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March 10, 2015 at 9:00 am

Messitt: In Defense of the Low-Res MFA

Maggie Messitt

Maggie Messitt


“I am an MFA dropout,” writes Maggie Messitt, a doctoral student in Ohio University’s Creative Writing non-fiction program. Her column “In Defense of the Low-Res MFA” appears on the Brevity blog.

…Still, I was convinced that graduate school was my next step. I wanted to tell true stories. After broadcast and newspaper internships, I knew these paths didn’t feel quite right. I could only describe: I want to produce documentaries on paper. I leapt from undergrad to a successful MFA program on the East Coast that had recently added nonfiction. And, yet, I was a fish out of water. I didn’t fit inside the box. And my interactions with professors made this clear. Throughout my first year, I carried the heavy weight of being a disappointment and my writing reflected this. So, I left after that first year.

I had nearly forgotten the intensity of that feeling and how destructive it was, until I read Ryan Boudinot’s “Things I Can Say About MFA Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One,” in The Stranger. Boudinot’s diatribe struck me as an I-just-quit-my-job-let-me-tell-you-how-terrible-it-was letter to his former captors—his students. It was arrogant and personal. It had possible tinder for discussion, but most readers couldn’t get past the sharp tone and appalling digs.

Although I could comment upon each point where he went wrong, I won’t. Others have already done this and done this well. But, what I can’t seem to let pass is Boudinot’s destructive and unspoken criticism of low residency programs and their students.

Ryan Boudinot is a graduate of Bennington College and former faculty at Goddard College. Both of these programs are low residency. This means, for two or three years, students are in-residence twice a year for one to three intense weeks, depending on the program, and then everyone returns to their homes across the country or the globe to work with their mentor and their mentor group from afar. And while they’re full time students, almost everyone returns home to full-time jobs and family.

In full disclosure: three years after leaving grad school, I restarted my MFA at Goucher College, a low-res program. It changed my life. I started from scratch and from day one I knew I’d found a home. Low-res programs have a unique, almost magical, dynamic that only low residency students and faculty understand. And it is for this reason I—an MFA dropout, an MFA graduate, and now a PhD candidate in Creative Nonfiction—can’t wrap my head around Boudinot’s willingness to, for lack of a better word, dis these alternative programs with such a wide brush.

Messitt expands upon the following points in her column:

  • Low Residency MFA’s are structured around the positive relationship between mentors and mentees. There is no place for mentor gatekeeping or bullying.
  • Know your audience. Low residency students do not fit into a single category or stereotype.
  • Literary community is essential. Be kind and listen.

Read the rest of her column at Brevity.

Maggie Messitt is the author of The Rainy Season: Three Lives in the New South Africa, a work of literary journalism (April 2015). Her essays and reportage have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Essay Daily, Mother Jones, River Teeth, and Teaching Tolerance magazine, among others. She currently resides in southeast Ohio, where she’s working on her doctorate and her next book, a hybrid of investigation and memoir. She is co-editor of Proximitya quarterly collection of true stories. Find her on Twitter and Facebook.

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