Stephen B Tuttle is a participant professor in BYU’s new MFA for creative writing. The first half of this interview posted August 5.
Do you worry about the MFA bubble that was written about in I think it was The New Yorker last year. This idea that MFAs exist to train MFA instructors and soon we’ll have more MFAs than we need?
I’m not concerned about that at all. That’s a concern that’s been around a while, and it makes sense if you think about us as a vocational school where we’re training writers who now need to get jobs as writers. One thing that is true about BYU—and I think it’s probably more true about BYU than many programs, certainly thnt the big prestige programs, certainly more than Texas-Austin or anywhere else—is that a great many of our writers aren’t planning on careers in writing. They’re good writers and they want to keep writing but for a lot of reasons that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the job market. I don’t think our writers are by and large thinking about going on to jobs in teaching.
I think a lot of them are hoping to go on to publication. That market may be oversaturated as well, but it’s oversaturated in a different way and has been for a longer time than the teaching market.
I’m often surprised by how many of our MFA students really aren’t considering a PhD, which is the next logical step if you’re interested in moving forward. The other thing though— There was a book that came out last year called The Program Era, all about the history of the creative-writing programs in the United States, and the argument the book makes—I hope that I’m not getting it wrong—is that whether you like it or not, the Twentieth Century in American literature is shaped by creative-writing programs. Our best writers, our most famous writers are in many many cases people who have either come out of programs or—even if you’re looking at people like Raymond Carver—people who were deeply influenced by those programs because they taught in them. Carver may not have come out of a program but he certainly was molded by programs, having taught at Iowa and places like that. So I sort of think that the creative-writing program is what we do now. Not to say a writer couldn’t be successful; there are too many examples to count of people who have built sizable reputations and terrific bodies of literature without any affiliation with an MFA program or any kind of writing program. But this to me is the place where people go because they are interested in honing a craft, honing some skills as a writer. And if the market is flooded and there aren’t enough jobs for them—I don’t know. That’s a problem, I guess, if all those people want jobs but I think we’re free of some of that anxiety at BYU because so many of our students are coming in it for a—not to be coy about it, but I think a lot of our students are in it just for the love of it. They enjoy writing and they want to be better writers and their hopes aren’t tied to some notion of a job at the end.
When people do start graduating, and for who do want jobs, are you lining up means to help them get on to a PhD or a teaching job or a job in publishing or a contract— To be crass, to compare it to, say, an MBA program where one of their big goals is to be sure everyone has a job. Of course, that’s not true with an MFA in the same way, but those who are interested, how to you assist them in that?
This is a tricky one because this is built into the nitty-gritty as well was an assertion we made that the MFA is not a terminal degree like it used to be. People still call it a terminal degree but the truth of the matter is most teaching in creative-writing programs around the nation have PhDs anymore. And if they don’t a PhD they have a body of publications behind them that suggests they don’t need a PhD now that they’ve got some other form of clout.
Which is to say we campaigned on this notion that we need an MFA not because it’s because it’s a terminal degree but primarily because what BYU does, what BYU is proud of is that BYU is ranked high among schools that send students off to PhD programs. They’re kind of a gateway to more education, rather than to jobs. That’s largely what the MFA has become and it feels like that is what it is for us. It’s this way to prepare students for the next step in their education, not for their first job.
So I haven’t seen any of my students, for example, come through our program and them on to a job. What I’ve seen is several move through our program toward a PhD. And as far as getting them ready for the PhD, I think we do a pretty good job. We have a close working relationship with our students. So much so that we’re sort of down in the trenches with them, helping them get their applications together, get their academic work together, get their writing samples together. And with that, good success on that front. I can’t think of any examples of our students who have wanted to get their PhD and have tried—even sort of a flimsy attempt—who haven’t been successful at getting in to those programs. Maybe not their first choice, but in many cases they did get in their first choice.
