Decisions & Superstitions: On Choosing a Program
Laura Kasischke | October 2014
The great French writer Honoré de Balzac attended no MFA program, so he never needed to decide which program to attend. I’m not suggesting that he didn’t need an MFA. Believe me, as you make your plans to enter a writing program, you’ll hear from plenty of people who will give you lists of all the writers who needed no MFA. Maybe they’ll even say, “Balzac had no MFA, and he wrote a hundred novels!”
No. What I’d like to propose instead is that although Balzac had no MFA, he had something like an MFA:
Balzac had a scrap of silk, clipped from his girlfriend’s dress, on which he wiped his pen before he sat down to write everyday. And because Balzac believed in the power of this piece of silk to make him a great writer, it did.
I’m not suggesting that the MFA program you attend will help you no more than a scrap of silk would. Instead, I’d submit that the most important thing that your choice of programs can do for you is to give you the belief that you can write, and that in order for it to do this, you must believe that a program will help you.
I don’t mean that you need to fear ending up in a program with teachers who don’t encourage you, or with peers who don’t challenge you. I mean the opposite, in fact. You need not to worry about that. You need to believe that if you aren’t encouraged, that will make you a better writer. And if you are encouraged, that will make you a better writer. If you aren’t challenged enough, that will be the key to making your own success.
You need to believe that you’ve chosen the right program, and also that any program you attend will be the right program. You need to believe this because the decision you make about which MFA program to attend will make all the difference.
Yes: Your fate as a writer rides on this choice!
But would it have made any difference to Balzac if someone had cleverly replaced his piece of silk with another piece of silk, one that looked similar enough to trick him but was torn from some other woman’s dress?
Of course not. It was the belief he needed, not the silk.
Once more, I’m not saying that it all amounts to nothing, or that writers don’t need MFAs. But since you can’t know, without a crystal ball, which MFA program might offer you what you imagine you need (let alone whether what you imagine you need is really what you need), you’ll eventually find yourself making the decision anyway. And then you’ll find yourself in a program. And what you’ll need while you’re in the program you choose is to make what you find yourself receiving there exactly what you needed to receive.
Which it will be. Whatever it is. Because what you’re in search of you will bring with you, and your years studying writing will lead you to it. That’s all you can count on. But it will be plenty.
I wish I’d known this when I made my initial decision to attend an MFA program where I wasn’t happy—not because of the program (it was an incredible program) but because I was far from home and had chosen it because it was prestigious and offered me good money (excellent things!), and so I assumed that it would be immature not to go just because I wanted to live closer to my dad.
But I hated being so far away, and I left that program to attend one back home (a program that turned out to be equally as good for me), and what I learned is that you can make the wrong decision about a program if it doesn’t align with your nonwriting values and needs, but you can’t make the wrong decision when it comes to your writing.
Yes, staying in that first program would have made all the difference, and switching to the second one also made all the difference. I couldn’t have become a writer if I hadn’t studied with _____________, met _______________, received discouragement from ___________, been encouraged by ___________. The blanks, I’m sure, could be filled with anything as long as they do not remain blank.
It will be the same with you. Make your decision based on your own values and instincts, and believe that your decision will make you a writer, no matter what you encounter or don’t encounter in the program you choose. There is no value to any MFA degree that hasn’t served the writing. So write seriously and ambitiously, and blame yourself, not your program, if your writing is poor—because as soon as you accept the blame, your writing will improve. The years during which you study writing, wherever you study it, will be your future’s scrap of silk, without which you could never have done the great work you’re going to do.
Laura Kasischke has published nine novels and nine collections of poetry. She has been the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She teaches at the University of Michigan.