God, Gold, or Glory: Why Get My MFA?

I always tell children who want to be writers that there are only two things they must do to be writers: read a lot and write a lot. “That’s all it takes,” I tell them. But I’m lying by omission. There’s something else involved in great writing, even beyond innate talent, that every book I’ve read about writing seems to acknowledge in one way or another.

On page 17 of The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo says, “If you write often, perhaps every day, you will stay in shape and will be better able to receive those good poems, which are finally a matter of luck, and get them down.” On surface, that seems to be the second part of my advice to these random children[*] I encounter: “Write a lot.” But look at the language Hugo uses, “…able to receive those good poems…” Receive from where or whom?

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, gave a TED Talk in 2009 called “Your Elusive Creative Genius.” Gilbert discusses how in ancient times, people believed that artists were gifted inspiration by a thing (which the Romans called a “genius” and the Greeks called a “daemon”) that was sort of like a fairy being that would steal into the artist’s house and work on his masterpiece. Gilbert here is trying to save us all from self-destruction and defeat. We must keep showing up for the work, but if sometimes the genius doesn’t show up, it’s not entirely our fault.

A Roman statuette of a genius crafted in the first century

Even John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction acknowledges that other, that thing which is impossible to explain to another person, let alone teach. Gardner’s notes on craft are much more rooted in the concreteness of fiction writing, in the crafting part of the craft than anything lofty, mysterious, or supernatural. But he says in the first chapter, “Art depends heavily on feeling, intuition, taste.” This sounds like shorthand for the inexplicable. “Why did you use those words, that image?” “It felt right.”

But certainly, the point is not to wait for the genius to come through or your intuition to reveal all. In On Writing Stephen King writes:

Don’t wait for the muse. As I’ve said, he’s a hardheaded guy who’s not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon. or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up.

Which is just what Gilbert and Hugo told us.

This is all fine, well, good, and standard. With faith and hard work, you’ll not only receive but deserve your reward. But I wonder if, like heaven, that reward will never be realized in my Earthly life. Gardner says, “Every true apprentice writer has, however he may try to keep it secret even from himself, only one major goal: glory. The shoddy writer wants only publication.”

People ask me what I hope to achieve by receiving my MFA in creative writing. “Do you want to be a creative writing teacher?” They ask. No. I am willing to be a teacher because I love sharing my passion with anyone who will listen, and who better than a room of freshman comp students that don’t think you need strong sentences for real life? The idea of teaching is an attractive one. But no, I could’ve easily headed for a PhD in comparative literature or English, or a master’s in education if teaching were my endgame.

I believe I’m here only because I seek glory.

Saint Teresa of Ávila, a writer and the patron saint of people in need of grace.

[*] They’re not entirely random. I work in a grocery store and sometimes children come through my register with their parents. I ask them about school. I’ll admit, if they say they love writing I imagine myself to be an inspiration by giving them my clever little bit of advice, when really I am probably just an overenthusiastic and off-putting cashier they will forget in ten minutes’ time.

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2 thoughts on “God, Gold, or Glory: Why Get My MFA?

  1. […] Boswell’s proposal involves a lot of hard work, but it is far from tedious. If writing and “finishing” a story is about crossing a river, then Boswell’s method provides a much better strategy than attempting to ford that river all in one go. Each transitional draft is like a stepping stone. You swim out to one. Rest. Then you let the river take you a little further downstream. Maybe you notice a turtle, pass some otters, and see a doe and her progeny sipping from the water. There’s another rock. Good, now where? The more time you spend on and in that water, the more of the river you’ll see. In other words, the more that you work at a story while also giving yourself up to it, the more of the story you’ll be able to receive. […]

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