M.F.A. Fever

Linda Helton for The Chronicle

October 02, 2012

"I'm going to grad school," announced "Fenimore" as he strode into my office. I knew little about this student except that his adviser had described him as home schooled and emotionally needy. "Congratulations," I said. "Where have you been accepted?"

"Oh, I haven't yet," said Fenimore. "My adviser said I should talk to you about applying."

In the English department at Locally Known College, I have a reputation for being skeptical about sending students to graduate training in the humanities. I'm also known for being able to look a student in the eye and politely say "No" to a request. Because of both factors, my colleagues sometimes send their less-promising advisees to me for consultations about graduate school.

I asked Fenimore, "What do you want to specialize in?"

He replied, "I'm getting an M.F.A. in novel writing."

Some people develop an irrational desire to buy a vehicle they can't afford. They have Car Fever. Other people feel driven to connect with stunningly inappropriate partners. They've contracted Relationship Fever. Still others become convinced that their lives will be worthwhile if, and only if, they pursue graduate work in creative writing. Those poor souls suffer from M.F.A. Fever.

I admire undergraduates who sincerely want to write, but students plagued with M.F.A. Fever usually prove to be less realistic than those English majors who expect to blaze through a Ph.D. program in literature and step into a tenure-track job. I have encountered several different versions of M.F.A. Fever.

Some sufferers refuse to read anything already published in their creative field because they fear that another author will influence their own work too much. To such students I say, "If you don't read what's already out there, how can you be sure you aren't simply reproducing something that's been done 1,000 times already?" At that point, they often look at me as if they had never considered that possibility.

Other young writers believe they're on the verge of greatness and feel incensed if I suggest otherwise. They envision an M.F.A. program as the place where they will be catapulted into fame and fortune. They expect me, as an undergraduate instructor, to fulfill one function: prepare them for graduate studies by pumping out nothing but praise, praise, praise. To those students I say, gently, "How will you achieve greatness if no one gives you useful feedback?"

Some victims of M.F.A. Fever have highly optimistic expectations about how much publishing pays. I once had a new advisee, "Ernest," tell me in his first semester of college that he planned to earn an M.F.A. "I want to write for a living," he said.

"How do you plan to support yourself?" I asked. "Almost no one makes a living on writing alone."

"Really?" Ernest said. "You mean I'll have to work in a grocery store or something?"

I said, "A grocery store is one possibility."

"Aw, man, my parents are gonna be so disappointed," be said. "I told them I'd get a job writing stories when I finish college." Ernest left my office that day with a more realistic attitude about M.F.A. programs and writing careers.

Sometimes M.F.A. Fever gives students the delusion that a graduate program will accept them automatically, even if they have no portfolio of writing to include in an application. I have a question prepared for such students, a question I asked Fenimore when he announced his graduate-school plans. "Admission to graduate writing programs is very competitive," I said. "What have you written that will make you stand out from hundreds of other bright applicants?"

Fenimore grinned. "I've published a novel."

Few things give me more delight than students publishing their work, but fewer things make me more skeptical than undergraduates boasting about having published books. Once a student announced she had written a sword-and-sorcery thriller, but when I asked to see it, she could produce only a single chapter dashed off the night before. Another student declared he'd published a novel. He'd actually written a tale about a family of chipmunks that ignore their brilliant son. The student had run off several copies and given them to his parents and sisters.

Despite those disappointments, I do know a couple of students who've completed promising books, so I told Fenimore, "I'd like to see your novel."

"I'll bring you a copy tomorrow," said Fenimore, and out the door he went.

I have nothing against well-designed, honest M.F.A. programs, but I often recommend that students with M.F.A. Fever spend a year or two away from formal education. They should read, read, read, and, of course, write on a rigorous daily schedule. They should attend weekend workshops to get critiques of their work, and visit writing conferences to network with editors and other writers. Of course they should also have some adventures to write about. Taking this route may get a person closer to publishing than will pursuing a M.F.A.

Another option I suggest to students is the low-residency M.F.A., which has a big advantage over a traditional program. Because low-residency students meet face to face only once or twice a year, they can't hide away in a university cocoon. The students are out in the world interacting with ordinary people most of the year, thus giving them source material for their writing.

Most students with M.F.A. Fever, however, want the familiar structure of a campus and an academic calendar. They apply for admission to traditional master's programs with my blessing so long as they will get good feedback on their work, have thorough knowledge about the world of publishing, and receive financial aid.

I also encourage students to attend only programs that warn them upfront not to expect a full-time teaching job.

A couple of years ago I was visiting a distant city when I learned that a tiny institution, "Charles Ponzi College," was holding an open house to promote a new traditional M.F.A. program. On the off chance that it would be a good fit for my students, I attended the event. I enjoyed mingling with the program's potential students but felt puzzled because the glossy pamphlet I picked up at the door did not mention financial aid or what a person might do with this degree.

The program director gave an enthusiastic talk but provided no more enlightenment than the pamphlet did. During the Q&A session I asked, "Will your students learn how to publish their material?"

"Of course," Program Director said. "They'll meet visiting professors and guest speakers in the field."

I said, "But what's built into the program to prepare students to get an agent, network, and build a readership?"

Program Director frowned. "They'll have the support of their fellow students and share what they discover with each other."

"Your pamphlet doesn't mention assistantships or scholarships," I said. "How will your students support themselves?"

Program Director shook his head at my ignorance. "While they're in the program they'll take out loans and have regular jobs like everyone else. When they're done they can move into the world of publishing. They could teach, too."

At this point Program Director, the other faculty members, and the potential students glared at me. Clearly I was the only one in the room not infected by M.F.A. Fever. I decided I'd learned all I needed to know about Charles Ponzi College.

When Fenimore came to my office the next day, he did indeed bring a copy of his novel. The cover looked bright, but the binding seemed a bit iffy. I said, "How did your agent choose this publisher?"

Fenimore laughed. "I don't have an agent."

I asked, "How did you get this press to publish your book?"

Fenimore said, "My mom paid for it."

Now I understood why my colleague had sent this student to me. Fenimore's mother, having protected and home schooled him, thought she was doing her son a further favor by paying some outfit to place Fenimore's words between covers. I said, "A handful of people self-publish and self-promote like fiends, eventually making their work attractive to a regular publisher. How many copies have you sold?"

Fenimore shrugged. "My closet is full of copies."

"A novel that you paid to publish won't get you into an M.F.A. program," I said as gently as I could. "It may even hurt your chances."

Overcome by M.F.A. Fever, Fenimore felt sure that I didn't know what I was talking about, and that his mother, who had never attended college, could get her son into an M.F.A. program. He rose to leave, and I wished him well.

The next time one of my fellow professors sends me a student with M.F.A. Fever, I think I'll charge that colleague a consulting fee.

Henry Adams is the pseudonym of a faculty member at a liberal-arts college in the Midwest.