Over my years of editing, I’ve noticed commonalities in submissions. Often, the trends are in the subject matter of poems in my submission queue (2011, for example, was a rousing year for poems about mythical animals) or in the forms of poems (sonnets seem to come in waves that are far between, but always welcome). This year, I’ve been noticing a trend in poets’ biographical statements, and it’s one that has me scratching my head: writers apologizing, sometimes quite explicitly, for not having MFA degrees, as though their writing is somehow less legitimate for being un-credentialed.
Perhaps it’s the buzz surrounding the new book, MFA versus NYC, which Joe has summed up well, or the residual hum that all of those Associated Writers and Writing Programs left in the air after the AWP conference. But whatever the case, I think it’s a shame that some writers feel under-credentialed to write.
First of all, let me say that I think MFA programs are, on the whole, wonderful. As with any educational experience, the quality of programs varies, but my own experience with earning an MFA degree was an excellent one. I was not a writer who absorbed the finer nuances of the craft of writing through my reading alone, and I needed my teachers to point out to me the areas in which I wasn’t developing.
I recognize that my experience is my own, however. I think I was particularly dense in my study of writing; I know many fellow writers who have successfully developed their writing through reading widely, studying works on the craft, and taking workshops outside the academic setting. The key isn’t that they hold or do not hold academic degrees in their fields—it’s that they actively work to gain new knowledge about writing and to improve their skills.
It also saddens me to think that writers who are actively working to develop their artistry feel somehow less free to present their work to editors. I believe that a writer’s background is an important aspect of presenting a diverse range of voices in print; there is room in literature for all of our voices, whether we are MFA-holding teachers of creative writing, machinists, biologists, bus drivers, lawyers, customer service agents, or farmers. We have a responsibility to develop our talents, but where we choose to do so shouldn’t be a determining factor in our confidence about publication.
At TLR, we don’t believe that anyone needs to apologize for his or her background. We value the well written word, and we value writers. So if you’re a writer who has been hesitant to submit work to journals because you feel you’ll be ignored due to the degrees you do or do not hold, please, take heart: there is room for all good writing in the literary conversation.