by Paul Elie
from Georgetown University

MFA vs. NYC: Flannery O’Connor Weighs In


Flannery O’Connor – born March 25, 1925 – is the most accomplished graduate of an American MFA program, and like any freshly minted MFA, no sooner did she get her degree than she propounded on the whole business. Her insights – in an essay written for the alumni magazine of the Georgia College for Women – are little known and rarely seen.

Exit writer with baccalaureate degree:

What first stuns the young writer emerging from college is that there is no clear-cut road for him to travel on. He must chop a path in the wilderness of his own soul; a disheartening process, lifelong and lonesome.

Enter the graduate-education-industrial complex:

Lately, some universities and colleges have begun to examine their consciences on this matter, with the result that there are now institutions beside the poor house and the mud house where the writer is encouraged or at least tolerated in his odd ways.

What can a writing program do for a writer?

It can put him in the way of experienced writers and literary critics, people who are usually able to tell him after not too long a time whether he should go on writing or enroll immediately in the school of Dentistry.

What good is the MFA degree?

… it will be pronounced upon by his future employers should they chance to be of the academy. Because fine writing seldom pays, fine writers usually end up teaching, and the degree, however worthless to the spirit, can be expected to add something to the flesh.

And her own MFA experience: how was it?

The only writing program I am familiar with – there are many considered to be adequate – is that at the University of Iowa. The program there is designed to cover the writer’s technical needs as mentioned above, and to provide him with a literary atmosphere which he would not be able to find elsewhere. The writer can expect very little else.

MFA in hand, O’Connor made her way to NYC, renting a room at 108th and Broadway and taking her meals at the Columbia student cafeteria – “one of the few places I suspected the food of being clean.”

  • 25 March 2014
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