Write it–My Beef with MFA in Creative Writing

books by Nino Care
Image by Nino Care


Perhaps, I’m wrong, but I have been observing a prolific amount of authors with MFA degrees landing publishing contracts. This wouldn’t be a problem except that the book publishing industry, especially the literary journals have a bias for authors with MFA degrees. And any author without an academic degree is left out in the cold. What would Jack Kerouac or Jane Austen have thought of that?

I have tried to embrace this trend, except that I don’t have an MFA degree or even a BA in English or creative writing. Authors such as myself came to novel writing through the backdoor, the way, many masterful authors did decades ago. And hey, not everyone can afford to obtain an MFA degree which I’ve seen range from $75 to $100K.

So, I mucked my way from journalism to novel writing. I even worked as an editorial assistant for a literary journal in Seattle briefly. I attended conferences, joined writing groups (on and offline), critiqued other authors’ work, revised my own and attended writers conferences. And at 55-years-of-age, I’m no closer to securing a publishing deal for any of my several novels.

Not only that, not one of my submissions to literary journals was accepted in 2019, even if I received a glowing review for an audio story that I submitted to the Missouri Review. I suspect that the editors weren’t seeking actual stories with interesting protagonists and they preferred perfect sentences and clever writing instead. Oh, yes, and the MFA behind the author’s name.

The journal editors seem so welcoming on their submission pages. They tell us that they seek the work of emerging and veteran authors. And I suspect it helps if other literary journals have already published my work or if I obtained an MFA and landed $100K in debt (not at my age, thank you). This wouldn’t be so bad if the stories by the MFA authors actually held my interest. Many of the authors seem to obsess with pleasing their peers or their university students. They spend too much time constructing perfect sentences free of adverbs and adjectives and not enough time telling a universal story. Sometimes the authors confuse actual storytelling with abstract poetry. Yes, they provide clever word use but I just can’t relate and my brain starts to go numb.

I waded through an award-winning story published in The Writer magazine that made no sense. While I searched for a story with a beginning, middle, and end with the protagonist experiencing transformation, I didn’t find it. I’ve also waded through stories published in literary journals that kept me interested in the first page and then my mind started wandering and hoping for a real story to unfold. These stories most likely went on to win prizes too. But why? Some of the stories are pretentious like the kid in elementary school who spouts off unusual words to impress his peers. (And by the way, if I have to wade through another literary story with graphic sex, violence, or drug use, I’m going to scream).

And while I have no problem with transexuals, stories about transexuals don’t whet my appetite for a literary journey. And why do I have to tackle socio-economic or political issues to publish a story in a journal? I have no passion for that. While I have written a few tragic short stories, my forte is whimsical humor and magical realism.

I actually started reading YA novels to avoid adult novels which tend to focus on dark topics that cause me to flinch or challenge my attention span. And if I’m not reading YA novels then I’m rereading classics from novelists who never attended college at all but somehow managed to pen a work that we’re still reading a 100 or more years later.

Sadly, the trend for obtaining an MFA in creative writing has grown and continues to grow despite the high cost of tuition. And I’m not saying that it’s wrong to obtain this degree because it does open up opportunities to teach at a university level and to give lecture tours. The problem I have is the formulaic novels that have hit the stores and libraries in the last two decades. While I’m still able to find good reads and even by MFA authors, it’s become more challenging to find stories I can relate to or that I can read without feeling like I’ve been snubbed.

I suppose it’s a shortcut to study with master teachers and have access to author peers. I was able to collaborate with peers prior to the internet which did change the playing field. I still recall and editing groups that met once a week at Border Books in Seattle during the 1990s and I still remember the DIY literary journals that published my poetry. And I still remember the chapbooks I published in the 1980s which I sold at my music gigs. I miss those collaborations and the learn-as-you-go spirit that surfaced in the 1980s and continued through the 1990s. Back then, it was rare that an author had an advanced degree.

I am thinking of Margaret Atwood who obtained her degree in the late 1960s and Julia Alvarez who wrote Yo and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and who taught at the University in Vermont. When I met Isabel Allende after she published her best-seller House of Spirits and even her memoir Julia, I don’t believe she held an MFA in Creative Writing. And she’s one of my mentors.

It’s not the MFA degrees I have the problem with. It’s the trend of gatekeepers discriminating against self-made authors. Just like I suspect the late brilliant vocalist and song interpreter Eva Cassidy never trained with a vocal coach, as an author I don’t want to compromise my voice or my style in favor of following a set of rules that include not using adjectives or adverbs in my stories, or not being able to publish stories written in the three-act structure. I prefer that editors or agents don’t tell me to conform to the current trends or tell me how to write the stories in my head. Am I the only author who doesn’t want to jump on board the MFA train or have some expert tell me how to pen my stories?

BTW, I’ve already sacrificed too many things from my life such as gluten, dairy, sugar, and nightshades. Do I have to give up adjectives and adverbs too?

Sometimes, I tell myself, “Why even bother sending your work out?” But like every author, I have a story to tell and I would like an audience for that story (or stories). I might not have studied with a master in person, but I have read and studied the prose in thousands of books over the decades. When I was six-years-old, teachers told me that I couldn’t read because of dyslexia but I didn’t let that stop me. And I won’t let the snobby gatekeepers prevent me from publishing my stories (with adjectives and adverbs included). And as far as the forbidden prologues, I’m keeping those too.

The way I see it is I paid my dues even if I didn’t cough up thousands of dollars to earn a post-graduate degree. I didn’t learn how to write in a cloistered academic setting. I learned how to write stories by living in the real world and starving at times to keep improving my craft and become a better author. And I know that I’m not the only author who has taken this journey.

There are some brilliant authors with higher academic degrees and there are some who lack any emotional depth or storytelling skills, despite the university degree they hang next to their laptop. And on the other end of the spectrum, there are still some Gen-X authors who learned to write through internships, small publications, and cooperative writing communities. And there are still authors weened on Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth (I’m in that camp).

Face it, I think the MFA programs were invented to keep authors in line. It’s another type of programming on the mind which basically insists that authors not think for themselves and give their power away to the book publishing industry. It’s part of the 3rd-dimensional reality and the Matrix. Conform, conform, conform or perish seems to be the message. And I’m sure that not all publishing houses participate. Someone out there is still looking for that raw and vulnerable voice shouting in the wilderness.