Ableism and Classism Underlie the MFA Model

Every few years, a white man in the mainstream literary community publishes a curmudgeonly piece about how entitled, lazy, and whiny creative writing students can be. They often point to these qualities as the only things that hold back writers, aside from another likely possibility: a lack of talent. Recently, I came across just such a piece targeting low-residency MFA programs in particular. Some people side with the curmudgeon (tell off those spoiled, lazy narcissists!), while others side with the writers (they deserve your compassion, they’re still forming as artists, please apologize). But neither of these address the real problem underlying such arguments.

Racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and classism all intersect in this argument. Access to MFA programs and the larger literary community depend on many factors, including tuition costs, the know-how required to successfully apply for funding, geography or relocation costs (all of which tend to intersect with gender, race, and class) as well as whether sexual harassment is a de facto policy, one which women students are supposed to be “good sports” about. But many writers have addressed the racism of MFAs as well as their baked-in sexism. And the very fact that we need a list of LGBTQ-Friendly Graduate Programs in Creative Writing speaks for itself.

But ableism and classism are less often addressed in mainstream discussions of MFA programs. And as someone who cannot attend even a low-residency program but who recognizes the need for formal training in the arts, I want to address the assumptions behind this silence.

Ordinarily, these assumptions are:

  • Great writers are born, not made.
  • Thus, talent is the only thing that matters, and it’s the instructor’s job to spot it.
  • If you haven’t read X book or started Z program by the time you’re 30, you might as well quit because you aren’t going to make it.
  • Time management is something people whine about when they’re not serious about writing.
  • Writing, unlike all the other arts, cannot be taught.

Every single one of these assertions is flat-out wrong. Mainly because they’re steeped in prejudice. So let’s break them down.

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Great Writers Are Made, Not Born

Whether they are made by a good school system (funded by high property values), or a top-notch library (also funded by high property values) or even a friendly shopkeeper at the local bookstore (which likely went out of business years ago), they are indeed made.

Writing, like music and dance and drawing, is a skill. And like all skills, it requires instruction, time, and effort to approach anything like a professional level. Above all, it requires the resources to support all three of those. And like all skills, writing takes years to cultivate.

If there are fewer canonized working-class writers, writers with disabilities, women and non-binary writers, LGBTQIA+ writers, or BIPOC writers, it’s not because such people are born without talent. It’s because a) the canon is biased and b) people working two full-time jobs, struggling with poor health, and enduring systemic discrimination and violence lack the time and space to create art. Stephen Jay Gould said it best: “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”

Stop thinking we’re all playing the same game, on the same field. We’re not. But we deserve every chance to get on that field and show you what we’re capable of.

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Yes, talent matters. But less than you think.

In the real world, raw talent isn’t enough to succeed. Even cultivated, trained talent can fall flat. Basically, talent is a poor predictor of outcomes, and the sharpest arts instructor I ever met kept an eye out for grit and determination first.

Between the ages of 8 and 15, I spent my evenings and weekends at Cornish College of the Arts. My classmates and I were under tremendous pressure to ace our annual Royal Academy of Dance exams and to audition for national dance companies. If we were extraordinary, we could expect to become an apprentice by the time we were 16 or 17. If we were great, we could expect to join the corps around 17 or 18. If we were good enough (the tier where I landed according to my teachers), we could expect to join the corps around age 18 or 19 and probably stay there, possibly becoming a soloist before we retired (penniless and likely living with roommates) in our early thirties. If we were not good enough, we were encouraged to quit.

We all knew exactly where we landed on this hierarchy because our teachers told us. We also knew where everybody else landed. The one extraordinary student during my time there went off and promptly landed a position with a good company. There were two great students. One dropped out. The other went off to Houston Ballet, performed for a while before reaching soloist, retired, and moved into research and teaching.

In the “good enough” camp, some of us quit. Some of us went on to have careers equal to the “great” ones, and even teach. Some of us went to college, then taught. Some of us still perform. Many of us went into other fields and left behind dance altogether.

But if you’re judging based on income and fame, well. Even the extraordinary talent didn’t make it much beyond some of the most determined “good enough’s.” My point is above a certain level of technical mastery, talent stops mattering so much, and perseverance, interpersonal skills, grit, patience, luck, connections, and strategy matter more.

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Writers have more time than almost any other artist.

Out of all the arts, literature offers up the most case studies for artists who start (or at least succeed) later in life. From Cervantes (first book at about 40) to Annie Proulx (first book at 53) to Toni Morrison (first book a few months shy of 40), the reading lists for the typical MFA program are packed with authors who entered middle age before their first books arrived on the shelves.

Even in dance, notorious for under-35 retirements, Martha Graham didn’t retire from the stage until her mid-70s. My childhood ballet instructor, Frank Bays, didn’t study dance in earnest until his 20s, which is terrifically old for a dancer. And he went on to have a spectacular career, both as a dancer and as a highly regarded teacher across multiple colleges.

My point is if anyone is telling you time’s up, it’s too late, give up now, they don’t know what they’re talking about.

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Using Time Management to Shame Students Is Thinly Veiled Classism

Which often intersects conveniently with racism, sexism, ableism, and other prejudices such people can pretend they don’t harbor. Tillie Olsen says this best in Silences.

