In the basement of the newly remodeled University of Michigan Museum of Art, a sizable crowd has gathered in a sleek, sterile-looking auditorium. It’s a Friday night in Ann Arbor, and you can almost hear the sound of cheap beers cracking open throughout the city. But for those sitting in UMMA’s Helmut Stern Auditorium, the only sound that echoes is the voice of Kyle Booten, who is center-stage, reciting his ambitious, abstract brand of poetry.
Booten — along with a large percentage of his audience — is a student in the University’s MFA program. The atmosphere is warm and congenial, and the sense of community among those assembled is akin to that of a congenial family reunion. As the night wears on, it becomes clear that the University’s MFA students are unlike most other graduate students.
Short for Master of Fine Arts, an MFA program is an often overlooked and misunderstood two-year graduate program in which students prepare for careers writing poetry, fiction or both. The MFA program was first introduced at the University of Iowa 70 years ago. Now MFA degrees are offered at more than 150 universities across the nation. Despite the success of the MFA movement, it’s been surrounded by a fair degree of controversy.
Most of the flak arises from the very nature of an MFA program. In essence, it attempts to teach something historically considered unteachable: creative writing.
For more pragmatic types, it may be hard to fathom how or why such programs exist. Unlike in law or medical school, there is no standardized set of information students must master before graduating from an MFA program. The idea of teaching something as slippery and subjective as creative writing seems to some an impossible or even absurd undertaking.
Quotes abound by writers and professors who decry the utility of MFA programs. The New Yorker’s Louis Menand complains that “Creative-writing programs are designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem.”
The idea is reductive, yes, but not so far off. The crux of any MFA program is the writing workshop, in which students — most of whom have never been published — read and critique each other’s work in a small, generally supportive classroom setting. This is, so to speak, how the magic happens.
Steely eyed skeptics can lambaste the system all they want, but what they can’t deny is that stand-out MFA programs like Michigan’s have left an indelible mark on American fiction. A lot of today’s best and most influential writers have cut their teeth in these graduate programs: Recent Pulitzer Prize winners Junot Diaz, Richard Russo and Michael Chabon have all sprung out of MFA systems — not to mention the countless other MFA-holders who dominate the shelves of Borders.
Nowhere is the virtue of the MFA known better than at Michigan. The University’s program is widely considered to be the world’s second best (the MFA’s birthplace, Iowa, still holds the No. 1 spot). The University of Michigan has produced a parade of successful writers, including the Whiting Writer’s Award winner Patrick O’Keefe and Uwem Akpan, whose short story collection just achieved the literary equivalent of winning the lottery, becoming the newest addition to Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club. But what, exactly, makes Michigan such an elite place to study creative writing?
Well, for one, the faculty.
According to Eileen Pollack, the director of the University’s MFA program, “The faculty (members) are not only accomplished writers, but dedicated teachers. Some programs hire superstar writers who teach one course a year and are never around. All our teachers are full-time.”
What really separates Michigan’s MFA program from the others, though, is the funding. In an almost too-good-to-be-true scenario, the University makes sure all its MFA students are provided for while they pursue their degree.
“We have full funding for all our graduate students, so you don’t go into debt if you’re earning an MFA here. We pick up tuition, you get health benefits and you get a really generous stipend to live on. So in a way you get paid for two years to write,” Pollack said.
The obvious economic advantages of pursuing an MFA at Michigan help attract the cream of the aspiring-writer crop.
Josh Boucher, a second-year MFA student at the University, was duly wooed: “I applied to 10 schools, and with the funding offered here, it was the clear choice.”
The unprecedented funding wasn’t the only reason students chose Michigan over the likes of Brown University, New York University and other top-notch programs.
Emily McLaughlin, a second-year MFA student who, before enrolling at Michigan, was working in Hollywood as a television writer, was more generally impressed: “Michigan has just a well-rounded program — the internships, the visiting writers, everything.”
Still, inspiration can’t be taught. And the MFA degree, unlike the JD or MD, doesn’t always segue nicely into the career you have trained for. Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and Robert Frost achieved literary brilliance and success without the benefit of an MFA. Considering all this, why enroll in an MFA program at all?
Apparently, there are plenty of reasons.
“An MFA program gives you the gift of making writing into your primary responsibility,” said Miriam Lawrence, a second-year MFA student at the University. “I wanted the opportunity to meet and work with a lot of talented writers with a variety of voices and interests.”
MFA programs, especially stipend-giving programs like Michigan’s, afford precious time for budding writers to focus exclusively on writing. Plus, the degree provides graduates with a sort of tangible affirmation of their dedication to fiction.
“I always wrote stories ever since I was really young. And I just wanted the official degree. In Hollywood, there was no time to really focus on your writing,” said McLaughlin, referring to her motives for pursuing an MFA degree.
And while an MFA doesn’t necessarily translate into a successful writing career, it certainly helps jumpstart the process.
“There is one thing that an MFA from a place like Michigan does: It gets you really serious attention when you send work out,” Pollack said. “(It’s like) you have a seal of approval. You get read much quicker and with a lot more enthusiasm.”
Granted, not all MFA graduates go on to careers full of publishing and book tours. While a lucky few secure fellowships and professorships, a lot of graduates seek part-time jobs to support themselves while they try to get their work published. This is all in the risk of pursuing an MFA. But with a program like Michigan’s, the risk happens to be much smaller.
It’s not clear if the success of MFA programs like Michigan’s depends upon the surfeit of time students have to sharpen their writing, the workshop process of critiquing other’s work and consuming new, variegated ideas, the interaction with exceptional faculty or an intricate combination of it all. It’s not even clear if MFA programs are in fact responsible for good writing — maybe it’s all in the writer, not the program.
But with an expanding rolodex of successful alumni, one thing is clear: Something is working.