MFAs and What You’re Missing

mfas and what you're missing

An Interview with Fortunato Salazar and William VanDenBerg

William VanDenBerg: I’ve been thinking (perhaps because of watching a ridiculous amount of Olympics coverage) of the concept of training as a writer. How we get better? How we develop? How we improve? So—and this might be a ridiculously broad question—how do you feel you’ve developed as a writer? What sort of things have pushed you forward?

Fortunato Salazar: Because I’ve gone without formal training as a writer, I wouldn’t want to press too hard any skepticism I might have about the value of training. I’ll just say that in my own experience, I don’t see much evidence for a belief in control over how or whether I improve. I just assume that if I put in the time, make the effort, stay out of trouble, watch my back, either I’ll improve or I won’t; basically all I can do is hold up my end of the bargain.

You on the other hand are receiving formal training as a writer—you’ve just finished your first year in the MFA program at Brown. What’s the biggest surprise you’ve encountered in the MFA universe?

WV: There have been a few: One, having so much uninterrupted time to write is wonderful. Before coming to Brown, I’d been out of school and working full time for eight years, and I didn’t really consider how much of a luxury it’d be to just work on writing. Two, it’s been really rewarding to read the work of my peers over a sustained period of time. I’ve never had the opportunity to read people’s drafts as they evolve, and seeing their different editing techniques—as well as the thousands of small decisions that go into a piece of writing—has been great. It’s made me reconsider my own editing process, which had previously been very sentence-focused. I’m now more aware of how focusing on plot and expansion can affect a piece.

I’m curious about your decision not to pursue formal training. What led you to not follow the MFA path?

FS: I don’t think academia was ever in the cards for me, and here’s the anecdote to prove it.

The household in which I grew up didn’t, let’s say, have much love for academia, but my family, such as it was, envisioned an ambitious future for me. One summer they pulled some strings to enroll me in a summer program for teens from ambitious families. On the first day of the program we teens were administered a battery of tests, and on the next day a counselor called us in individually and reviewed the results. One of the tests assessed career aptitude and personality traits—reconstructing now, it must have been the Personality Research Form, which has a scale called “Academic Orientation.” The counselor I met with was impressed: I’d produced the lowest score on that scale she’d ever seen in all her decades of interpreting the test.

I went home and told my mother, and my mother said, “My child, I’m so proud! You’ve surpassed all my hopes and dreams!” And to celebrate she took me out to lunch at Carney’s.

Apropos of Carney’s, a place of note on Sunset Boulevard, your fiction often includes a very specific and vivid orientation to place and places—I can imagine a place like Carney’s popping up in your fiction. How has the move from Denver to Providence changed the way you think about place and places when you’re writing?

WV: That’s tough to say so soon after the move. It takes me a while to write about a space that I’ve lived in—I didn’t write about my childhood home in Pennsylvania until I was 26, and I’ve only written about Colorado a handful of times. That said, New England has a very particular feel to it, and I imagine I’ll write about it eventually. It’s different than I expected—not as much of a Lovecraft vibe, although his face is everywhere around here. It has more to do with the constant presence of history, the old buildings that would be torn down anywhere else, the frequency and age of the graveyards, the architectural remains of different industries that have left the area. I’m sure it’ll work its way into my writing at some point—look for a series of New England stories in 2025 or so.

FS: Is Lovecraft an author you consider influential in your work?

WV: No, at least not a conscious influence. I think, like a lot of people, I was drawn to him when I was younger because of his ability to communicate a fear of something monumentally large (both physically and conceptually), but as I get older, I wonder how much of that fear just comes from his worldview. When I look at Lovecraftian terror through a cultural rather than a cosmic lens, it deflates like a balloon, revealing a sad, disconnected, racist white dude lingering behind it.

Getting back to your choice not to pursue an MFA: you’re not making your living in academia, and I’m always interested in how writers actually make a living. Will you talk about some of the jobs you’ve had, and how they might have informed your fiction?

FS: Early on I thought about a career in wound care, made it into the second week of orientation, misbehaved, gave it another try, fucked up again, was read the riot act, a kind soul deemed me worthy of one last chance, I acquitted myself honorably, put in a stint at a midlevel wound care facility in Glendale, stayed the course, branched out, burned the candle at both ends, maneuvered myself into an internship at a specialist facility in Studio City, not just wound care but all the aspects of personalized caretaking for geriatric former luminaries, a niche livelihood, it pays the bills, my ambition in another twenty years is to be the primary caretaker for Walter Becker, my fantasy is that Walter Becker will move back to Hawaii, eventually he’ll bequeath me his ukulele made from African imbuia, I won’t ever need to put to use my background in wound care.

Will! You should know that no one in Los Angeles ever talks about how they make a living.

