Tarn Wilson found an unexpected benefit from being in an MFA program:
When I started my program, I hoped only that the structure would help me make writing a priority and I’d pick up a few advanced skills. I’d underestimated the power of mentors. I should have guessed: in my work with at-risk teens, I’d researched what fosters resilience in those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The number one predictor of future success? Mentors. The number one way to increase the percentage of underrepresented minorities in top career fields? Mentors. Yes, my MFA mentors were skilled writers generous with their wisdom, but even more, they showed me, in their various creative ways, how to build a writing life—especially in a culture that rewards very few writers financially and that offers constant, bombarding distraction. They modeled how to make a living, prioritize writing, navigate the demands of family and friends, and manage emotions around success and failure.
The critics don’t argue against mentors, but suggest writers should find them organically. Think Hemingway gathered with the expatriates in Gertrude Stein’s Paris salons. But not all of us know where to find a mentor, and even if we did, we’re too polite or shy to impose on their precious time. Critics argue that MFA programs are classist, but I also believe it’s classist to demand writers find their own support. Now that I teach privileged teenagers, I recognize how much easier it is for those raised in well-off families to find mentors. They have spent their lives cultivating an appealing, graceful assurance. They know how to network, have access to people who know people, and have the confidence to ask for what they want. The rest of us need an MFA program.