Dispatches | October 05, 2010

Lately there’s been a lot of Internet-talk about MFA programs – at least more than usual, or enough, anyway, that I am moved this afternoon to contribute to it.  Some have been asking whether MFAs and MFA programs are truly necessary for those who want to become successful writers; others have been insisting they are not; and still others – or just Marc McGurl – have observed that whether or not MFAs are essential to those who have writerly dreams, they have had demonstrable influences on some of the more prominent writers of the post-war era.  McGurl’s book has generated megabytes of controversy, and I shudder to imagine how much paper it would take to print out the whole conversation.

Something that I’ve observed recently, as I’ve become a more involved reader of online documents of ever-increasing size, is that an MFA program can, if nothing else, produce an interesting blog.  I have in mind bark, the blog maintained in part by MFA students at Eastern Washington University, the program that also brings you Willow Springs.  There are multiple basic reasons why bark works as well as it does, or seems to.  For one, they have a lot of contributors, and they contribute to it often, which is admirable in itself.  So that even if just one in three of their posts is truly fascinating, or likely to fascinate me – and the ratio is in reality better than that – it means they’re producing enough engaging content on a weekly basis to fry a Commodore 64, which was not designed to withstand much engaging content.

What I see when I look at bark is, in miniature, exactly what an MFA program is supposed to promise, at least in part.  Thoughtful people, who are thoughtful in particular when it comes to writing and contemporary literature, occupy a given space and produce written content, and interact with each other based on that content.  I realize not all of their authors, according to their bios, are in the MFA program, but I won’t let that stop me from continuing.

A blog, of course, is not the same as a writing workshop; it serves another purpose entirely, and, if anything, a blog seems like a side effect of enrollment in an MFA, or an afterthought.  But in this case it provides day-to-day evidence of the fundamental success of a writing program.  We (or I) tend to say lots of nice things about how a writing program promotes critical thinking, among other things, and compels its students to write more than they otherwise would, and perhaps because these statements are so often repeated they can sound hollow, but those things are apparent, regularly, on more blogs than the one I’ve pointed out.

I find this worth my and your attention in part because a blog by a writing program constitutes a reversal of the model we’re used to, in which a writer produces his or her work, sends it to a literary journal – often one produced by a different program – and, with luck, sees his or her work made public by those means.  A program blog is, more or less, the opposite – or anyway it elides most of the steps in that model, at the same time that a blog is essentially, like a literary journal, another publication by a given program.  In no way are they equivalent to each other, but they coexist, and I find that remarkable.

Robert Long Foreman is The Missouri Review’s Social Media Editor.