I’m always interested in talking about formal education when it comes to the arts, because these are vocations for which anything goes—you can study painting at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, or you can paint in a completely naïve, unschooled manner, learning everything by feel, and the validity of your art will not necessarily be affected. You will simply invite different kinds of judgement. I always go back in my mind to this image of a surgeon about to cut open a patient on a table—you don’t get to cut people open if you haven’t learned all the stuff and been to the schools. But anyone can make a painting; all that is required is to want to do it. And anyone can write.
So how do you do know just how much schooling in your chosen creative field is right for you? In many ways I think this is a question without a clear answer. I went to art school, but I’m fairly certain it didn’t make me a better artist, and I’ll explain what I mean. Art school gave me the tools to be a better artist: I was able to practice different techniques with different media, teachers let me in on secrets of technique that I might never have been able to figure out on my own, and I learned about optics and color theory and composition. Now, I might have been able to learn all of that by feel, by studying art in museums and practicing in isolation, and eventually I might have been able to apply that study to my own work. I feel, looking back, as though taking classes in painting and studying with actual artists gave me some shortcuts—it was faster to be taught certain things than to simply try to figure them out by myself.
But another thing happened that wasn’t so great. I was being taught to make art by people who also make art, who had their own methods, biases, and tastes. They did not want me to copy them, but they often had trouble understanding or appreciating my work when I didn’t. I’m not suggesting I was some sort of misunderstood genius, but the teachers’ personal reactions to my work affected my grades, and I have always been a student who wants to please the teacher. I’m a student who really wants that A. I would say this caused me to go a little bit astray. I couldn’t just make art for myself first, and let it find others who would also appreciate it—I was being graded! GRADES. (I actually lost a full scholarship because I was unable to remain in the top 3% of my program. The fine arts classes were so small, I would have to have been the top student in all of them. That was discouraging.) I ended up trying to emulate my teachers, trying to make art that I thought they would like. It wasn’t their fault, but I lost track of what kind of art I actually wanted to make. I learned a lot, and as I said, in some ways I saved a lot of time, but I lost some as well. In the end, I ended up veering away from making art, partly because I seemed better suited to art history, but also partly because I kind of forgot about what had drawn me to it in the first place. I listened to a lot of people around me who seemed to be saying that I wasn’t good enough. And I was so young, and so eager to please, that I didn’t have the strength to follow my own vision in the face of people with more authority who were trying to change it.
From what I’ve heard, MFA writing programs can have some of the same issues for certain writers. I think they provide many advantages—a chance to learn about craft, to write intensely for years, to meet other writers who can provide honest, educated critique, some of them long after the MFA is behind you. I’m sure lifelong writer friendships have been forged in the fires of many an MFA program. But I’ve also heard that they often over-emphasize literary fiction, that if you prefer a genre like SFF, for instance, you might as well not bother. And even though I’ve had writer mentors, and I can attest to the value of the positive influence a writer we admire can have on us, I also tend to assume that MFA teachers could possibly come with some of the same baggage I experienced as an art student: the writer teaching the student how to write more like them, not necessarily guiding the student to a more accomplished form of their own voice. And the student’s desire to please their teacher might override their own instincts, not always for the better.
I’ll never know what the experience of a writing MFA might have been like for me. I applied to one, once, at the University of Michigan. I knew I was going to have precious little to do when I first moved to the United States, because I wouldn’t be allowed to work, and the commute down to Ann Arbor would have been reasonable, but I didn’t get in. It turns out, that didn’t matter. It took me a little while, but after many years raising my kids and not really thinking about writing at all, I went back to it. That good old school of reading a lot and writing a lot and hard work got me where I wanted to be, no degree required.