Thursday, June 25, 2009

My Terminal Degree

I’ve been feeling pretty stumped about what to write about this week. After all, the last time I graduated from anything was a good seven years ago when I graduated from graduate school. But then this morning, I came across a blog review of The September Sisters in which the reviewer started by saying that she would not hold it against me that I had an MFA, because The September Sisters was actually a good read. (I should mention here, too, that she also spelled my last name wrong in the first sentence of her review!)But . . .hmmm. That MFA comment really made me pause, and I had to consider for a moment how to feel about that. Was it an insult or a compliment, or a little bit of both?

And that also brought me back to the last time I graduated, my MFA graduation. It was different than my high school graduation, which felt like the most amazing moment of my life – my freedom from the confines of those school walls. And different than my college graduation, in which, as the valedictorian in my major, I’d felt full and confident and proud, like I’d really accomplished something.

No, my MFA graduation was quiet. For one thing, I chose not to even attend the actual graduation. I didn’t see much point in crowding into a stadium with thousands of undergrads who thought the whole point was to throw tortillas. (Really. This was the tradition.) But also, I had trouble seeing it as an accomplishment, any sort of milestone. I’d spent the previous two years being reassured that my degree was useless and “terminal.” Of course, they meant terminal in the fact that there was no higher degree you could get as a writer, not in the fact that an MFA might squash your desire to write! Although, for me, it had done this, too.

Yes after I graduated with an MFA, with my terminal writing degree, I was so burnt out that I celebrated by not writing a single thing for an entire year. Call it a graduation present to myself, if you will. Which of course, really only proved everyone’s point that my degree was also useless.

I know there are plenty of writers with MFAs who write and publish books and plenty without who do the same. I know there are camps of people who think an MFA is useless and camps that think it’s priceless. And I know there is a stigma placed on an MFA – that to have an MFA you must be a literary snob, that you must only write literary esoteric fiction and turn your nose up at everything else (which is what I’m sure that reviewer meant when she said she wouldn’t hold my MFA against me). But to me, an MFA is just like any other degree. It doesn’t really say anything about who you are as a person, a student, or even a writer. It just means that you went to two extra years of school and learned how to somehow salvage your dignity, in that time, after being in workshops with 10 other people who seemed to take pleasure in tearing your work to pieces. And like any other degree, seven years later it amounts to little more than a piece of paper hanging on my wall.

Someone asked me a few months ago, if I had the chance to do it again, would I still get my MFA? At first I said no, then changed my mind and said, yes. Because when I thought about it, I realized that getting an MFA didn’t teach me how to write – in fact, in the year after I graduated I threw most of what I wrote in graduate school out when I realized how boring it all was. But it did, in fact, teach me something tangible about writing. I learned how to take criticism, how to revise, and how to write quickly and under deadline. And these three things have been of the utmost importance in my career. Maybe I would’ve learned these things in other ways if I hadn’t gotten my MFA, but also, maybe not.


Lisa Patton said...

Jill, I want to hire you to teach me how to write quickly! I would love to have MFA after my name and to heck with the naysayers! I admire you very much. What a huge accomplishment!

Tracy Madison said...

I'm with Lisa. You should be very proud of everything you've accomplished, Jill!

Hugs :)

Maureen Lipinski said...

I love that you have an MFA--you're an amazing writer and I'm sure your degree helped to hone your skills!

Jillian Cantor said...

Thanks you guys! As you can tell from my post, I'm still undecided about the value of my MFA, but I guess everything is a learning experience, right?

Lesley Livingston said...

You should be proud of it. You are probably the writer you are today both because of and in spite of having gone through that particular wringer. ;-)