For the past few years, I have daydreamed about doing an MFA in Creative Writing. As I conceive it, an MFA (Masters of Fine Art, taught in American universities) or an MA (Masters of Art, taught in British universities) would provide me with expert tuition in writing. In my daydream, I cycle happily along to the university each day, spend my time engaged in exciting writing activities, and at the end of two years I emerge, in my cap and gown, as a Writer.
That two years would cost about the same amount as buying thirty gas combi-boilers. When we bought one gas combi-boiler a few years ago, I was so alarmed by the cost that I demanded a fairly detailed breakdown of fuel bills to demonstrate that, within five years, the reduction in our household gas bills would justify our initial expenditure on the boiler. I'm struggling to work through the potential returns on investment for an MFA/MA.
I can imagine that, if I was a business person for example, it would make sense to buy an MBA because it would greatly increase my eligibility for a higher paid position or better paid job in the future. But spending that much on my writing? There is, as far as I know, no career track for writing and an MFA does not guarantee publication (although it might help). Paying for an MFA/MA at this point in my life seems tantamount to investing money into an activity which is, in many ways, no more than a hobby. (There are much livelier discussions about the balance between how much an MFA costs and what it might be worth at the Doubling Down pages).
One of the major themes running through many of the Cafe Aphra debates is our lack of time: how can we make the time to write? How can we protect that time from the clamor and demands of our daily lives? How can we make the most of the time that we have available?
To undertake an MFA/MA is to invest time, a huge amount of time, in writing - which would be fantastic. But it would be writing for that course - not writing my novel - and it would further compress the limited time that I have to engage in the other areas of my life (parenting, being a partner, working, cleaning, cooking....).
And if I haven't got enough time to complete the course to the best of my potential, then it would have been a wasted investment of time and money anyway...
From the outside, I imagine my two years on the MFA in relation to the following: I would be tutored by experts; I would hone my technical skills; I would develop a wider repertoire; I would take the opportunities to perform to the very best of my potential, and I would be able to showcase my talents to a new (and receptive) audience. If I was a musician, taking a formal course of this kind would be a no-brainer: of course one needs structured exercises and high quality tuition to be able to play an instrument to the best of one's ability, right? In this month's 'Poets and Writers', Gregory Spatz calls this the 'teachable talent' and argues that creative writing can be successfully taught.
I agree that we all have the potential to write better 'stuff' than we currently manage to do and, in my daydreams, I imagine that an MFA will provide the opportunity for me to fulfil my potential. But my daydreams about the quintessential university course - the one which will transform me into the ideal writing version of myself - are counter-balanced by a nightmare scenario in which a sausage-making standards-driven university chews me about a bit and spits me out as an inferior plagiarist who can only write in the style of other people. I want to write well, really well, but I still want to write as me.
There was a sentence from Spatz's article that really jumped off the page for me: 'I... tell students that... the single most valuable thing they can hope to walk away from the MFA workshop experience with is a handful of lifelong faithful readers: two or three people with a shared vocabulary for stories, who will always be willing to trade drafts of new work no matter what else is going on in their lives and who will know how to get inside that work to give prompt, constructive criticism that makes sense, long after the MFA work is done.' When I first started thinking about enrolling on an MFA, I aspired for that kind of community. Since then, the vision of Cafe Aphra has been born and a new kind of community is being generated which has the kind of inherent value which Spatz attributes to an MFA program.
I haven't begged, borrowed and stolen tens of thousands of dollars (which I would have had to do to undertake an MFA). I haven't further compressed my family time and my work time so that I can attend university courses. I have a huge amount of things that I need to learn about writing.
I have found a writing community and, together, we are striving to become better writers. We are working together to become the writers who we might yet be, and perhaps that is, after all, as much as any MFA/MA program might ever hope to provide.