I spent the past week working at the 16th annual Taos Summer Writers’ Conference. It was my second time attending the Conference—I’m lucky enough to be the Graduate Assistant for the TSWC—and this time around I was better prepared to take advantage of my time in Taos. A perk of working the Conference is that you also get to take a weeklong workshop. I had the pleasure of working with Minrose Gwin in an image-writing workshop, who imparted a vast amount of knowledge on all of us in just five short days.
I also chatted with one of the agents. He was boisterous and friendly but made a comment that grated on me:
“Oh, you’re in an MFA program? I find MFA writing (boring, clichéd, clinical, formulaic, not ready for market).” [Fill in the blank]
I’d heard that before and other broad, sweeping generalizations like it, dozens of times. People love to make comments to that effect about MFA programs. I’ve always attributed this to the fact that MFA programs have grown exponentially in the past decade, and that perhaps much of the work coming from programs is formulaic. And yet.
It strikes me as a cliché to say that MFA writing is formulaic. Even the much-hyped MFA vs. NYC book/debate, which came out last year, edited by N+1’s Chad Harbach, also strikes me as clichéd (and not very interesting.) It seems to me that if you are interested in the current state of literary production in this country, Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, which is well researched and well written, might serve you better. I suppose that the reason it bothers me when people say things like this – besides the fact that the comment has been made ad nauseam and by smart, good writers who surely have something more profound to say about the state of contemporary literary creation in America—is that comments like these obfuscate all the good things that MFA programs do.
But I get it. People like to seem edgy, important. Fine.
Rather than go into the (I think long) list of benefits of being in an MFA program, I’ll just name a few of the best things that I get to do in this one. One being working for Blue Mesa Review. We have such a great time putting together the magazine and brainstorming ways to make it better, more relevant, and supportive to writers (we’d love to start implementing a payment structure soon, because hey, you should get paid for your work.)
Of course, working for the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference is another great benefit, particular to the MFA program here at the University of New Mexico. Besides getting to meet and work with world-class authors like Debra Monroe, Dani Shapiro, Antonia Nelson, Robert Boswell, Wally Lamb, Bob Shacochis, Natasha Trethewey, and Pam Houston (just to name a few) we also get practical arts administration experience, which may make our “drop in the bucket” degree mean a little more when we head out to the nasty job market.
We also get to teach, which is so much fun. I know, people bag on teaching all the time. But my colleagues and I love it. Really, we do! Especially because we get to teach creative writing classes in addition to composition classes. And really, there is nothing better than talking about writing and reading. Promise.
Most importantly, and this has also become a clichéd phrase in the literary world, the MFA offers time to write. But more than that, it offers a built-in community of writers, many of whom have become lifelong friends.
Which leads me to another highlight from the 16th annual Taos Summer Writers’ Conference. Each year, hundreds of participants come and create meaningful friendships with a lot of like-minded writers, only to go back home to do this solitary thing we do. Well, Conference founder and director, Sharon Oard Warner, who first began the Conference as a way to create a link between the D.H. Lawrence ranch just outside of Taos and the creative writing program at UNM, decided to start Rananim – The Online Writing Community of the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference. It’s a brilliant endeavor and for those of you who are craving a writing community akin to being in an MFA program without actually being in one, it is perfect. And all of the proceeds go to a great cause. Find out more about the project here and here.
It was an inspiring week, with one prickly comment that actually worked to make me realize how grateful I am to be in this program with all of these wonderful, eclectic, unique writers. And as 2014 TSWC faculty member Dani Shapiro says, I’m still writing.
Jill Dehnert is a third-year MFA candidate in fiction. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Blue Mesa Review.