (which is the easiest way), I had a pretty successful round of applications to various MFA programs.

If you’re not in the know, the MFA is a terminal degree in the arts.  People can get MFAs (Master of Fine Arts) in all kinds of visual art, acting, film making disciplines, and creative writing.  A terminal degree is the last stop before professor-ville.  Another kind of terminal degree is a PhD.

I started an MFA program at Pitt a while back.  I loved a lot of things about that star-crossed semester.  Something I didn’t love was the antagonism between the PhDs and the MFAs.  PhD is Doctor of Philosophy.  Philosophy is knowledge love.  A doctor is more better than a master, at least by the general academic standard.

The main difference between the MFA and the PhD is the amount of time it takes to finish the degree.  The MFA is typically a three year program, a PhD generally takes eight (at least).

A while back on the internet, I read some defensive rant from some particularly bitter MFA about why the shorter time to get the degree is totally fitting for the artist, and how there’s nothing less rigorous about spending three years getting a terminal degree in arts than spending eight years and blah blah wank wank blah.  There was some stuff about apprenticeship.  Not entirely invalid points, but far too defensive.

This is a hotly debated topic in academe.

Should the MFA be a terminal degree?

The Englishey PhDs are pissed because the MFAs finish sooner, don’t often have to know another language, don’t always have to take the subject GREs (and sometimes no GRE is required) to get admitted to programs, and get to write fiction instead of intellectually rigorous scholarly analysis.  “MFAs aren’t intellectuals,” the PhDs say, “they’re alcoholic step children of the arts and academic worlds!”

Maybe that is sometimes true.  But it is arrogant and presumptuous to declare that creative writing is not intellectual enough, and that people who would pursue it are less worthy. And I ask you, PhD candidates in Victorian Literature, why wouldn’t you tackle the MFA and show up the silly, capricious, non-analytical MFAs?  How can you be so certain about your assessment of its intellectual or scholarly merit?

According to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate edition, here are the definitions of intellectual:

1 a : of or relating to the intellect or its use b : developed or chiefly guided by the intellect rather than by emotion or experience : RATIONAL c : requiring use of the intellect <intellectual games>
2 a : given to study, reflection, and speculation b : engaged in activity requiring the creative use of the intellect <intellectual playwrights>

Interesting that the second definition describes the creative writing process pretty acutely.

But all writing–even analytic writing–is creative.  So it would seem that the rhetorical flaws go both ways.

And maybe it’s not fair that a person usually has to spend eight years getting a PhD, when a person can kill a creative writing MFA in three years.  But here’s what I know about how creative writing obsessed people spend their undergrad years: In as many creative writing workshops as they can squeeze into their schedules.  Fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, essay, memoir, literary journalism, etc.

Most semesters I had two creative writing courses.  I took every one my university offered in fiction and in poetry, so the last semester of my senior year I got special permission to take the graduate novel writing workshop.

How many Victorian lit courses did you take, Mr. Victorian Lit PhD candidate?  Maybe two or three?  You might’ve done an independent study.  And wicked.  But that’s what, four semesters worth of study in your field?

You got yourself a good, broad, liberal arts style English Major education with a sampling of a number of literary periods, styles, regions, and critical modes.  Guess what.  I did, too.  And you decided you loved the Victorians.  I did, too.

Lifestyle differences

Storytelling is a craft, a discipline.  Academic writing, is, too.  But the level of mastery I would’ve achieved after only two or three creative writing workshops as an undergraduate would never have yielded my better-than-I-thought-possible MFA acceptance results.

Also, I have been writing since I was five.

And I’ve been studying story since before I knew that’s what I was doing.  I have been reading novels since I realized they existed.  I recall getting these pulpy YA novels from the grade school library and being disappointed that we only went once a week.

I didn’t start writing scholarly papers until college, and it seems fair to suspect that most people don’t start with the scholarly analysis till college, which means I’ve been practicing my craft for at least 15 years longer than the average PhD candidate has been engaged in earnest scholarship. That is, unless they were analyzing literary tropes on the playground.  Were they?  I won’t presume to understand their processes.

The breadth of reading a person has to do in order to be a proper expert on a particular obscure thing from Victorian Lit, including all the foundational stuff so you know what your colleagues are talking about when they rail on Barthes or Saussure, including the completely different habits of mind that scholarship demands, is no small task. Of course it takes Eight years!

This isn’t a value thing, this is a different pursuits entirely kind of thing.  One is not better than the other.

The Creative Writing people need to keep writing so that the scholars 100 years from now will have a record, something to study, a sense of our cultural assumptions, how our women and minorities were treated, what class was best educated, what we value–all the stuff those PhDs love studying about Victorian Lit.

