J.M. McDermott is scheduled to graduate from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Program with an MFA in Popular Fiction. He has five novels out or forthcoming, including a reprint of his critically-acclaimed first novel, Last Dragon, from Apex books, and Never Knew Another, the first book of the Dogsland Trilogy.
I’ve been suspicious of the academic system most of my adult life. You see, some of the dumbest people I ever met in life had Ph. D’s, and some of the smartest people I ever met in life never seemed to need much in the way of education. I don’t think I’m alone in this, either. Stupid comes in all shapes and sizes, as does brilliant. I’ve met janitors who could debate complex philosophical concepts, who lived quiet lives assertively saving and investing for retirement with their library card in hand. I’ve met security guards who could enter easily into rigorous debate with art historians about the nuances of different brush strokes and biographic details gleaned from obscure letters. I’ve met professors of humanities that could barely string together three sentences coherently, in three languages, and wealthy business-leaders who made their fortune not on skill but on narcissism and talking loudly. Naturally, I’ve also met dumb janitors, brilliant professors, and everything in between. Especially in our current economy these last ten years, education beyond high school is almost completely decoupled from our actual employment in all but a few select fields. Most of our advanced degrees exist for the sole economic sake of producing professors to teach advanced degrees in that field. It seems amazing to me, sometimes, that anyone would pursue an advanced degree in anything useful, let alone something relatively useless in the current economy, like a master’s degree in the fine art of writing fiction. Better to just find work that suits your social and mental preferences to keep the lights on with a little money left over, invest your savings, raise a family, and try not to make too much noise until retirement. Lots of folks figured the whole system out, and it’s working great for them.
But, about the decoupling of school from work: Walk into your average Starbucks and notice the intellectual diversity behind the counter. It isn’t just college kids slinging drinks behind the counter, these days. There’s folks behind that line, making your coffee, that have resumes that would impress you, with advanced degrees in complex things. This is true everywhere. In my last office job, the gentleman who emptied the trash and cleaned the bathroom was in school for a degree in biology, with limited career prospects in his field outside of going into debt for medical school, which he did not desire to pursue, so he figured he’d keep the job he had emptying the trash. His boss on the cleaning crew seemed to be doing quite well with his fancy sports car, designer clothes, and upbeat attitude, and he had only a high school education.
I was looking at an article about the best jobs for graduates, this year, and it seems like the industries that are booming are symptomatic of the global decline of Western society: accounting is hiring lots of folks, to tighten the clamps on business; medical fields at all levels will be caring for a degenerating population of retirees and business is booming; high finance firms and corporate salesmen are grinding through their latest fish in the shark tanks to scheme upon the bubbles of bacterial growth in an economy that is as degenerating as the average age of the population.
Basically, the great and glorious American empire is in decline. Any education – especially an artistic one, like an MFA – is a poor investment if it doesn’t help the graduate profit from the breakdown of our society. More than any other, careers in the arts go where the patrons go. The novel, being historically a middle-class art form, will suffer without a middle class to support the writers, and fictionists will stumble when there just aren’t enough people around with money enough to buy books instead of buying branded food-esque AgraSoyCanola. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that an MFA in fiction and/or poetry may be the single worst investment you can make in your economic future. The money you spend pursuing it is far better off, economically, being thrown into interest-bearing accounts, ready to be ripped out at a moment’s notice as soon as everyone is convinced that the economy might not suck (because that just means the next bubble is upon us!) Debt for an MFA is worse than a credit card, because you actually can keep what you buy with your credit card debt and you can sell it on e-bay later when it becomes nostalgic and collectible. A paper with your name and the letters “M…F…A” upon it might only be useful as a something to burn in your cave when you are homeless.
There is no economic value in an MFA in Fiction, popular or otherwise.
I am in my last semester of graduate school, for an MFA in Popular Fiction, from the Stonecoast Program of the University of Southern Maine, and I don’t regret it for a moment. Not only that, I have come to this relatively late in my writing career, after dropping out of one lesser graduate school program chosen for location and cost instead of quality, and then even after making a name for myself as an author. I was, on my first day of this program, well-published, and pulling upon life experiences of all sorts of zany things people go to graduate school to be able to do, like have a “real job” or work in video games, or travel the world. I chose to go to the Stonecoast Program of the University of Southern Maine, where I am currently in my final semester. If all goes according to plan, I’ll be graduating in July with an MFA in Popular Fiction.
Be proud of me. Be proud of my economic waste. The greatest tragedy of our culture is that we have allowed the financiers to take over our young imaginations. Our brightest minds from our greatest universities flock to high paying jobs, where they try to make as much money as they can before they die. The best and brightest children our nation has to offer have all been seduced into believing that ownership of large houses is more important than the environmental footprint that our McMansions smear all over our fragile ecology. The systems of wealth culture have brainwashed our youth into believing that upward mobility is something everyone should aspire to, and that being a leader is something glorious and respectable and sexy, and everyone else is a slacker or failure, and that it is a shameful thing to be a janitor or a waiter or a truck driver or a stay-at-home mom.
