Everyone knows how difficult it is to get into MFA programs, and those who endeavor to set their foot into the world of developing-your-writing often find out that there are two major paradoxes one has to navigate when deciding to apply. The first is ageism.
I was in class last week, a senior undergraduate class I’m able to substitute for a literature requirement (because I don’t like lit), and an undergrad student asked me what it’s like to be in the MFA program. We began to chat and she told me she would have applied for MFAs had she not been worried about the fact that she’d be applying in her senior year. This really resonated with me because in autumn of 2016, when I was applying (after figuring out I’d rather do an MFA in Creative Writing than an MS in Planetary Geology), that was all I heard from current students at programs across the country and applicants alike. “Don’t apply straight out of undergrad,” they all said. I was determined to do so, despite the fact that I was coming out of undergrad in the UK—where we study for three years instead of four—where I’d been studying geology, and this—ageism—may have been why I was mostly rejected.
Now, the great claim of MFAs in their justification of the ageism rampant in the admissions committees is that with age comes wisdom, experience, and maturity. While that’s true, one has to ask, why should great writing be all about life experience? The whole point of writing is creation—creating a world, a story, an event, emotions…life. Oftentimes our writing isn’t even based on our own lives or thoughts, it’s based on inspiration and observation. And if so, why can’t a young writer write about the old; older writers write about the youth, and yes, sure, they’ve been young before, but in another time—that’s why so often older writers depict youth in a way that is either ancient by our standards or insulting, still by our standards.
If you can sing, you can sing, right? So, if you can write, you can write. It’s been proven that writing is both a talent and a skill, which means you can have the talent without having an affinity for studying the skill of writing, like me. I’m a science person; my favorite subjects are math and chemistry, but I write. I’m in an MFA program. What takes a ‘long’ time in developing and maturing as a writer has a lot to do with one’s upbringing and relationship with reading and writing as a child (unless they have the skill and not the talent).
Everyone can improve their writing, but not everyone can write, and if you can, it’s innate, it’s natural, and therefore, no admissions committee should look at the age of an applicant before reading their sample – it’s just not right, and it causes unfair bias. When reading a sample, you can tell whether someone can truly write creatively, and even if it’s not perfect, you can tell whether it’s due to their writing ability, their handling of the issue they’ve written about or their grammar, or their lack of research, but age tells you less about writing ability than one’s relationship with books and storytelling does. Let’s not forget that there are children who’ve had more ‘life experience’ than some will ever have.
My cohort is mostly young and I can tell you that in workshop, age cannot be used as a scale for writing ability. For some reason, though, MFA programs tend to favor those who are at least twenty-five, if not older, and I still can’t find a justification for it.
Tolu Adeyeye is a first year fiction writer at Virginia Tech. She is the managing editor for the minnesota review.
2 thoughts on “On Ageism in MFA Programs (The Things We Don’t Talk About, Pt. 1)”
Interesting article. For me it evokes plenty of questions and attitudes. I don’t have a MFA, never sought one. I did get a MA in English Lit but have done most of my best, and worst, reading outside of class assignments. You’ve acknowledged you “don’t like lit,” by which I hope you don’t mean you dislike literature and I assume you don’t like lit classes. You may have sound reasons for that dislike, perhaps dry over-analytic critiques of literature and criticism of criticism of criticism. But you also admit to not “having an affinity for studying the skill of writing.”
I guess I can understand that, too. Focusing entirely on the craft of fiction can result in writings of deadly perfection, producing clockwork pieces that you can hear ticking as the wheels turn. I wonder why you make those two observations about yourself when neither has anything to do with your main concern, ageism.
I personally found a lot of merit in lit classes, in developing a sense of literary history and traditions even while having to plow through a lot of stuff I considered boring at the time and still won’t go back to. You don’t mention how much of your free time as an undergrad you spent reading literature. Perhaps those committees who rejected your MFA applications also wondered about that, not so much about your age as such but how you spent your college years.
Let me clarify that I see no conflict between your history in science and your creative drive. Creativity will find ways and media in which to express itself. My natural mode of thinking is visual, so I’ve had to work damned hard to develop my writing. I often need to see a scene playing itself out before I can get deeply into the writing of it. Perhaps your level of creativity enables you to create literary works with less formal study of literature than we others may need. MFA committees are bureaucracies that rely on firm rules whenever they have doubts. Age is an easy one to evaluate. Creativity isn’t always as obvious. Nor is creativity the only touchstone for good writing. As an editor, when someone’s writing is submitted to you, do you read it looking for reasons to reject it? Do you have an unconscious tendency to withhold your suspension of disbelief? I ask questions like those two to demonstrate that creativity isn’t as easy to assess as it seems. I think you know that.
Why do you want a MFA anyway? Oh, I get it that you need to be in such a program and doing well in it to hold down your job as editor of a quality publication. Does the MFA program spare you from the deadly workaday world, from a lifetime as a Starbucks barista or a clerk-typist in an insurance monolith, the saloons of Bukowski, the despair of Woolf and Sexton? In other words, are you in it for a job in academia or publishing or to improve your writing? Both could be possible, of course, and you’re right, that’s none of my business. Nevertheless, as I view the literary scene I can’t help feeling a new academy has risen, that a MFA style is beginning to dominate American literature, too often combining delightful wordplay with keenly observed but trivial substance and prose is (seems to be?) just poetry that doesn’t quite scan.
I’ll check back for your Part 2.
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