In light of an age old writerly debate starting once again, a story:
When I graduated with my Bachelors, I was excited. I was the first from my family to get a college degree and managed to go to an Ivy League school. I worked my ass off to go through there and had so many barriers, including a family who thought that by me going to school I was saying I was better than them – I had to sacrifice a lot just to get those four years in.
Newly minted diploma in hand I go to interview one in a suit and meet with some HR person and talk about my degree in Film and English and my love of anime and am familiar with about two-thirds of the ones she mentions. This was early nineties so it was Robotech probably movies like Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies. I was part of the Anime club at college at one point as well and was of the generation when it was initially called Japanimation. She likes me so I go to a second interview. Then I meet the vice-president and she shows me around. We talk pay – it will be NYC abysmal at about 30K to start. The main job, though, will be watching videos to correct the english of subtitles and then writing DVD copy. It’s explained that some of the videos are incredibly rough and misogynistic and at the time I don’t care.
Then I meet the president of the company. He has his office overlooking Central Park and is wearing a cowboy hat and has his cowboy boots propped up on his desk. And he says to me:
“Everyone speaks very highly of you but there’s no way I’m hiring some privileged ass Ivy League (he might have ended this with bitch). I wanted to bring you in to tell you that in person, that these kids like you who don’t know how to work and have it all handed to you come in here thinking you can do a job or deserve one because you went to those schools won’t work for me because you don’t know how to work. You can’t do anything. You’re just useless kids riding off of mommy and daddy’s money and want me to wipe your noses at your desks.”
I tried to protest – I knew work! He was judging me harshly based on this pre-conceived notion. I’d made it through three other interviews talking about the work and work ethic, and here he was telling me how useless I was and my degree and how I didn’t know a thing about work when since about age 9 I had been instrumental in getting food on my families table, from selling comics to baby-sitting to other things. I wanted to scream about tirals of my life. Why was he judging me like this?
He didn’t listen. The VP who was in the room was mortified and apologized to me profusely. I didn’t get the job and decided to temp for a while after that to get my bearings.
How does this tie into the MFA debate?
There is no right way to do anything and no matter what you do someone will try and shame you for it. And let me be clear – THIS SUCKS.
There is no right way to write and become a writer either and this is tripping people up. There is STORY and there are ways to tell a STORY but there are multiple ways stemming from multiple cultures and if you are lucky you were exposed to more than one idea of STORY and can appreciate the variety out there. That’s rare and goes into the question of why TOCs pop up with all white male authors – it’s a tradition ingrained.
When someone’s mind is set, like the gentleman interviewing me, there’s also really no way to change their mind and THIS ALSO SUCKS.
There are writers who suffer for their art there are those who do not. There are those who are raging alcoholics and have many cats there are those who do not. If all art was the same and came from the same roots – well think how boring that would be, or think of how hard that would be for someone who wanted something different (which is also what we’re going through now, writing has been the same for so long it’s hard to accept people outside that sameness tradition because people just don’t know how.).
What I also see in the MFA debate that I saw in my interview was an irrational bias that seemed to stem from jealousy or the idea of fairness. It was unfair I got to go Ivy when that gentleman hadn’t. This was something my mother had said, that it was unfair I got to go to school when she hadn’t. And it’s something I feel a lot too when I look at some of my MFA peeps getting published – the females in my program, 2 out of 3, went there married and knew they would never have to work after. It was a throwback at times, being around women of leisure who in the past would have learned embroidery and here an MFA was a modern day woman of leisure activity. I found it incredibly unfair that they didn’t have to fight to be there and every day was a tiring fight for me. I found it unfair when they started their own presses after the program to publish each other.
In the initial swing from unfair there is pride. I know I have to work. I know I have worked and my writing will reflect not that writing from a place of privilege, but the writing of a ‘fully formed human’ and there’s judgement there. That judgement definitely still pops up when I hear how these people once again published each other and the connectivity at play, the fact that they are in a world I am excluded from even though we did the same things.
In the end, it’s a debate with no winning rhetoric. Some people go to MFAs, some don’t. Not all who go to an MFA continue to write after, not all who struggle at home to write continue. Not all MFA people are successful, not all those who struggle are. Whether you went to one or not you’ll run into people who think you’re awesome and you’ll run into people who think you suck for the decisions you made in your life and won’t care to hear the backstory. Yes, MFAs can help depending on what you want to do and how you leverage them, as can creating your own virtual MFA through the numerous online workshops (thinking Critters for one has churned out amazing writers).
There are choices we make in our lives and careers, and they are made from various data points. Not all choices may seem available to all people but they shape who we are and how we view the world and thus how we create our art. It’s hard to judge a person on their choices when we don’t know their backstory (technically, it’s incredibly easy to do that. It’s why this post started. But I feel I shouldn’t so easily).
MFA, non-MFA – we need to work more on exploring and expanding the definition of ‘GOOD WRITING’ and change the debate because it’s part of the larger issue of a limited cultural view.