We, all of us, need to stop that shit right now. The best and the brightest of our world should neither be measured by how much money they earn, nor by whether they own big houses, fancy clothes, or all the consumerist bullshit things like that. The only measure of a person that matters is how they affect other people, and how we all can find a way as individuals, communities, and continents, to contribute in a meaningful, positive fashion to the very tiny world we all share. The best and the brightest should, in fact, in a fair world, see high-paying jobs as corrupting influences on the pursuit of true value in the world. (Are any of you listening to me, best and brightest graduates? Anyone? Bah… go drive your Porsches to your mansions all you greedy children…)
Art, in any form or fashion, is one of the most important things anyone, anywhere can pursue. Art is a gift given to the world, even if it is sold for money. No amount of money walls off the ideas from spreading and infiltrating other people’s ideas. A good idea repeated enough times, whispered into enough minds in enough ways has the power to make the world a better place, in a dramatic way. Good ideas repeated enough times tore down the walls of segregation, the Berlin Wall, the miserable treatment of GLBT human beings in America, and the power of fear to control society.
Want to be rich? Want to be a doctor? Medicine is a losing battle against human mortality. Death always wins, eventually.
Want to get one of those hot yuppie jobs right out of college? Accounting is a losing battle against human greed. The more rules we invent to measure a company, to try and hold back the greed at the heart of the corporate system no matter how altruistic the people and the CEO, the harder it gets to hold back the tide of the wicked pigmen, wallowing in the blood of the workers whose communities, pensions, and ecologies are turned into pigsties. Sales is the training ground of pigs. Insurance industries are constructed in such a manner that they actually don’t qualify as insurance, as the dictionary defines them, because risk is minimized, but never shared.
Engineering? Technology? Computers? When I was in high school, one of our bus drivers was an experienced engineer who kept getting promoted until two new grads could do his work for less pay, and he gave up on the rat race to drive a bus. His story was not uncommon among the tech-heads that were either promoted into management or released into the wild at the convenience of the shareholders.
What is left for you, graduate? Do you do what your parents tell you and aspire to that golden beach house, those golden retirement years, golden plastic surgeries to stay forever young? No? Then, sneak off into the bookshops and punk rock clubs of the disaffected youth and slack until the drugs break you? Not for you? Then hide out in some job, hoping that all the things you don’t understand just don’t hurt you – pray that things you can’t control don’t hurt you. They still will. Maybe you’d rather hide in academia forever, training a new generation of soldiers in the global economic war to make the rich more rich?
All of these paths are false. None of these goals have value or meaning as economic goals. There’s a very simple solution.
Pursue what interests you.
If you are in school right now, and looking at future career prospects, future degree-majors, ignore the bollocks. Pursue what interests you. Even the dire examples above, if they are of interest to you, suddenly are no longer dire. When medicine is interesting, or the architecture of corporate management structures, or the fascinating way accounting can make life better in such small ways, then that is what you should pursue. A smart parent may try to convince you that something lucrative intersects with something that interests you, and maybe their advice will be good for your pocketbook if it is honest and true. Remember, you only get one life. At the end of your life, when you are on your deathbed, you will not measure your life in dollar bills, excepting only where those bills can be used to help the people you have left behind. This has been my method and my madness since I graduated from high school.
I pursued degrees in Creative Writing. I started as an undergraduate at the University of Houston. I dabbled in straight literature at an inexpensive, convenient graduate school before the educators who should have inspired me drove me away in disgust. I came back to graduate school later on, at a new school with better teachers, wiser and calmer and looking to learn from people that were actually good. To me, even after all the turmoil in my education and my life, art is still a meaningful career choice, even if it is not economically viable most of the time. I saw this first hand in the years since my undergraduate degree. I spent ten years among creative graduates, this army of art school and writing and literature and philosophy graduates all over the cities of the world, all of us gently using what we learned in strange and unexpected ways to make the world a better place, drawing over signs and talking sense where otherwise corporate media talking points would rule uncontested. I recall an art school graduate and myself convincing a hardcore Fox News Republican about the truth of global warming with simple methods familiar to anyone who ever attended a workshop. I brought my education into the bars and coffee houses where I communicated effectively among people who didn’t study the arts to explain how certain films suck and they are not to be celebrated because a marketing department is pissing on your eyes and insisting that you love every minute of it. I have been in corporate meetings and understood what was being said between the lines because I was reading people as characters instead of allowing them to lie to me with the face value of their words. An education is something that carries with you a long time. An education in the Arts means you’re part of this army of people who don’t suck, and can tell good idea from bad, inoculate people against marketing campaigns, and call out the false drama, false image, false fools wherever we see such things in ways that can be polite and elegant or damning and indomitable as situations merit.
