Stepping into the Morass: MFA vs. non-MFA

Cape Cod Pochet boardwalkMemoirists in blog: Nestor, Sparks, King, Conroy, Patchett, Grealy, Beard

Now that I’ve  Read 100 Memoirs in order to write one, I’ve begun to understand the range of memoirs in America’s literary world. I’ve also seen divisions, a blurred definition of “literary,” and people asking if memoir has any value as a genre at all.

Some cite St. Augustine’s Confessions as the first true memoir. My own introduction was Theo Nestor’s hopeful How to Sleep Alone in King-Sized Bed, which begins when she puts a chicken in the oven for a traditional family dinner. By the time she takes it out, her world has turned upside down. Not only is King-Size Bed  a must for anyone going through a divorce, it engages readers with its easy slippage through time. We’re  moved by Nestor’s life, but also inspired, that we can overcome our own challenges and crisis’ in a topsy-turvy world. This, I believe, is what the best memoirs should do.

Though Nestor has an Masters of Fine Arts , she writes a compelling story. “Though?” My premise is that many writers walk away with their MFA not knowing how to write a story. There is a split in the literary world between MFA and non-MFA. The question, does a writer need to earn an MFA  to write compelling stories, has been covered in a slough of articles – (http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2010/11/mfa_vs_nyc.html by Chad Harbach; http://www.thereviewreview.net/publishing-tips/mfa-or-not-mfa-question Robin Black; http://dismagazine.com/discussion/32434/brad-troemel-mfa-critiques/ Brad Troemel, for example. Many articles were written in 2010. Is that when people woke up with a jerk, realizing they were $40,000 in debt with no job in sight? And that the $40,000 wouldn’t go away? It would grow over time?

Anelise Chen compared–again, in 2010 –the authors admired versus those who actually sold books. http://therumpus.net/2010/10/on-blowing-my-load-thoughts-from-inside-the-mfa-ponzi-scheme/ Anelise Chen

New York Times Hardcover Fiction Top Five -2010-Week not identified

  1. SAFE HAVEN,      Nicholas Sparks — No MFA
  2. FREEDOM,      Jonathan Franzen — No MFA
  3. WICKED      APPETITE, by Janet Evanovich — No MFA
  4. THE GIRL      WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST, by Stieg Larsson — Swedish, therefore, No      MFA
  5. THE HELP,      by Kathryn Stockett — No MFA

Versus New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 List with Age and MFA Breakdown

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 32 — Johns Hopkins
Chris Adrian, 39 — Iowa
Daniel Alarcón, 33 — Iowa
David Bezmozgis, 37 — No Writing MFA
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, 38 — Iowa
Joshua Ferris, 35 — UCI
Jonathan Safran Foer, 33  — No MFA
Nell Freudenberger, 35  — NYU
Rivka Galchen, 34 — Columbia
Nicole Krauss, 35 — No MFA
Yiyun Li, 37 — Iowa
Dinaw Mengestu, 31 — Columbia
Philipp Meyer, 36 — Michener Center
C. E. Morgan, 33  — No MFA
Téa Obreht, 24 — Cornell
Z Z Packer, 37 — Iowa
Karen Russell, 28 — Columbia
Salvatore Scibona, 35 — Iowa
Gary Shteyngart, 37 — Hunter
Wells Tower, 37 — Columbia
My own addition: Tao Lin, 27 — Disowned by NYU

Clearly, the literati are drawn to MFA’s and Iowa and Columbia in particular, while the general population prefers something else.

As a result of my Don Quixote quest to Read 100 Memoirs, I read many books I wouldn’t have glanced at ordinarily. Takes, Nicholas Sparks, #1 on this list. I read Sparks memoir, Three Weeks with My Brother, having never actually read a Nicholas Sparks novels in my life.

Besides being entertained and moved, I learned of Spark’s his absent professor dad –absent  first, because of night school and work, and second, absent staying late grading papers. I also discovered how Sparks succeeded as a writer. He worked at his meaningless day job to pay for food, rent, shoes for the kids, as well as therapy for his child with a disability. And he wrote at night. Like most writers, his first book landed in the garbage. His second book was a collaboration, and his third book, his first published with sole authorship, hit the big time. The Notebook  became Sparks first published book.

Consider Stephen King. Again, I don’t read his books ordinarily, or the horror genre, but I devoured his memoir, Memoir on the Craft of Writing.  I’d recommend Sparks and King’s memoirs as inspiring for writers as well as interesting reads. How did Sparks and King become best-selling authors? They wrote, wrote, wrote, wrote, and read, read, read, read. They fed their kids. They did not get an MFA

Why discuss MFA versus non-MFA? Because many of the memoirs I read scream MFA in that they don’t have a story. One of my favorite writers, Pat Conroy, wrote in his memoir, My Reading Life, that we live in an era where books do not need to have “story.”

I hate to dis any authors because we have all worked so hard and many of us have failed to write the book we wish we’d written. A moving voice does not a story make. If the purpose of a memoir is to like the author, to empathize with her, to feel her feelings, I am left cold. I like Pat Conroy’s stories “better.”

Am I saying I like men’s memoirs better than women’s? I hope not! I loved Ann Patchett’s story of her relationship with Lucy Grealy in Truth and Beauty. And Lucy Grealy’s memoir about her own disfigurement in The Autobiography of Face. Patchet and Grealy were both roommates at –yes, Iowa! The MIT of writers. So I’m not against either women memoirists or MFA’s or the best of them all, Iowa. I’d just like to keep “story” in my books. You know—wonder what’s going to happen next? Be emotionally aroused? Laugh, cry, think deeply. And for that, you need to write well-not earn an MFA.