The Artist in Academia
How did a semi anti-establishment, rule-thwarting, convention-trashing writer such as myself end up with an M.F.A. degree after six semesters in graduate school? It’s a puzzle, sometimes even to myself. I never believed whole-heartedly in the graduate of fine arts degree. In fact, there was a time when I actively rejected its validity.
William Faulkner didn’t finish high school, I told myself. Then he somehow attended college and didn’t finish that either. He read everything and copied down what he liked. Sometimes, he copied whole books just to feel the power of its particular arrangement of words — to learn how to make the same patterns and rhythms with language. And, he studied people. He watched them closely. He loved them enough to reproduce them in words.
Toni Morrison (another favorite) didn’t get an M.F.A. degree. She read Faulkner and Woolf a lot, combined that with tons more reading, then sat down to write. So when I considered whether to apply to graduate programs, I asked myself things like: What good is an M.F.A. degree but to shove rules up my nose? What are rules, anyway? Where did they come from? They came from people who did something unprecedented and well received. The goal shouldn’t be to follow the rules and please the masses, but to forge them and masses shmasses.
Yet, taking risks in order contribute to the advancement of literary fiction is something I’m absolutely committed to, M.F.A. or no. Also, not all M.F.A. programs are rule-heavy. Still, regardless of whether the program emphasizes commercial success or personal expression as the primary focus, it obtains that what is taught in all programs are the only things that can be taught about writing and art: craft techniques and conventions.
The danger, then, when going to academia to pursue one’s art, is that corporatized, commercialized conventions for the arts will be taught and adopted. Writers will strive to perfect the execution of handed down formulas. The stories will be told about “my tribe” for “my tribe.” They will be told in the familiar, accepted way. If the other is represented at all, it will be through a narrow and colonizing gaze. To what end? To be entertained? To have an A.D.D.-riddled brain not lose interest? To fill in empty hours for another lonely person? To affirm worn out systems to which a reader is already attuned?
This leads to questions about what a writer’s role should be, what a writer’s vision should be. Personally, I think it should be any theme that obsesses the writer. Usually, it comes out as an approach to a basic human problem. The story is a vehicle for educating our citizenry on potential solutions. It addresses issues of social justice.
Opinions that agree — soothing and confirming opinions that are comfortable — are usually not true. Truth is typically uncomfortable. Even to one’s self. Sometimes, M.F.A. programs, in the interest of producing commercially successful authors, discourage truth in favor of what’s comfortable, soothing, and mainstream. I can give one example:
I wrote autobiographical novel that addresses traumatic brain injury (TBI) and its affects on relationships, a topic largely unexplored in literary fiction. Also unexplored are characters with ailing, non-standardized bodies. The demands that such a body makes of a narrative were answered in a similarly non-standardized structure. The truth is delivered through the rhythm of very short chapters. The intensity of that truth is both modulated and punctuated by the varying prose forms, including first person, second person, letter, and parable.
The visceral reality of TBI is neither pretty nor comfortable, yet it’s been suggested that I make it more so. Narrative point of view is not conventionally varied within one work, therefore it’s been suggested that I tell it in only one. Each time I’ve received encouragement to change deliberate stylistic choices in my work, it was accompanied by examples of what’s been successfully done before. And yet. There are many cases where writers have innovated, even slightly, and evolved what we think of as the novel—Amy Tan, Maya Angelou, and Haruki Murakami are three.
The expression of otherness is uncomfortable. It needs to be expressed.
Yes, there are benefits to higher education in the arts. There are valid reasons to attend the post-baccalaureate halls of academia and they apply to even the staunchest anti-intellectualist artists.
And the valid reasons as I see them, the true benefits of the M.F.A. program, have nothing to do with the actual, physical degree and its surface prestige. The real benefits of the degree come through the journey of getting there. For me, building a community, having accountability, and making connections are the three dangling carrots that lured me forth from the anti into the establishment.
