‘How Do I Get Through My MFA Program?’
Not everyone earns the honor of reading your work.
I’m in an MFA program that is deeply unsupportive and tokenizing of marginalized folks and our work. A mentor told me she finished her Masters program out of spite, and I’m feeling that way too. She said nobody gets out unscathed. Do you have advice for how to get through programs like this while focusing of mental wellness and avoiding burn out? My entire time in academia has been exhausting, as I’m a queer non-binary disabled person of color and white supremacy is everywhere. Thankful for your time.
Getting My MFA in Navigated Bull Shit
Thank you for writing. I’ve been waiting to answer your letter because I wanted to give you a comprehensive history of the MFA in the US. I didn’t want my answer to fail you, as it sounds like your program is doing. However, your letter has been coming up for me these past few days, as the school year is just around the corner and I’ve been steadily working on the question of what it means to design an inclusive (and evolving) creative writing class this fall. I realized my answer shouldn’t wait. I realized that I wouldn’t fail you by just writing to you what I’ve learned.
While you don’t say specifically what’s unsupportive or tokenizing of your program, let me venture to guess: you can’t bring in anything without someone commenting on your identities or ignoring how they appear in your work; you’re sometimes asked specifically to include more hints of your “culture” in your work; your peers mispronounce your name; your peers assume that you got into the program because of your identities, not because you are a good writer; your work is often misinterpreted along lines of identity; you get line edits or even major revisions suggested for your writing because no one, perhaps not even the instructor, knows what traditions your writing is following.
Or perhaps your peers and instructors assume you write differently because you’re undereducated or overly political and not because you have learned and chosen not to follow the canonical way. Your peers bring in harmful, unexamined work and your instructors say nothing or, even worse, assure you of their allyship privately but won’t use their power to address these issues head-on in the classroom. Sometimes these are instructors you looked up to or people you thought would have been most likely to help. You’ve watched your program coordinators ignore, condone, or sweep under the rug something hurtful or harmful that has happened to someone else or even you; someone will comment every so often about how “angry” or “political” you are all the time, or you silently keep in your feelings or true critiques because you don’t trust this community to educate itself or respond to your needs.
In these guesses, of course, I’m only referring to the classroom itself. I haven’t mentioned the various ways that MFA institutions, aside from a few private programs that provide full rides or more affordable, but less prestigious state programs, are simply unaffordable and unreachable to those without deep pockets or loans. I haven’t mentioned the myth of meritocracy or individuality baked into the philosophies of a lot of these programs; nor do I mention the classed knowledge and access these programs tend to be selling as well. I haven’t mentioned the favoritism, nepotism, and competition that these programs incubate in a literary industry that relies on perceived talent based on clever marketing, networking, and prestige.
Bear with me, as I promise I will answer your question by the end of this letter. Beyond what I’ve just laid out for you, those who know me know that I’m skeptical of the writing workshop model. My hope, for a start, is that more emerging writers will know from the jump that CIA money originally funded prestigious programs and magazines like Iowa Writers Workshop and The Paris Review, and let that guide their choices on how to continue as writers.
Not knowing your program, I can at least recount some of the messages I’ve heard through the years: it’s all about “show, don’t tell,” “write what you know,” “you can talk about politics, but only politely,” and “how much of the Canon™ can you allude to, but slant, in one piece?” The aesthetics of prestige are a navel-gazing, self-reproducing reference to itself. The workshop model, predicated on the Famous Writer at its center, relies on other pervasive myths: that education is professionalization, famous writers must be talented writers, and talented writers must also be good readers, editors, and teachers. In most of the writing workshops I’ve ever attended, if we were lucky, the instructor would set one ground rule, to “use ‘the speaker’ to refer to the narrator, rather than ‘you,’” and we’d be off to the races.
Your program is failing you because there’s a misconception that the writer’s business is merely writing. That, and the value of a work depends on how much emotional release—catharsis—it can extract from the reader or how “relatable” it is. If you don’t take these assumptions as immovable, it can be clearer to see how the mythologies around the workshop disadvantage writers like us.
There’s a reason the introductory class I’m teaching this fall is called “Reading and Writing.” Reading is half the writer’s work. Very few writers are taught how to read for critique, for we assume that just because we can read something means we read it well enough to deserve to critique it. You’ve probably heard others in the writing community talk about so-and-so being a good reader for their work—it’s perhaps one of the highest compliments I ever give and receive from writer to writer.
Reading is listening. Being a good reader for someone else’s work is short-hand for a reader who has read widely and deeply enough not only to recognize techniques or forms but also the theories, politics, and histories behind them. Being a good reader means being someone who uses these insights to understand and, as an editor, provide feedback that would further and improve the author’s original goals. Being a good reader doesn’t always involve agreement, but does always involve understanding. Reading well takes skill, time, and upkeep. Reading well is, on its own, a life’s work. It is ongoing. It is critical. It is absolutely necessary if you want to be a good writer.
