Wisdom from the Fringes of the “MFA Club”
Marlena Fiol

Marlena, I’m earning my membership into this club now — M.F.A. In Creative Nonfiction at Goucher College. When I attended my first residency, I was surrounded by people who were literary majors, literary industry professionals, and from a cross section of other backgrounds varying the gambit. There were some assumptions made by a few, but not many. The nature of the low-residency program makes it more condecive for learners with diverse backgrounds to matriculate with the understanding by the faculty and second-year students that everyone is different in their literary foundations and expertise. In contrast, literary conferences are almost always distillations of professionals who like to show what they know and take in what they can. They’re exhibitions, not traditional learning environments. I’m reminded of a story I read in Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath— you were a little fish in a big pond, taking yourself to task because of comparative relativeness. The M.F.A. is a structured vehicle for creating a depth and breadth in knowledge, but the degree is not the end all. Doing interesting and meaningful work should be. But in the M.F.A. circles there are echo chambers of high-brow conferences where books and magazines are referenced and discussed that exemplify the always-evolving nature of the craft. This is the same reality in academia (ref. MLA conference, AERA conference, et al.). It’s important to remember that the books they reference might be esoteric because it brings to light a particular facet of the craft. That’s by design. For example, if they say “And of course there’s x’s magnum opus This is the title of my esoteric book that…”, remember that it is not necessarily a best seller. Not all the works that represent the best traits of craft for a genre are, therefore it’s highly likely you haven’t heard of them or read them. That’s okay.