Many teachers in MFA programs have led comparatively privileged lives themselves and simply may fail to imagine the obstacles their students may face. In my 16 years supporting student writers at a community college, I met students who:

  • were recovering drug addicts
  • lived in their cars
  • were single parents
  • worked two or more full-time jobs
  • served as primary interpreter, secretary, chauffeur, chef, income source, and caregiver to relatives recently arrived from other countries
  • had multiple learning disabilities
  • were still learning English even as they were expected to pass classes conducted in this foreign language
  • had PTSD
  • had other mental health challenges
  • had to wrangle tuition, transportation, and childcare from spouses who believed it was a waste to send a woman to school
  • found it hard to study amidst microaggressions and harassment from classmates, faculty, and staff
  • were the first in their family to attend college and had no idea how the system (including time management and study skills) worked
  • and in one case had just emerged from a decades-long coma and was learning a lot of things for the first time (as she’d been an adolescent the last time she was up and about)

The truth is, time management can only solve so much. Time management can’t fix the fact that you can’t afford childcare, but the relative who looks after your children got called in to work an extra shift during your class today. Time management can’t “fix” PTSD or dyslexia or any other condition that limits a student’s ability to “keep up” with assignments. Mental and physical health challenges mean students aren’t going to ask for more because they can barely do what abled people can. And realistically, many instructors will have no idea if a student has a disability because the ADA does not mandate disclosure.

As a tutor whom college students felt safe enough to weep in front of after they’d been told they would fail, I found many students chose not to disclose in a bid for respect. Yet those very same teachers whose respect they were desperate to win also leapt to the assumption that if a student is underperforming, if they are struggling with time, it is because they lack talent or a work ethic or commitment. Worst of all, instructors sometimes think a student hitting a ceiling in the 12 or 16 weeks of one class indicates the student has reached the edge of their potential, and it’s time to give up.

Life is long. And the 12 or 16 weeks of a single class constitute less than half of one percent of the average lifespan in the U.S. The two years of an MFA program are barely 2.5% of a person’s entire life. This absolutely doesn’t mean professors have to go easy on you or give you a pass just because your life hit a rough patch. To keep their jobs and get the program funded, they still have to give out grades, and they still will fail people who don’t complete assignments. But if an instructor thinks they can size somebody up and pin down their entire potential in such a brief glimpse of their lives (which might actually be a low point), then they’re just an arrogant bastard.

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Yes, Of Course Writing Can Be Taught

Not only in the A-B-C, here’s-how-to-diagram-a-sentence way, but also in the here’s-narrative-structure way. Never have I seen so much pointless handwringing over whether an art can be taught as among writers.

Musicians, dancers, painters, animators, graphic illustrators, actors: They all know instruction is mandatory. For the living arts especially, people will line up in droves, hand over hundreds of dollars, and fly thousands of miles just to take a master class with a choreographer or actor or cellist they admire.

The real problem, I suspect, is that writers are fuzzy on what exactly can be taught. The answer? Technique can be taught. Mastery of technique can be taught. Creative application of technique, less so.

And I worry sometimes that writers doubt our artform even has technique. Because every second-grade teacher worldwide is teaching their students to put together a coherent sentence on the page, and because language is something we are all born primed to learn, I think writers are a nervous bunch.

After all, it’s easy to find degree studio classes on Painting the Figure: From Rembrandt to 2021 or Animating Body Movement. I have yet (rather to my horror) to see an MFA in Creative Writing that offers a class titled Sentences That Subordinate: From 1700 to Woolf or Faces in Fiction: Achieving Horror, Romance, or Realism through Character Description. Even though these are precisely the technical topics that get discussed in good literature courses. In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that many literary or academic-minded writers see such courses as somehow “hack.”

But the truth is, most things can be taught. I’ve worked in education since I was a 17-year-old volunteer at an elementary school. I have a Master of Education in Adult Learning. And while there are pros and cons to learning things when we’re older, there are also pros and cons to learning things when we’re younger. Of course talent can’t be taught. Some people will just come out of the gate stronger than others.

But as stated earlier, it isn’t the people who win the 100-meter dash at age 10 on Field Day who become an Ironman Triathlete. It’s the people who commit and persist and have grit. And grit can be taught. Good triathlon technique and strategy can be trained. It’s the same for writing. Most of us are the “good enough” dancers at my old school who also went on to dance careers. You don’t have to be great to produce great work. You just have to work hard, stick with it, find good teachers and agents and editors, make connections, and get a bit lucky.

It still doesn’t mean you’ll get rich, though.

Honestly, it doesn’t even mean you’ll get published before you’re dead. Emily Dickinson didn’t. But boy am I glad she kept writing.

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#

So here we are. A fair number of MFA professors and programs assume a lot about the writers they teach. And a lot of those assumptions are flat-out wrong. Not only that, but they are destructive, grounded in a hatred and suspicion of the lower class as well as those with disabilities, that we are stepping out of bounds, and that our limitations lead only to failure, that our inability to do it “their” way means we cannot do it at all.

Class and abled privilege impact us from the moment we’re born, influencing our survival rates as infants, the age at which we begin reading, and the quality of our schools and libraries. These in turn shape our vocabulary, our reading habits, our writing skills. We speak like those in our community, and if we are surrounded by the working class, we are liable to struggle to navigate academic settings. Add to this the requirements of MFAs, requirements that must be met in just a few years. For those of us with disabilities that are unpredictable, we can’t know if we’ll even be functional for the three to six months of a single class.

We need an alternate model for training in creative writing and the arts in general. We need one that isn’t predicated on one’s ability to repay debt, for those furthest outside privileged access to MFAs. And we need one that is less time-bound, that is less dependent on semester systems and modeled more on apprenticeships, like the medieval guild system for craftspeople and artists in Europe (which, by the way, included many respected women artists who have been overlooked by the canon). One where those of us who lack funds, in part because we have disabilities, can engage when we are able to, learn as we go, and contribute the voices and experiences that have been too long barred from the arts. Let’s build alternatives to MFAs that are inclusive, accessible, welcoming, and that above all nurture excellence by embracing the full diversity of society.

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