Community. It’s true that you can set up your own writing, reading, or art-making group and attain this phenomenon. But, the sad truth is that money drives. Care comes with pay. With the M.F.A. program, you interact directly with chosen, qualified and admired artists. You get feedback. It’s real-life mentors and peers at your disposal, without an hourly fee.
Accountability. You’re not only accountable to the above- mentioned, but most importantly, you are accountable to and for yourself. You have to show up for your art every day. You are forced to do it whether you feel like it or not. Further, you’re forced to share it with people, whether you want to or not. Doing these things on a consistent basis and for an extended period of time will, inevitably and in spite of yourself, make you a better artist.
Professionals with your dream-career will come and speak to you. Often, they will see your work. Regardless of what anyone says, what I have found to be true is this: Talent is ten cents per dozen. Connections are almost always the reason a particular piece of work gets widely circulated and well sold.
The M.F.A. program has no monopoly on these top benefits. In fact, the degree itself, the piece of paper and the letters after your name are, unfortunately, the only thing that is prestigious about this degree. It’s also the only reason to pursue the degree rather than some other combination of things that allow exposure to the same benefits. When you have the degree, the letters, they let institutions know that you have knowledge and experience with a few basic things, including critical reading and writing skills, a handle on the nuts and bolts of craft and technique, and at least some teaching experience. Sadly, third parties don’t typically consider the valid reasons that attracted me to the process at all, save the last one, connections, where they apply directly.
The prestige of the MFA degree, like all higher education degrees, does also get diluted with the increasing number of programs and of people acquiring them. The prestige now concentrates more in where the degree came from, the prestige of the program itself, which comes from the faculty teaching there. And the faculty teaching at the school is prestigious because it’s made up of people who have significant academic, literary, or commercial success. Writers typically won’t be hired to teach in M.F.A. programs (at least not good ones) unless and until they attain third party validation through publication and awards.
And so perpetuates the devastating cycle of rule-heavy, institutionalized pedagogics for the arts.
There was one more important valid reason that I chose to pursue an M.F.A and it was this: I needed to show the world and myself what was most essential to me. I needed to demonstrate it. I needed an action I could take that would send an important message. To the universe. Or the stars. At least, to me. It was my shout from the rooftop that I am a writer, that I have stuff to say, and that the world will hear it.
Fundamentally, I know that to be true with or without graduate school. And yet, I need to do an action that strongly backs up that knowing if I want to avoid a perpetual existential crisis.
How often do you question the meaning of your own existence? Most writers and artists I know do this often. It’s when a vague empty feeling attends every mundane activity. The laundry basket weighs a thousand pounds and takes immense effort to empty. Grocery store aisles feel like wade pools of hot tar. We become dispirited and disjointed, lacking any connection to the vital source of our life-energies. The antidote is to do — really, really — what we’re most passionate about.
More though, we aren’t safe by simply signing up for the M.F.A. program. The doing has to continue with soldier-like determination even then. There is one path for us to follow and it’s our own. The M.F.A. program is to keep us following it, not to become it. Beware the phenomenon I call over-education. Over-educated writers spend too much time stuffing their minds with intellectual knowledge about writing, the various conventions of and around writing, the business of writing, etc. They read or are otherwise exposed to great writers and lose confidence, turn shy, insecure. They lose the conductive capacity needed to inject power into the work. Or, rather, to let that power flow into it, unobstructed.
Writers and artists, at their best, are simply conduits for the creative process. Something big wants to come into the world through us. Something inarticulable. Something misunderstood. Something that can, at best, be referred to by a work of art that becomes, if even for a moment (in von Durckheim’s words) transparent to the transcendent. How do we create something transparent to the transcendent? If this is the goal of M.F.A. programs — to reverse engineer the process of how these things get created — then its falling short might result from the misuse of these structures. After all, the classics and the great works of art that line the halls of the Louvre weren’t people’s thesis projects. So how did they materialize?
By being shouted from the proverbial rooftop. That’s how.
They materialized from an artist engaged in the act of living deliberately in service to her art.