Let’s go back to Providence. Brown is ranked way up there in every ranking of MFA programs. Does that create pressure for you? Is the environment a competitive environment?

WV: The closest I come to feeling pressure is while reading work from alumni of the program. Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Fra Keeler and Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, while very different books, both reach heights that I don’t think I’m capable of achieving. Pressure might not be the right word for it—it might be more similar to self-doubt.

As far as competition within the program, it’s a pretty non-competitive environment. We don’t have to fight each other for basic funding, and the range of work being done here is such that, at least from my POV, it makes direct evaluative comparisons difficult. And I think that’s a good thing—some people’s learning styles just don’t work in a directly competitive environment.

I’ve mentioned a few influential things I’ve read lately. What have you read over the last year or so that’s really made an impact on you?

FS: Easy answer because that impact you refer to was a major comeuppance which I’m still in the early stages of recovering from. I think blindsided is the term that applies here. Some form of “blind,” anyway.

There’s a dialogue by Plutarch titled Bruta animalia ratione uti, popularly known as the Gryllus, because the central character is a Greek who’s been turned into a pig by Circe and is now named Gryllus, which in Greek means something like “grunter” or “swine.” Most of the dialogue is a long monologue by Gryllus who argues sophistically for the superiority of animal intelligence and ethics over human intelligence and ethics.

Somehow I just never realized that the dialogue existed, even though it’s right up my alley because I write a lot about animals and I think a lot about animals and animal intelligence, and I usually have no problem persuading myself that I’ve scratched out enough of a mastery of Greek, maybe a street mastery of Greek, to have earned the right to do literary translation of Greek. Now I have to go back and completely readjust my thinking. Oink.

Will, speaking of readjusting, where do you see yourself in 5 years, MFA diploma in hand?

WV: I’d like to have another book out. I’m teaching in the fall, and while that’s something I’d like to pursue going forward, with the job market as it is, it’s certainly not a guarantee.

I’m curious—how do you feel about the MFA vs. no MFA debate as a whole? Is it a necessary one?

FS: That’s a little like asking me how I feel about the debate to change the size of the net in professional hockey. I’m aware that the debate exists, and I could weigh in, but from a totally uninformed perspective. Yes, changing the net size sounds like a necessary debate! Other than that, it would all be speculation. MFA, NHL… pretty much the same thing. I occasionally bump against one or the other debate online or on social occasions and immediately skate off in the opposite direction.

Okay, so I’m not getting my MFA. What do you think I’m most missing out on—not getting the benefits of—by committing myself to the non-MFA route?

WV: First off, I think most benefits that are usually linked to an MFA can be found outside of it. You can be involved with the literary community; you can have mentors; you can be involved in publishing; you can attend workshops. With Brown specifically, the program provides teaching experience, a good bit of funding, and close work with the faculty here, and those would all be challenging to get as a non-MFA. However, if you don’t want to teach, or if you have a job that’s really rewarding, or if you feel you write better with a full-time job, or if you aren’t interested in a direct mentor-mentee relationship, then those advantages are null.

In a broader sense, I think it’s common for the MFA vs. no-MFA argument to boil down to a strict oppositional relationship, and I don’t believe that’s accurate. Making the decision to choose either route depends on the individual as well as the program, so the only person qualified to make that decision is the person making it. All the guides and rankings and thinkpieces are aimed at a general audience, and I question their usefulness in informing such an individual choice.

I’m going to flip that question back to you—what am I missing by choosing the MFA route?

FS: You’ll never know the joys of doing your utmost to steer clear of AWP. You’ll never know the specific joy of getting out of town when AWP comes to your town. Were you living in Denver in 2010 when AWP came to Denver? I think by then you’d already committed to the MFA path, right? So possibly you went to AWP, probably you didn’t head out of town. You didn’t experience the special joy of AWP taking over your town while you holed up at a distance in a by-the-week motel, your nose to the grindstone whenever the dancers in the room next door weren’t partying too loud or their guests weren’t taking midnight target practice in the parking lot behind your room, or the dancers weren’t knocking on your door because they were bored out of their skulls. You didn’t experience the extra-special joy of those dancers not taking no for an answer.

I’m guessing you’ve had similar kinds of joy, only without the at-a-distance-from-AWP part—that’s the part you’re missing out on.

Fortunato Salazar lives in Los Angeles; his fiction and translation appear or are forthcoming in/at Tin House, Mississippi Review, PEN America, The Brooklyn Rail, Joyland, The Offing, and elsewhere.

William VanDenBerg is the author of Lake of Earth (Caketrain Press, 2013) and Apostle Islands (Solar Luxuriance, 2013). Recent stories have appeared in Passages North, Okey Panky, and matchbook. He lives with his wife in Providence, Rhode Island.

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