Suspend Your Disbelief

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A hidden benefit of MFA programs: location, location, location

Many criticize MFA programs for creating bland, uniform writing: the author as slice of Wonderbread. Yet Elise Blackwell, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, argues that MFA programs actually help promote diversity—by luring writers to less “writerly” places. Blackwell, director of the MFA program at the University of South Carolina, explains:

There are writers who stay put their whole lives. These folks tend to quote Georgia-rooted Flannery O’Connor: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days,” and “When in Rome, do as you done in Milledgeville.” But most writers are improved by relocation, if only because they can better understand what’s most interesting about where they come from. […]

As a system, the M.F.A. encourages (even enforces) greater geographical variety than the non-M.F.A. writing world, which sometimes doesn’t see farther past Manhattan than Brooklyn. The difficulty of getting into a good program and the steeper odds of gaining a stable teaching position mean that would-be students and faculty are often willing to live anywhere (including places some Park Slopers would never step). Writing programs put writers all over the map.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a writer spending two years (or more) in Iowa City, or Ann Arbor, Michigan, or Gainesville, Florida, and not gaining a different perspective than one who travels only between 42nd and 123rd St. I fled Ohio for the East Coast, but graduate school lured me back to my Midwestern roots—and turned my writing in a different, better direction.

Those who attended MFA programs, weigh in: did your program lure you out of your uptown, white-bread world? Should travel out of the traditional literary epicenters be a prerequisite for writers?

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