I recently talked with Jennifer duBois about life after attending an MFA in creative writing program, the battle of MFA vs. the DIY creative writing path, and if an MFA in creative writing degree actually means anything. There has been a lot of hype-mystery-hatred surrounding the MFA degree. As a first year MFA student at the University of San Francisco, I needed some answers.
Jennifer duBois is the recipient of a 2013 Whiting Writer’s Award and a 2012 National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 award. Her debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, was the winner of the California Book Award for First Fiction and the Northern California Book Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Prize for Debut Fiction. Her second novel, Cartwheel, has been nominated for a New York Public Library Young Lions Award. Jennifer earned a B.A. in political science and philosophy from Tufts University and an M.F.A. in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop before completing a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. Her writing has appeared in such publications as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Playboy, The Missouri Review, Salon, The Kenyon Review, Cosmopolitan, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, and has been anthologized in Imaginary Oklahoma, Byliner Originals’ Esquire Four and Narrative 4’s How To Be A Man project. A native of western Massachusetts, Jennifer currently teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University
Rakowski: Is there such a thing as being a master of creative writing and does anyone in the publishing world really care?
duBois: I don’t think there is such a thing as a master of creative writing, really—though this is making me realize that if there is, I’ve missed out on years of demanding to be addressed by an honorific of some sort. Maybe it isn’t too late to start. But even without achieving this mastery, I think lots of young writers find the support an MFA program can offer—in terms of feedback, community, and most essentially, time—to be very valuable to their creative development. I don’t have much insight into how the publishing world regards MFAs generally—though I suspect the same programs that pique the curiosity of some editors deter the interest of others. In any case, I do think that editors are a lot more concerned about their own assessment of your manuscript’s artistic and commercial potential than they are about anything they see on your resume.
Rakowski: Does having an MFA degree guarantee a quicker ride up the slush pile?
duBois: I haven’t been a reader for a literary magazine in a long time, but I doubt it. There’s always a chance that a particular MFA program may play a role in getting the attention of a first reader, I suppose, but everything after that depends on the story.
Rakowski: Do you think your time in the MFA program at Iowa Writers’ Workshop made you a better writer?
duBois: Absolutely—it made me believe I could be a writer, then gave me the time to become one. While I think I would have kept growing as a writer around the margins of a full-time job—at least to some extent, and at least for a while—I’m quite sure that writing would not be at the center of my life today if Iowa (or something) hadn’t given me the support I needed to put it there. And I learned an enormous amount from my professors and my peers.
Rakowski: What do you think is the most important thing for a student to focus on during their time in an MFA program?
Rakowski: During their time as a student in an MFA program, should they intern at publishing houses, university presses, or literary magazines/websites? Or should their time as an MFA student be designated specifically for the progression of their own craft?
duBois: I think everyone should do those things that interest them and make sense for their lives (creatively, financially, intellectually, etc), and avoid those things that don’t. That said, for a lot of students the most valuable thing an MFA program winds up offering them is time—an MFA is essentially this brief reprieve from the demands that tend to make writing very difficult in the real world, and every MFA student is making some kind of serious commitment (in terms of money, opportunity costs, etc) in order to win that space. (Obviously those costs vary wildly depending on the program and the individual—and for lots of young writers, getting an MFA is out of the question in the first place.) But whatever the degree of the investment, a writer is buying time that can only be redeemed while they’re in the program—once they leave, that time is up—so I do think it makes sense for MFA students to be as protective of that time, and as thoughtful about how they use it, as their personal circumstances will allow.
Rakowski: What jobs do you think are geared most toward an MFA degree?
duBois: Teaching creative writing at the undergraduate level or above is the only job I’m aware of that usually requires an MFA—and even then I think exceptions are made for notable authors without MFAs.
Rakowski: What jobs are the ones MFA students don’t think to apply for?
duBois: I don’t know that there’s a category of jobs out there that MFA students are forgetting to apply for as a group. It’s a tough time to be seeking work as a young person right now, obviously—and even in the best of economic circumstances, an MFA is not a particularly practical degree. Unlike most degrees, which are primarily means to ends, the time you spend writing at an MFA program is an end in and of itself. You can certainly develop an array of valuable skills and experience at an MFA program that may ultimately prove useful in the job market—and it’s definitely important as a job applicant both to highlight those strengths, and to translate them into terms that have professional applications beyond the workshop. But there’s no question that beyond the academic world, an MFA is of very limited use on a resume. That’s why an MFA should never be primarily regarded as a stepping stone to some secondary goal—its value can be tremendous, but it lies elsewhere.
Rakowski: Would you recommend a post-MFA fellowship or a residency?
duBois: Absolutely–the Stegner fellowship, for example, offers as much funded time as an MFA program and asks even less in terms of external commitments.
Rakowski: You currently teach creative writing classes at the Texas State University. What advice do you have for students that want to use their degree to teach? Should they approach the MFA program differently?
duBois: Lots of MFA programs offer some opportunity for teaching work, which can be helpful financially and also provide important experience for prospective teachers of creative writing. But beyond that, they should probably be focusing mostly on their own development as a writer—that’s why they’re getting an MFA in the first place, and being a better writer will make them a better teacher of writing in the long run.
Rakowski: There is always a lot of debate regarding the MFA vs. the DIY path. What do you think the benefits are of an MFA program vs. a DIY mentality? And vice versa. Where do you think this hostility stems from? No writer is doing everything themselves, so what’s the differences?
duBois: I find all that pretty mystifying, to be honest. The only reason to organize your life around writing is that you love it so much you can’t help it—in every other way, it’s just not a good idea. People with an irrational and enduring attachment to fiction have to navigate all sorts of practical issues in order to make any real space for it in their lives. Though everyone’s circumstance is different, the crux of the challenge, often, is time; for writers without significant pre-existing financial resources, the issue of time is essentially an issue of money—and for some of them, an MFA may be a smart way to partially (or completely) subsidize their writing time. But it’s certainly not the only way, and there are some writers who manage to be brilliant and productive around the margins of their full-time job and family and marathon training (those freaks). To the extent there’s hostility in this debate, it’s probably coming from the same thing that spawns hostility in other debates—our difficulty tolerating (or maybe believing) that different approaches to life really do work for different people. I think at least half the hostility on the internet on any given day comes from us forgetting that other people’s choices or lives are not necessarily a rebuke to our own—they may, in fact, have nothing to do with us at all.