Let us remember…that in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both. (Christian Wiman)
Today I read two (more) articles with the same message (as nearly all the others I read on this apparently-urgent MFA topic): guess what, starry-eyed MFA students, there are no jobs for you.
Driving toward campus to work today, I thought about writing a response piece. Then I thought, it’s just my blog. Then I remembered reading the introduction to Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist yesterday, trying to keep my legs moving on the elliptical. How she tries to remember that she has a voice and that she must use it.
Here is what I know so far about the issue of MFA students and jobs.
I know that, for some reason, there is a need to tell MFA students what I am almost certain they already know. Any informed MFA student knows there is not an abundance of tenure-track jobs. They also know that adjunct jobs are not a sustainable option.
And this must be because there is a misconception about why people go into MFA programs. Sure, there are likely some students who think they’ll graduate, get a book contract and a tenure-track job months later, and proceed simply and easily doing exactly what they’ve planned. But there are far more who are there because they want to put words on the page. There may be no jobs for MFA students, but there will always be language, and life, and that peculiar way they insist upon the value of looking closely at both.
There’s also a problem with articles that curate opinions on whether one should go to an MFA program. The bottom line is that you are the only person who knows if you should go or not. If asked, my answer would be do what you feel is best for you. By all means, make informed, smart choices. Don’t go to an unfunded MFA program. (But really, that should go without saying. This isn’t going into debt for pharmacy school, this is going into debt for creative writing.) If you don’t get in or have to pay your way, perhaps just wait and try again. An MFA program doesn’t determine whether you write. That’s your role.
I realize it’s easy to say try again next year sitting in a third year at a funded MFA program. But I’m also looking at uncertainty by the end of May. What I know is that we all figure it out. We fill in the gaps. I also know that the important thing is still the writing—I could be in a program and write less than someone outside a program. It comes down to you, pencil in hand, doing the work.
Additionally, the issue I have with articles warning MFA students (myself included) that there are no jobs is that there is always an implied bitterness. It always feels like there is an implied action plan of giving up before you get hurt. I find myself asking, each time, “What should I do, then?” If the better choice here is to abandon hopes of the thing you truly love and want to spend your life doing before the world tells you it won’t be handed to you, well, I don’t buy it.
Here’s the reality: most teaching jobs require that you have a book published. Almost no one finishes an MFA with a book literally in hand. So of course one would have to do something else in the meantime, and that’s okay. I’d go as far as saying that it is one’s own fault if they are surprised by this.
As for me, I will keep teaching as a long-term goal because I understand I have to get there the way so many others before me did, and that wasn’t straight out of an MFA program. I will refuse to give up my dreams because it’s unlikely that I’ll reach them. (It’s certainly impossible if I don’t try.) I will pay my bills, and I will write. I will remember all I learned from workshops in my MFA program, but mostly I will take what I learned outside them and store it up until I use it.
I remember a Dear Sugar letter in Tiny Beautiful Things. Cheryl Strayed writes about what to tell people who ask what you will “do” with your creative writing degree, which will maybe lead to a book, or a tenure-track job, or a dream to open a bookstore that also sells pies (ahem), or maybe simply some beat-up notebooks and poems that come to mind as you fall asleep:
Carry it with me, as I do everything that matters.