Impractical Advice, or Why the Hell Wouldja Choose an MFA Program Anyways?

D.A. Powell | December 2014

Impractical Advice, or Why the Hell Wouldja Choose an MFA Program Anyways? by D.A. Powell, December 2014

Since writing’s a solo act for the most part, just as much self-taught as self-learnt—and all roads lead to the same god anyway and all careers are dead-ends—it seems strange that so many of us folks who write should choose to congregate in institutions like conscientious objectors waiting out an unjust war. I’d like to think we all go into writing programs for impractical reasons and idealistic principles to which we’re all committed. Otherwise, without our starry dreams of a better place and a brighter tomorrow, if we were simply chasing after pie and mammon, wouldn’t we be better off in pharmaceutical programs? You can’t eat an MFA, and the attempt to do so is ill-advised. Even the most successful writers learn to starve the body and feed the soul. The MFA program is as good a place as any to live in paltry condition and to concentrate all one’s physical energy on the conjuring of one’s senses through that most holy vessel, the written word. Isn’t that what you’re looking for, after all, in an MFA Program? Fellows of like madness. Instruction not so much in how to write a sentence, because duh. But instruction in how to live a happy life as a principled believer in the practice of a very sacred tradition, even if there’s plenty we don’t do to keep it sacred. Your MFA experience will be both good and bad if you’re lucky, and both are instructive.

People want to know what they can get from an MFA program? The MFA program is like life—what you can get out of it is what you can put into it. Any MFA director will tell you what makes a program a success is the level of engagement of the students. Whatever conversations you are having among yourselves is the backbone of the program’s ability to push you or support you as an artist. Nobody who devotes her or his whole life to writing can be counted a failure, except in all those ways that don’t matter.

Once you’re in an MFA program, get to know your peers. I get it—you’re painfully shy. So am I; so are we all who would rather craft an allegorical tale than tell someone directly how we feel. But here is your ghetto. All the nerds and freaks who would rather read Milton than the Economist are in your classes. Start reading their work. Read their teachers. Read their bookshelves. Be disappointed in nothing, be expectant of everything. Be a good reader for what’s around you, ask questions; grow. The grape is sweet; the wine is sweeter. Think of this as your fermentation time. I don’t know what it is about wine, but those barrels help. Think of these years as barrel years, and whatever poets have stained the inside of the barrels will influence whatever else is to come. One thing one learns in cafes: everyone is a writer or a designer or a performer. The arts fill a vital role, daily, in large and small ways. An MFA program concentrates that energy, the way the sea witches conjured an invisible shield to protect the coast against the Spanish armada. An amazing field of energy is created by you and your cohort.

The other great power of this group is its affirmation of solitude and the creative magic that works best in the darkness of one’s own hermitage. What, you say you don’t believe in magic? Well, it’s still possible that it will work upon you nonetheless. Even if you find most of the social interactions of the MFA awkward, you still may find some necessity in their partaking. It is an old saying; those who visit the natural springs but do not soak therein are unlikely to experience its cures. Edit a magazine, start a magazine, do an internship, try your hand at translations, collaborate with students in the visual and performing arts…in short, experience every joy and every minor bit of service as an artist, not simply as a student. No one will hand you a laurel wreath at the end of all this prosody and grief and productivity. You make your reward in living every day as a transmitter of ideas and sensations—utilize this time and this focus as a chance to interrogate your soul—not that you have to write it—but that it might clarify the aesthetic and ethical issues we find ourselves contending with.

Your teachers are on the same journey you are, although often they may seem to have figured it all out. We haven’t. I am amazed that poetry should have any instruction at all. And yet it truly helps. Seek out all of the instructors that are available to you. You will learn something from each, even only if you realize it years later. In the future, we have it all figured out. In the now, we stumble in the dark. But your instructors at least know where some of the obstacles lie. Listen not just to their instruction but to who they are. My colleagues are fascinating people, as were my teachers. Look at the list of visitors to your program and find their classes; find their lectures—stretch as much as you can in this short time. Stretching is good says the doctor. Restorative, like a soak in the hot springs. This is your opportunity to do something good for yourself. Wade right in. Immerse yourself in the waters.


D.A. Powell’s most recent collections are Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys (2012), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry, and Repast (2014), both from Graywolf Press. He has taught in numerous writing programs including the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, the Stegner Poetry Workshop at Stanford University, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He teaches full-time at the University of San Francisco.