In college, I was so busy taking creative writing classes that I didn’t have time to take French so that I could read Derrida in his native tongue.

Would I dig that?

Sure I would!  I love the French theorists and their special brand of abstruse.  It might help to be able to read them in French.

But what do I love more?

Hands Down: the socially and academically sanctioned schizophrenia of the creative writer.  I like to tell plausible lies in prose and make people up in my head who become so real that I can have conversations with them and they can help me realize stuff about myself.

So here’s the news I set out to give you before I ranted: I’ve decided to apply to a low-residency MFA for the fall semester.  I’ve waffled about it, but I feel a strong and wild call to it.  I think that for me it will be time well spent. And if I don’t get in, that’ll be occasion for another existential crisis (those are good material) and self-deprecating blog post(s).  And if you know me really well, maybe you’ll get to listen to me weep.

To my dear friends with PhDs, I mean no disrespect.  I love and envy you and your analytic pursuits.

8 comments on “Who’s cooler? Creative Writing MFAs or PhDs in English?

  1. Excellent post, April! I don’t know why people with advanced degrees have to be all up in everybody’s business about what degree they have and why it’s better. There’s a similar debate in science education about whether to get an ED in science ed, or to get a PhD in a hard science and then just do education coursework. I did the latter, it took freaking forever, my committee constantly gave me shit for ‘wasting my time’ on teaching, and the end result was that I was eligible for the same jobs as the people who spent 4 happy years on the other path. Pretty sure I’m the dummy in that scenario. Anyway, best of luck on your MFA applications! I’m sure you’ll have great success!

  2. I promise you, April, I wrote my whole dissertation on the intellectual value of creative writing. It’s called Poetic Inquiry, and I’d be happy to pass it along. ;) — I totally hear what you’re saying, and I actually think that fresh imaginative writing is about 1000 more valuable than any of the dissecting, objectifying stuff that goes by the name “scholarship.” So yeah, lady – you keep it rockin’ and don’t worry about the snobs. In my observation they get their self-righteous satisfaction of snobbery, and … that’s about it.

    • Awesome! Yeah! I’d love to read your dissertation. And I understand why you experienced some push back. (I wondered about it when you posted on Facebook.)

      I don’t know if it’s fair to say that imaginative writing is more valuable than dissecting and objectifying. The dissecting and objectifying stuff is good, important, too… Just not my calling mostly (though I think I’m going to try to write a book on anti-feminist rhetoric in fiction by and for women at some future point).

      I think you’re right, though, about self-righteous satisfaction. I had a brilliant prof in college whose theory was that the academic’s capital and sense of self-worth is knowledge (this would be particularly interesting to your thinking about capital, economy, etc.), and so the more you have the more right you have to be completely douchey toward people who know less.

      • Yes – yours and your prof’s observation about academic capital is certainly true, and it points to something else that’s really rather sad about the humanities academy – which is for all its savvy analysis of power structures and politics – it just goes and replicates precisely the same oppressive dynamics (tenured faculty put so high above contingent faculty and grad students) that flourish everywhere in our society – which to me goes a long way to render the analyses that it does produce actively suspect. ;) — The reason why I have such a problem with objectifying and dissecting — it’s not that I haven’t read many truly impressive works of criticism and history — it’s that I find those motives to come from a paradigm of knowledge production based in scientific materialism which to me is really problematic …. aaaaaaagh, but there I go slipping into a lecture. ;) I’m really glad you started this conversation, it’s an important one.

      • Of course you’re totally right about duplicating the thing we criticize rendering the criticism suspicious. :-)

        It’s also totally bollocks that there’s such pressure on grad students to be pleased with such incredibly tiny (as compared to the work they provide) compensation. Pitt’s was the best offer I had, and it was like $3,000 more each year than the other offers, and the health benefits thing was a big deal, but given the actual cost of those things to the university, compared with the insane piles of labor graduate students provide–in any discipline– universities are still making money off grad students.

        Which definitely duplicates an oft-criticized power structure: exploit the weak/poor/disadvantaged.

        I’m glad you’re participating in this conversation, but now I have to get some actual “work” done.

        Thanks for you.
        -April

  3. [...] and we wonder why people look poorly upon the academy which–as my friend Carolyn points out in the comments of my post about MFA vs. PhD–does within itself that which it proclaims to [...]

  4. [...] As much as I want to turn off this readerly impulse, I can’t.  Perhaps it is what makes me a writer, or maybe it is deeply ingrained from those hundreds of hours I spent in writing workshops. [...]

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