The jury’s still out on what happens after. I’m not sure. We’ve had some success, people going to PhD programs then getting jobs. Several of the people I work with came through BYU as masters students before the MFA, went on to get PhDs elsewhere, then came back as a teacher. So I think we do what we can, but we’re not like the MBA model that you suggest. We’re not really preparing our students for jobs out the door. We’re preparing them for more education or, in some cases, it’s the end of the line. This is what they wanted to do, they’ve done it, and now they’ll keep writing.
Back to the students who are just interested in writing for writing’s sake and perhaps for publication, is BYU able to bring in agents and editors and people of that stripe?
We haven’t, no. That may be the kind of thing that changes, but I don’t see it—maybe on the horizon. But one thing we’ld like to do is bring in writers, as significant as we can. By “significant” I mean “name recognition on the national level.” We have a reading series and every year we bring in writers we are proud to bring in and we give our students plenty of opportunity to sit down, in many cases in one-on-one interviews, with these writers. Classes will interview them. They’ll go visit and teach classes. So they come to campus and they really get to know our students pretty well. These are people who have something to offer writers as writers, not as future employees or teachers or whatever it is.
I know that model happens elsewhere, going back to Texas and Austin, they bring in all kinds of agents and such. To me it’s a different kind of MFA program. This just ties in with the other things that I’m saying, but I don’t think that we’re as career-minded as them. And I, quite honestly, don’t see that as a fault or a lack. We’re content to train writer as writers and introduce them to writers and not feel a major obligation to get them prepped for their first big book or something.
Are your students striving for publications in smaller journals and so forth while they’re working on their degree?
A lot of them are. Different faculty members push the publication angle more than others, but especially those students who are PhD-minded or career-minded, they’re actively seeking publication. And some of them have been very successful at getting into good journals and winning contests and things like that. I’m sorry I don’t have a list. It’s something that happens on a personal level more than it does on the program-wide model. We’re not actively encouraging our students to seek publication, although in many cases, individually, we do.
Based on input from the first half of this interview, I emailed Stephen these follow-up questions:
Any chance BYU will offer a low-residency option some time in the future?
We don’t have a low-residency degree in our plans at the moment. Our program is a fairly traditional one in the sense that we rely heavily on workshop environments where students work closely with other students and develop strong relationships with each other. The low-residency model depends on entirely different architecture and puts different demands on the faculty and administrators. While I admire the work that low-residency MFA programs are doing I don’t anticipate anything similar at BYU in the immediate future.
How many students do you accept a year, how does that break down by fiction/poetry/essay/etc?
We accept up to 10 students a year into the program. We don’t have a firm rule about how genres are represented, but we do try to find a good mix of genres
I don’t expect you to have a proselytory mission statement on the topic, but I’m sure it comes up in faculty and student discussion, so I wonder if you would comment on the role of a BYU MFA in terms of the following (I could have picked any of many others of course, but this one from Elder Ballard seems particularly direct): “With so many choices for viewers and listeners, the artistic works of the Latter-day Saint not only need to be uplifting, they must be excellent, to set them apart from the worldly and the mediocre. People deserve alternatives of quality, the kind that Latter-day Saints are capable of providing through the influence of the Holy Spirit.”
This question doesn’t come up as often as you might expect. Good art is, of course, insightful, and I think I can speak for my colleagues when I say that we encourage our students to produce writing that inspires an investigation of the world, that inspires a reader to think about the world in new and more complicated ways. But in my opinion it is also crucially important that LDS artists produce work that will resonate with an audience that is not LDS. We try to teach our students to write excellent poems and stories and essays. And because our students are overwhelmingly LDS, that writing is often very much influenced by faith. But I, at least, don’t sense a need to teach students what their faith is. They come to us with firm convictions that may or may not be represented in their writing. What we do, however, is teach writing. In the final analysis, I think it’s fair to say that we don’t train LDS artists as much as we train artists who happen to be LDS. And we do so, I hope, in a way that allows the artist every opportunity to create insightful, excellent work that is consistent with his or her faith.
Applications for the BYU creative-writing MFA are next due (for Fall 2011) on January 15.