This isn’t me crapping on MFA (a Master of Fine Arts) degrees or everyone who has worked hard to get one. I know quite a few damn good people who have one they can add to their resume. This is about elitism and misguided entitlement. You can expand this from the microcosm of writing to all things great and small in our society.
For years, I’ve heard select MFA holders put down writers who they believe don’t possess such a degree, referring to them as hacks or worse. To them, only he or she who wears the MFA crown has the necessary skills to put words to paper. The rest of us are here to be dazzled by their command of the English language and storytelling prowess. I came across such a troll recently who lambasted my writing on Goodreads, basically saying I didn’t have the skills to be a good writer because it was apparent I never received the proper education to do the very thing I’ve been working at for over a decade. I read it and laughed, then looked up their name to find their writing credits. I wasn’t surprised to find zippo. (By the way, I’m a college graduate who never scored less than a 90 in English my entire life.)
Truth be told, the review didn’t make me angry. My skin is thicker than an elephant’s hide. If you’re going to do this for a living, you can’t let the bad or even the good reviews get to your head. What does make my blood boil is when I see a trend that deeply hurts earnest, honest writers.
An MFA degree doesn’t make you a writer, just as going to astronaut camp doesn’t qualify you for a stint on the ISS. In many cases, an MFA degree does put you in some serious debt, hoping to strike it rich in an industry that is pretty darn parsimonious when it comes to paychecks. As an author friend once said, better to learn a trade and be a fucking plumber.
I learned all I needed to know about becoming a writer from a chance meeting with the great Elmore Leonard. It was the late 90s and I was at a two day writers conference in New York City. I’d spent money I didn’t have to be there, hoping to learn from those who had scaled the mountain. I was in a classroom, sitting in the back because I had a hard time finding it and was almost late. A famous thriller author was giving a talk about the publishing process, but it was really an examination of the neurosis of a writer who never felt as if his stuff was good enough.
A small, older man sat next to me during the class. At one point, he leaned over and asked if I’d spent a lot of money to be there. I gave a quick answer, wishing he’d leave me be. He then said, “You see all these people? None of them will ever be writers. Don’t waste your money. You really want to be a writer?” Slightly annoyed, I said, “Of course.”
He said, “Then go home. Read a ton. Then write a ton. That’s all there is to it.”
I thanked him for the advice and shifted my attention back to the real author in the front of the room. When the class ended, the old man shuffled out and I headed for the next session. When lunch came, I grabbed a table by the podium, chatting with a world famous bestseller. Imagine my surprise when they brought that older man up to be the key speaker. It was Elmore Leonard!
I realized in that moment that I’d just gotten invaluable wisdom from a man who’d published more books than every writer at the conference combined. Who the hell was I not to listen to him? I vowed that day to never attend a writing conference. I was already a voracious reader, but I stepped up my writing game. Read a ton. Write a ton. I could do this.
And I did. As have so many others, all without the benefit of an MFA. You don’t need any high falutin’ qualifications to be a writer, other than a command of your native language, imagination, and limitless passion. I don’t care what degrees you have and don’t have, and neither do editors. Tell a damn good story they think will sell.
If you think your MFA makes you a better writer than someone who gets paid to write and publishes book after book, it’s time to dispel yourself of that delusion. That degree, especially if you’re not writing and publishing, is worth as much as the paper it was printed on. You are not entitled to a damn thing. You need to earn it. That means get off your high horse and get down in the mud and muck and write. Then go bust your hump finding someone to publish your work. Stop criticizing those who have accomplished the very thing that inspired you to get that degree. You are not the elite. You’re just a regular person who spent more on school.
Over the years, I’ve found that writers rarely criticize other writers because we all share the same story, the same grind. We not only know how the sausage is made – our hands are in it day after day. So next time you want to use your MFA to tear down another person, take a good, hard look at yourself and like most opinions, keep it to yourself. Writing is a great equalizer. You’d know it if you did it.