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.