Not so long ago, there were a whole lot of good reasons to go to university and earn a degree. This is increasingly up for debate, what with rising tuition costs, spiraling and unforgiving student debt and increasing numbers of graduates who find themselves armed to the teeth with glossy educations, near perfect GPAs, tons of enthusiasm, and little means to channel any of it into life beyond campus. I don’t doubt the value of education and learning. If you want to immigrate anywhere, odds are you’ll need either a minimum of one university degree or truckloads of money. Becoming a well-rounded human being necessitates a quest for knowledge and wisdom, but the search can become holy-grailish without a compass, so here are some quick pointers to set you on that elusive path towards becoming a mensch:
- Sit under a tree or on a mountain and stare into space until something other than a headache emerges from the fog;
- Find someone smarter than you and stalk them;
- Apprentice yourself to a master;
- Make millions of mistakes and learn how you could have avoided them;
- Read books;
- Study animal behavior;
- Grow a plant;
- Go to school.
At various stages in my life I dabbled in all of the above, but for the purposes of this post, let’s focus on school and zoom in on the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. My undergraduate degree was in Anthropology, English and Politics, and since I loved to write and hoped to become a seriously read author, the MFA seemed a logical progression–it suited me and I it. I finished the three year course in two, mainly because I was dangerously close to running out of money, and studying 18 credits a semester seemed preferable to dropping out.
My nest egg (and then some) depleted, I galloped (stumbled) out into the world on my big white horse (a Pekingese called Fifi) and found I had more in common with dear old delusional Don Quixote than I did with Xena the Warrior Princess. Through no fault of my own or my professors, I found myself believing the illusion that, MFA in hand, I was better equipped to navigate a publishing industry that was a cross between a screaming toddler, a suicidal adolescent and a profoundly depressed geriatric. In the (few) years since graduating, I’ve tilted my sturdy (wilting) lance at a sizable windmill, and now look back, not without nostalgia, at what I learned:
- I read books and studied authors I might never have come across on my own;
- I joined a group of hungry, curious peers whose minds, like mine, were opening up and sharing a rich, diverse heritage of experience;
- I learned from professors who were not afraid to explore, experiment, guide and innovate;
- I delved into the work of aspiring writers and exchanged critiques, guided by principles of growth, expansion, and discovery;
- I learned a fortune from my correlatives: Teaching Creative Writing and Professional Editing;
- I drank a lot of coffee, and learned that coffee is as good a sidekick as Sancho Panza.
Historically, artists have made their careers by working, often in poverty, towards recognition, which as we know can take years or decades. Given the costs and challenges of a university education, colleges need to take more cognizance of today’s economic realities. An education shouldn’t be a luxurious indulgence, but rather a realistic step towards equipping students with the means to competently navigate the industries they’ve worked so hard to become part of. I would have liked to learn more about the publishing industry itself:
- how it works.
- how it’s changing.
- how this affects the writer and the career choices s/he will face.
In reality, I learned more about elements of craft, technique, and the commercial aspects of publishing when I became an associate literary agent and subsequently went out on my own as an editor and author. Formal teaching jobs are few and far between, and if writers are to survive, they must develop an entrepreneurial approach to their work–something authors and artists in general skitter away from.
For an education to be holistic, it needs to go beyond exploration and tackle preparation. With so many graduates emerging from universities and facing precarious futures, a lot of talented, hard working writers must carve out a career with tools they should, but don’t have. Business and commercial skills may have been anathema to institutions of higher learning in the past, but now it’s no longer an option to ignore them.
When agents consider query letters, they may read a little more closely when the letters MFA show up, but the benefits of credibility don’t amount to any form of guarantee. Certain programs have more clout than others, but ultimately, the novel itself has to have legs, stamina and appeal in order to survive, let alone thrive.
With clarity of hindsight, would I have chosen to study an MFA? To be honest, I might have gone for a Master’s Degree in Forensic Anthropology instead, but I don’t regret the time and effort spent. I’m proud of what I learned, and covered more intellectual ground than I would ever have attempted on my own.
In essence, the learning never stops, and in many ways, I think of my MFA as one (or two) big step/s along a very curvy, fabulously challenging road.