There were a lot of benefits of doing my MFA prior to me getting shodan in aikido. I’ve credited the MFA experience for building the confidence and internal strength necessary to get to the black belt level. Today, I’d like to talk about the reverse–what the shodan taught me about my MFA.
I did my MFA at Eastern Washington University. It was a studio, in-residence program, and it was 20 years ago. The program was fairly small, about 10 poets and 10 fiction writers with four permanent faculty (two in each genre) and a few visiting writers.
The first degree black belt, or shodan in Japanese, and an MFA degree are alike in that they are both entry levels. The word shodan means “the beginning step” and implies that all you have are a command of the basic skills. Your experience is limited. You need time in the field. Seasoning. An MFA program does much the same for writers. When I entered mine, I had been writing poems for a few years, had taken a couple of workshops, and published a few things. I also had the benefit of a mentor poet who generously gave me advice from time to time.
A raw martial arts recruit comes in with their two arms and two legs and their fives senses. They are taught to unlearn old habits and replace them with new physical skills which includes how to stand, how to walk, and how to breathe. They are then given a new set of emotional and intellectual skills which includes how to think about danger, aggression, and fear. They are taught through a process, and that process is pounded into their brains and bodies until it becomes reflex. They are less made, but rather re-made. Then, they become shodan.
Creative writing is a lot like a martial art in that way. Most of us in the so-called developed world are literate. We read. We write. We often dabble in fiction and poetry and drama. But if you want to do it seriously, there are skills and sensibilities you need to develop, remake. It isn’t necessary that you do it in an MFA program, but without someone very specifically nudging you this way and that, without a pretty steady stream of feedback, you’re shooting in the dark. Your skills will develop by luck or not at all. This is particularly true now than it was a century or even half a century ago. As students we are taught to mostly write expository papers. Creative writing is different. To break out of my martial arts metaphor for a minute, we’re talking about hockey skates versus figure skates. Some of the basics overlap, but there are a number of technical aspects that require special attention. The same is true in cross-genre creative writing. Not all poetry skills transfer to fiction. Not all fiction skills transfer to drama.
A martial arts program is most efficient when the instructors are thoughtful of the processes and mindful of the students. A martial arts instructor has a series of skills that may seem to the layperson as mere minutiae, but those are the most important skills to gain if anyone is to have long-term success. The same is true of the MFA. The MFA can’t pump out fully formed writers. Often more polished candidates are farther along the process when they entered and are gaining seasoning. Sometimes this is talent, but sometimes this is just a head start, whether that be from an enterprising and artistic parent/relative or teacher.
Most, like me, were there to practice those essential creative writing skills that we would need once we were out in the field. Like a mudansha (someone without a black belt), an MFA student is observing writers ahead of them, not just how they write, but how they handle things like publication in its various forms, how they handle promotion, how they handle their career in general. These four areas are the basic education of an MFA’er and are equivalent to the skills and observations that martial arts recruits must learn in their multi-year basic training.
Some people question whether we should have MFA programs at all. Some would say that the “traditional” ways in which writers were trained are still valid. I believe that academic specialization has made that model very difficult in the US. I do believe that if one finds a good mentor and editor, you can circumvent the MFA (unless you do have academic aspirations, then you’re stuck). But just working on your own, often in silence, isn’t just daunting–it’s like trying to learn a martial art from a book. There are those who can do it, but they are literally one in a million. I’ll tell you about that guy (kung fu story) another time.