Nevermore, Iowa? Why Poe Didn’t Need a MFA

Poe was po'.
Poe was po’.

Probably one of the most interesting components thus far of applying to Creative Writing MFA programs has been following this blog, the “Creative Writing MFA Handbook.” Apparently every year MFA applicants convene here to discuss what schools they applied to and report on their acceptances/rejections as they filter in. I’ve been lurking silently, a voyeur, fascinated by what the comments on this blog say about how writers view themselves and how much weight is placed on obtaining the MFA in order to “be a writer.”

Commenters describe their anxiety levels, state what round of MFA application this is (although some people are accepted on the first try, there are some who are on their second or third go–which is shared as encouragement to re-submit applications next year), and talk about how they are coping with the waiting (whiskey, chili and cornbread, hatching plans to form writing groups, “more yoga”). People also exchange tips about funding, commiserate about the quality of life in cities like Baltimore (so newly gentrified), and wail about how they realize now that they screwed up on the Personal Statement, and “can someone who was accepted explain what they did with their Statement” (I cringe at the incorrect grammar there, but even aspiring writers drift into bloghorrific language). One commenter named “SnackAttack” has become obsessive and dominates the discussion at every turn; when a blog administrator posted a new thread (it’s up to the 5th thread now), Snack Attack jumped in with: “Just wanted to be first in something today. Go team!” And this is not SnackAttack’s first year on the blog; this commenter even remembers what month certain schools notified about poetry acceptances in previous years.

We live in a society that places far too much emphasis on status and accolades like a degree from a prestigious university. I applied for the MFA knowing this, yet also desperately desiring someplace to be with other talented writers and not endure the constant pressures of earning a living. (Hour three of my babysitting job is always me thinking, “I should be working on my novel right now.”) Yet it pains me to see how writers hinge their careers on a MFA acceptance–one commenter wrote dramatically, “if I get rejected it means that I am not meant to do this which would hurt like hell.”

Writing has become a somewhat glamorous and expansive career in recent decades, and perhaps many of us pursuing the MFA dream of rocketing to fame with a novel like The Corrections, having a cushy academic position with lots of time to write, and being invited to fancy Paris Review parties to schmooze with well-known editors and “the chattering classes.” But the first American known to have made a living off writing, Edgar Allen Poe, lived a miserly existence filled with debacles, shame, and shun from the upper classes. Poe was born to parents who were actors in the Richmond, VA theater; his parents vanished or died and little Edgar was adopted by a wealthy, aristocratic couple. He was in the first class of students at the elite University of Virginia (Mr. Jefferson’s university) but after he racked up gambling debts, his adopted father made him drop-out after a semester. Poe went straightaway to Boston, where he somehow convinced a publisher to put out a book of his poems. For the rest of his life, Poe shamed his father by repeatedly soliciting money from him while living in Boston and Baltimore and working in the Army; but he was always writing–Poe published three volumes of poetry, all before the age of twenty-two. With not even a college degree.

Poe never asked anyone’s approval to “be” a writer, or expected an institution to prop him up and coddle him and tell him how cute and wonderful he was–he just wrote, and he found a way to find readers for his work. He didn’t live off it. He may have been hungry a lot; biographers claim that he drank a lot. But he wrote, and published, a lot. Isn’t that the idea here?

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