Thus, I must ask, if what you wrote is true, why are you still in this program? If it’s money you’re worried about, whatever money you’ve already sunk into this program, you can save yourself whatever’s left. You might believe that you need this program in order to be a writer, that you need this program to prove to your family that you’re a writer; that you need this program to prove it to the world; that you need this program to prove it to yourself. But none of it’s true. This program is exhausting you. This program is teaching you, emotionally, that the more you write, the more you’ll be subjected to unnecessary racism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia. And unless its leaders have given you the accountability to believe it, this program is not going to be different or easier to get through the more time you spend in it.
When I hear that you’re exhausted, I don’t know, but I know, that you’re exhausted by these small reminders of how your needs are forgotten, your thoughts and ideas are disrespected, and your mentors, too, are too tired to help you. I don’t know, but I know, that you’re exhausted by the belief that the best you deserve is to barely survive. And I’m angry about all of that. “Anger is loaded with information and energy.”* Anger marks the edge of our boundaries; illuminates the path to our desires. Are you being honest with yourself about yours?
You are exhausted because you are, as Hannah Arendt once wrote about statelessness, deprived of a context in which your opinions are heard and your actions effective. This exhaustion is resign. This exhaustion is powerlessness. In this exhaustion, in its darkest places, you may lose yourself. For burnout, more specifically, is you surviving in a context in which you effectively disappear—you disconnect from the world, feel hopeless, and stop meaningfully engaging.
In my last few months of working in tech, this hopelessness rose to the surface in harmful negativity. My energy was angry, bitter, and trapped toward myself and others. I sighed constantly, trying to expel the clenched stress in my chest. The care and patience with which I usually am well-resourced had run out. Over years of minuscule but persistent compromises, I was on my way to becoming unrecognizable to myself.
Although this was not with a writing program, I hope you won’t wait to leave like I did. By silencing your anger, by silencing your needs, you’ll finish your program not only tired but without much change made within it, if at all. You, however, will be. You’ll be used to giving up your demands before you even know what they are. You’ll be used to silence and may even prefer it, but by silencing not only your needs, but also your wants, you’ll not only have spent your time in a place that didn’t cherish you fully, but you’ll have practiced, too well, living in a way that does not.
Why would you pay, if you’re not on scholarship, to be disrespected and devalued? Why would you allow your suffering to have a price, if you do have a full ride? When we grow up in contexts with little agency or power, we start believing that everything is about surviving from point A to point B. We start every sentence with “If I can get through until...,” with the signpost getting moved when we reach it. We start staying because we are grateful for pittances. We stop imagining the lives that we truly wish to live; we allow ourselves to be distracted by the ones we’re given.
There are ways for you to work through it if this program is not greatly affecting your mental health—something you should confirm and reflect on with a therapist you trust. Examine, for example, whether you need help accepting critique or if the critique is without specificity and judgmental (e.g. “Can you help me understand this line?” vs. “This line is incomprehensible”). The former is workable—the latter is a dud to be forgotten, at best. Sometimes, a whole workshop can turn out this way, with most, if not every comment from peers and the instructor completely missing the point. Unless you’re having trouble with taking in feedback, in those scenarios, you will have to ask yourself how much of your time you’re willing to waste.
If this program is not greatly affecting your mental health, you must be frank and pragmatic with yourself about what you want and how easy it will be to get it. Did you join this program to get a degree? If so, you could bring in work that does not feel vulnerable while using the funding, resources, and studio time of the institution to develop your actual work. Did you join this program to improve your writing? Stay cautious and intentional. Seek out the real teachers, not the celebrities. Offer your real work only when your workshops have proven they are good readers to you first.
I recommend that you look for a community of like-minded writers, even if that community is far away—collectives, organizations, and retreats geared toward identity have been nourishing and liberating spaces for me to think and feel freely as myself. If you’re lucky, you can find and treasure at least one friend nearby who treats you as you deserve and who can do the same for your work. If you’re even luckier, you’ll find a small group of people like this. These communities, even beyond the writing community, will not buffer you from the difficulties of living in our time, but will at least give you reason to moor in the present and believe in the future.
GMMFAIFINBS, I don’t know your reasons for wanting to stay in this program, and I have answered you accordingly. But know that it’s a context that you can extract yourself from, should you choose to do so. As you note in your letter, white supremacy is everywhere, and the skeletons of that hegemony are going to haunt us for centuries to come, even if revolutions come tomorrow. You must protect yourself and your work at all costs, then help the next who need it. However or whenever you get out of there, you deserve so much more. You deserve better readers. You deserve better instruction. You deserve a better world. The hard part is acting on behalf of yourself. The hard part is believing in that world. The hard part is leaving, as yourself, to write it.
* Audre Lorde, “Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” (1981).
Author’s note: In light of this letter and others I’ve received, I want to do a series of The Writing particular to questions about MFAs. Is there a question you’d like answered? Comment below if so.
Thank you to those who participated this Wednesday—I enjoyed getting to know you and to see, already, notes of mutual care.