Making the MFA Work: Diego Baez

by Daniel Firman

Continuing our series on life (and work) after the MFA, here’s a brevity by Diego Baez, a 2010 graduate of Rutgers-Newarks Creative Writing Program:

I think it’s important to speak less of the MFA per se, than of everything that went into my receipt of what some people consider a terminal degree, others a waste of time, and yet others a conspiratorial moneymaking scheme endemic to ENG Departments nationwide (more on that).

It would seem the only intrinsic value any graduate degree can possess must follow from the time spent in pursuit thereof. And it’s of course impossible to separate energy and effort and yes financial investment (both in tuition paid and income lost, if you wanna look at it that way [that is, I left an incredibly low-stress, albeit not always rewarding but rather well-paying 9 to 5 for a stipend and $500/credit hour, and tried to survive in one of the most expensive cities in the continental US]; I prefer to think of it as a redirection of funds) from the two years I spent in Newark. Some of this I think starts to get at the relationship between the MFA and my career.

Desclamatory interpolation: most of this will be way too long and probably pretty boring, but I’m having a hard time summarizing or saying anything “that will suffice.”

Depending when you read this, I’m either unemployed or hopefully teaching, but probably working at writing centers in one or more of Chicago’s City Colleges. In that sense, my degree hasn’t done much in terms of providing job prospects. I was this close to signing a contract (you can’t see it, but I’m suspending the tips of my index and thumb about an inch apart) with the ENG Dept. at Harold Washington to teach two courses in what they call Developmental or remedial Comp, exactly the kinds of courses I taught at Essex County during grad school. But when my interviewers returned from a visit upstairs to clarify some Administrative fine print, they informed me that, unfortunately, a new district-wide policy prevents the hiring of applicants with only an MFA (nevermind my two years’ experience). So, strictly- and technically-speaking, no, my MFA hasn’t advanced my career. In fact it actually prevented me from getting a job for which I’m otherwise qualified.

(Since I don’t know how easy it is to format footnotes for a blog post, I’ll include as an aside here what I think is a pretty important clarifier: HW’s refusal to hire MFAs has nothing to do with low-level Admins or my alma mater or really even me [though that’s kinda thorny and debatable]; the departmental co-chairs were all about hiring me; whatever committee or Board comprises this “district” polices who gets hired by whom, not the future hire’s colleagues and fellow academics. I.e., the circumstances inhibiting my hiring have more to do with some ugly intersection between the bureaucratic Academy and art, about which I’ll abstain from saying anything more here.)

So maybe I should’ve pursued an MA or PhD. Except I can’t say “should’ve” and mean it, since I can’t even begin to contemplate an alternative to my two years in pursuit of an MFA without now already having completed every requirement for the conferral of my degree; any ex post facto valuation of my MFA is always already tempered by that time, you might say.

And but what I said above only proves true if when I say <i>career</i> I mean something more along the lines of part b) of the OED’s 5th entry for the word, because as far as an MFA-reliant “course of professional life or employment” goes, I’m hosed. But my time in Newark has already proven invaluable, in the sense that it moved forward my “course or progress through life,” (<i>course</i> of course the important common thread here), except I’d be hard pressed to imagine life unfolding in anything other than a forward direction, the vanward, headlong rush of spacetime and whatnot. That is, what I learned and the people from and with whom I did so (whether in print or IRL), changed who I am; it altered my life’s course. My investment of effort, energy and time can’t be measured by my publication record or CV-length or frequency of public readings. My completion of a thesis or ms. or book doesn’t indicate success or failure. I can only evaluate my experience based on how I spent my time. Which is to say…

I spent two years in a graduate program learning how to read and write, and honestly, still don’t know how. But since writing and reading are recursive skills refined with every text I encounter, I can’t say I’ll ever know, in the sense one can know that 1+1=2, or that the electron configuration of Hydrogen is just one lonely orbital out there in the cloud; that these are even skills that can be known completely or mastered with any implication of finality feels inapplicable.

To risk now (both) sentimentality (and pedantry), it seems to me that what I’ve learned is really more along the lines of something like <i>gnosis</i>, “direct personal knowledge beyond the Gospel or the Church hierarchy,” or, to continue the analogous example from above, beyond the prejudices of contemporary Academic bureaucrats. I.e., the skills I’ve refined and the knowledge I possess must be for me if I want to attempt anything different or interesting or worth doing at all with my work, which maybe ultimately won’t have anything to do with “how I pay the bills.” Now that I know this, I never expect to “know” how, but only ever to continue to learn, and this, together with some great memories and amazing new friends, is what my MFA gave me.

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