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All for One: for You

All for One: for You

By Kristen Roach Thompson, Associate Coordinator, Bluegrass Writers Studio

     I was talking on the phone the other day with a prospective student, Carlos. One of the questions he asked was: "MFA - why do so many people say to get one, and why do so many others say don't bother?"

     I have to admit, I love this question. Because there are so many reasons to join the right MFA program for you, and so many reasons to avoid the wrong ones for you. I could answer it all day. My answer to him: "If you have your wits about you, and you have a deep desire to be a better writer, do it." These are the two things I feel you need to have in order to be successful at Bluegrass Writers Studio's MFA program. Because passion goes a long way, but so does prudence. There are as many writing theories as there are days of the year, and if you rely on a different strategy every day, you're going to come up with one messy, disjointed book. The trick is to listen, to hear each idea each day. And then decide what makes sense for you, your style, and your story. Try new things, but don't take them as the gold standard. Experiment and see what fails and what prospers. An MFA is the place for that.

     Last semester, I took a "Writers on Writing" course. I read that Hemingway reported to The Paris Review that one should write for a period of time each day, and then be done. I think he said 3 pm was quitting time (he was living in Key West then). He needed to stop in the middle, so that the following day he would have a place to start.

     Ron Carlson, on the other hand, said to sit in that chair, writing, and the first time you want to get up - more coffee! need a stretch! shouldn't I check my email? - and you don't do it, what will follow in the next twenty minutes will be the best writing of your life. The soul knows when it's about to take a plunge, and it freaks out. You have to calm it and make it use its words.

     These two philosophies are at odds, but they are both true. Each author had great success with their own method. The point of an MFA is to be exposed to philosophies, methods, schools of thought, tactics of workshop, boxing gloves at writers' block. It's to read other people's writing and look for the strong places to admire. Figure out what makes them strong. Then look for the weak places, those lines where you think, "I don't buy it," and to get to the root of why they don't work.

     The most common complaint about MFAs, I told Carlos, is that they homogenize everyone's work. Some people say you can pick out a writer's MFA program by their style, because they've adopted the one of "that school." That may be true for some schools, but if assimilation isn't a reason to steer clear of an academic program, I don't know what is. The whole point of being a writer is to have a voice. If you subject yourself to a writing program that literally programs you, you will probably spend years trying to get back to where you started, badmouthing them all the way. 

     If, however, you are in an internal and external place of learning rather than copying, assessing rather than swallowing, playing rather than engineering, you'll do well in an MFA program like ours. Bluegrass Writers Studio has such a diverse canon of student and alumni writing, I can say with confidence that our point is to find new voices, not to manufacture ones that echo our own. You know that Goethe quote, "Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid"? If ye be bold, we are those mighty forces.

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Kristen Thompson

Published on August 27, 2014

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