The MFA as Shodan

Did I ever tell you about something a visitor to our dojo told me before I took my shodan test? Shodan, for those who don’t know, is the first degree black belt in modern Japanese martial arts. I won’t get into the history of all that, but here are the characters: 初段. It means the beginning step, and that’s important. Right now, over at Brevity, there is a fascinating debate about the “MFA as calling card.” You can read it in order here, here, and here.

So what did this man tell me? That the shodan was only a beginning. It meant nothing in and of itself. It was a piece of paper that was accompanied by a new (and less smelly) belt and new pants. The MFA is a lot like that.

My MFA training was two years where I not only had permission to write crap, I really needed to write crap. I didn’t write enough of it because from time to time, I still deliberately write crap to get it out of my system. The MFA is a time to retrain your mind to being a writer, just as the time before black belt is a time to unlearn how you move and breathe to learn a new way to move and breathe. An MFA must unlearn much of what they learned before in order to learn new writing techniques and new reading techniques.

That may sound strange but it’s not. You may think, well, people in the 19th century learned to write on their own without an academic program. And that’s true. But they also weren’t over-indoctrinated into the kind of academic critical thinking students in high school and in undergraduate courses are taught. Specialization in academic thinking has only grown over, not stagnated. I first thought about this as I watched non-writing students flounder in discussions in literature classes for writers when I was a student. I would encourage you to read a good book to see what I’m talking about.

In any case, the MFA is training. Pure and simple. If you’re serious, you should seriously (meaning both artistically and financially) consider it. You can do it on your own, but it takes longer (unless you’re some kind of genius which you’re probably not). People tend to underestimate the amount of technical training any artistic venture takes. The MFA is one way–and actually not a bad way–to get that training. This isn’t an plug for programs, but just my thoughts on how they should be considered.

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