It’s like how before kids take piano lessons, they don’t understand really good music. It’s like how it’s hard to appreciate Beethoven until you’ve numbed your fingers trying to walk behind him on the keyboard and you get a sense of how complex it all is, and how beautiful in its complexity. Then, you get a sense of that in all the music around you. Then, you realize that Milli Vanilli really shouldn’t be lip synching, and certainly not to anything that sucks that much. (I mean, at least Lady GaGa rips off Madonna’s good stuff, not the B-Sides…)
Even for writers who are “making it”, like me, the degree is worth pursuing. Like many of the good writers I know, I find myself always looking for ways to improve my work, looking for insights into fiction craft everywhere I go, and I seek out people who share that passion to learn what they learned. Whilst looking around one day, I noticed that the teachers in this particular program were all top notch writers. (Not the esoteric numeric rankings in some magazine or website! The people who would actually be in the classroom with you are all that matter to you as a writer!) I was familiar with their work, and thought it would be useful to me as a writer to expose my stuff to the eyes of people who had come from different artistic backgrounds than me, who had different aesthetics and different influences. (link: http://usm.maine.edu/stonecoastmfa/)
I’ve noticed that every time I write a novel, I have to learn how to write again, because I have to learn how to write that, particular novel. I’ve noticed that every time I take time to expand my artistic horizons, I find a direct benefit in my work within the week, if not sooner.
Learning is a good thing. In a field dedicated to constant ideation, learning is just about the best thing.
Who were these people? Well, James Patrick Kelly is up for another Nebula. Elizabeth Hand teaches there, too. So does David Anthony Durham, David Mura, Nancy Holder, and Scott Wolven. Writers I’ve heard of, and read, and from whom I’d like to gain new perspectives on my own work. Even when I don’t agree with them or their approach, I like to learn about it. I like to see how they think a little when they see my stuff, and maybe learn new things about myself.
Maybe I did learn new things about myself.
With my MFA complete this coming July, a couple career options will open up to me that were previously closed. I could teach college, for instance. It would be nice to do that, I think, compared to what I’m doing now. But, I’m not holding my breath. Many graduates are thinking the same thing I am about teaching writing. It may be a more desirable way to earn a living than scrubbing floors or working a cash register, but it is no more or less honorable. There is no shame in honest work, and one does not need to have a respectable job to be respectable.
Every time I sit down at the computer, often in my own free time, away from the sort of boring work most of us must do to keep the pantry stocked and the lights on, I try to make the fiction I produce better, stronger, closer to the idealized vision inside of my head of what emotional impact it should have on readers. If I make a living as a writer, so be it. If I teach college, so be it. If I scrub floors somewhere, bus tables, or wash dishes so I can sneak off to the library to continue my pursuit of the arts, so be it. None of this is important in consideration of the worth of the degree, itself. In the end, I do not pursue an MFA to be anything other than what I already am: a writer of fiction. I need no validation. I need no certification. No one needs those things, really, even if these things are listed as things gotten from the degree. I came to the program wanting to improve myself on the path I was already on, and I think I have gotten that. I learned about whole fields of art I didn’t know about. I met with luminaries of the fields of writing. I read new poetry. I read books I would not otherwise have read, and learned from them. I borrowed the eyes of strangers, and the eyes of new friends. I gave as good as I got, I think.
As this experience winds down, I like to think of all these supposedly economically useless degrees, especially degrees in the creation of artistic things like poems or pottery, like getting a degree in being super heroes. By day, people with useless degrees are, most of us, working hard to keep our pantries stocked with food and our lights on. If we are lucky, our daylight work is engaging and interesting. If we are not, it is a minor inconvenience as long as there is food and light. Then, we leave our day jobs and our lives open up. We read, and analyze, and create. We engage in debate on the internet and in the magazines of our fields–for instance, at SFSignal. We continue pursuing our interests, beyond graduation, and maybe we make things or ideas that whisper out into the world, rippling chaos theory’s caribou sneezes to rend the walls of Jericho. We go out to buy groceries afterwards, and nobody knows us. We go to work, and maybe we tell one person there over lunch what happened in our esoteric pursuits. We work hard, raise families and/or pets, and most people don’t even know what we really are in the wee hours and the corners of our lives, when we pursue what interests us.
But, at night, in the corners of our lives, when no one is looking, we are superheroes.
Personally, I think if we stop thinking about degrees as career-training, at all levels of business and culture, and start thinking about them as life-training, we’ll make huge headway as a civilized society. Imagine a world where philosophers and engineers are recruited by Wall Street, and Mathematicians are political interns, and literature majors are welcomed with open arms into accounting work because of their studies in multi-cultural poetry. MBA schools no longer exist, because management of a person is too personal a thing to be turned into a system, and management of matter can be taught better in Quantum Mechanics. None of my hypotheticals are so far-fetched that they can’t exist in some fashion already in the world as is.
I guess what I’m trying to say is wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a world where everyone was an outlier, an oddball, a curious individual with esoteric interests that diversify every community?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone could pursue the things that interested them, including through economically-useless degrees? Wouldn’t it be great if economies valued things that have cultural value but no direct economic value? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the world actually valued studying things that are interesting in the same way we value the work of accountants and middle-managers and corporate sales and marketing departments and plastic surgeons and cosmetic dentists and CEOs?
We could live in that world, you know. It starts with you, right now. Here’s how: Whisper this idea out into the world.
We’ll all do it together.