Competitiveness in the MFA?

I am still recovering from Come Home Chicago. It was a night of great storytellers, music, and people. The complimentary Malort was not so great, but I still took a few shots of it out of a Chicagoan’s sense of duty.

But yesterday, I discovered that someone had, shall we say, vandalized one of the posters advertising the event that was hanging on the fiction writing floor.

Now first let me begin by pointing out that I teach high school, and I’m not easily shocked when I find that someone has taken artistic liberties with desks, textbooks, posters of Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc. I’ve seen more amateur penis graffiti and penciled-in boobs in six years of teaching than most people see in a lifetime. So I wasn’t actually upset or scandalized when I heard about what happened to this poster—just sort of perplexed that this kind of thing happens in places where people are older than fifteen.

And I wouldn’t consider this little tidbit of gossip notable enough for my blog today except that it gave me a nice segue way into a topic I’ve been thinking about lately: competitiveness.

The poster was advertising an event homegrown by Columbia people, so one would think that its continued success would be a success for everyone associated with the program. In a perfect world, writers would be happy for each other when they put together successful events, win awards, publish books, or simply compose beautiful, original stories. But it’s well documented that we are a taciturn, insecure bunch, and we sometimes feel that a fellow writer’s success is somehow a threat to our own standing. Not even our most brilliant, treasured authors were immune to the sniping. Of course it’s healthy, even essential, to feel that competitive burn—I mean, to even make the attempt to pursue a career in the arts takes a certain degree of egoism and tenacity—but I think we all know that in the end, your worst competition is your own self. In Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer, which we read in my short story class last week, she reminds us “how many rooms there are in the house of art.”

I’m thankful for all of my peers and teachers who support each other, who want each other to succeed, and for forums like Writer’s Digest, which provide a steady stream of encouragement that every writer needs to keep going.

I don’t know if the “reviser” of the Come Home Chicago poster was acting out of a sense of insecurity or just an adolescent urge and a Sharpee, but I do think this idea of competition in MFA programs is something I’ll be revisiting over my time here at “MFA Confidential”. I’d be really curious to hear from all of you. Do you feel competitive with other writers you know? Do you think competition is inevitable in a writing program? How much is healthy, and how much is too much? Do you have any stories of competition as a catalyst or a deterrent in your own writing? And finally, do you believe that if one writer is to take a room in the house of art, does that mean someone else gets left in the cold?

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2 thoughts on “Competitiveness in the MFA?

  1. Dana

    Good post. I struggle with my own sense of competitiveness. Sometimes it is what provokes me to write, because I don’t other people learning something before me or getting out ahead of me.

    From a different angle, I believe competition is a lot like narrative in the sense that it pulls outsiders in to watch.

  2. Kristan

    "I’ve seen more amateur penis graffiti and penciled-in boobs in six years of teaching than most people see in a lifetime."

    Lol!

    See, the thing I love about writing is that it is not a zero-sum game. Yes, in publishing, money and marketing is limited. BUT. Books like Twilight, Da Vinci Code, etc. — whether you like them or not, they encourage people to read! (And they make big profits for their publishers, who can then afford to take on smaller or less lucrative projects.)

    When one author succeeds, they widen the path for ALL of us. So yes, being a writer requires a certain amount of egoism and tenacity, to stick with it long enough to succeed; and being a good writer requires a certain amount of competitiveness, to improve your craft and "run with the big dogs"; but really promoting reading as a cultural phenomenon? That requires working together. And if we don’t do that, then who’s going to read all these words we’re putting out?

    Maybe I’m an idealist, but that’s how I like to look at this.

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