Thursday, August 6, 2009

Life Experience and the MFA

by Denis Yurchikov

This will sort of relate to Tory's last post, but I'd like to take the age of MFA students and applicants into consideration when discussing "life experience." Now, one of our readers recently posted a blog entry about how she has no "life experience" and how she desperately needs "life experience" to be a more interesting writer. I want to take the opportunity to say that you don't need "life experience" to be a writer, or even to be a more interesting writer. I feel like the whole "life experience" shtick is part of the tendency to disregard both the young and the old. Thus, if you're entering an MFA program at 21 (which several of my fellow students at Hollins will be doing), you're deemed to have no "life experience," and if you're over, say, 40 or 45, you're looked at as too old to learn how to write, even though at that age, you should certainly have the "life experience" supposedly necessary to write.

I'm 25 now, but when I was still a wee 24 year old undergrad (just a few months ago), I was told to reconsider my decision to apply to MFA programs because I was too young, and had no "life experience." Similarly, when I tell people I will be writing a memoir, they respond with, "Well what do you have to write about? Have you had any life experience?" It's always the same. People assume that writing, especially nonfiction, is about your "life experience," and that if you’re young, you have none. Seriously? I’d bet money that most professors and readers would want good writing over "interesting" experiences. As for me, I’ve been shot in the head, depressed, starving, met famous people, had people I know die, and yet I wouldn’t wish to give most of my “life experience” to anyone, because I’ve had a lot of bad “life experience.” All that stuff has also not made me a more interesting writer, because for the most part, I write about relationships and animals and literary theory.

Anyway, who says you have to limit yourself to what you’ve experienced? You can easily write about other people, or even write about the ordinary, boring things you’ve experienced. How about Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of The Moth?” That essay is maybe 750 words, and deals with the speaker’s “experience” of watching a moth die. Can’t really be any more boring than that, can it? And yet this essay has been anthologized seemingly forever.

There’s been some amazing work that hasn’t relied on “life experience” as much as the act of re-imagining the ordinary into the extraordinary. You can still be interesting even if you’re writing about your day at the local coffee shop. It’s not what you write about, it’s how you write about it. If you’re 30 and writing about your travels to Zimbabwe but doing it badly, your writing won’t be nearly as interesting as the 21 year old who writes well about online dating or a lecture course on Milton. It’s all about the details.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t live, but don’t go looking for risk and adventure just to make your life and your writing more interesting. A couple of months ago, I went to the beach and saw an old man with two poodles, one of which was a miniature. Then a little girl and her father came up to him and the girl started petting the bigger poodle. Oh yeah, the poodles had sweaters, and the old gentleman was of the stylishly eccentric variety. Meanwhile, I'm walking by, having the most boring day of my life, when this man says, "ya still got five fingers?" I've been thinking about that day for two months now.


  1. I loved this post. "Life experience" belongs in scare quotes, doesn't it. It's a concept as subjective and unquantifiable as writing itself. As a CNF writer, I can appreciate how much more it is an issue for you than for someone like me writing poetry; even so, it sounds like you have sufficient material to draw from.

  2. . . . not to ignore the brilliant post on which I'm commenting, but how do you become a contributor for this blog? I noted that you all would like a low-residency contributor. I just began as a dual-genre student at VFCA, and I'd love to be a part of The MFA Chronicles effort . . .

  3. The two major life experiences that affected my writing didn't happen until I was 30. But had they happened at an earlier age, I'm sure they would have influenced me just as profoundly--I didn't have to be "seasoned" to digest them in a certain way.

    And maybe I'll feel differently later in life, but at this point I wish I hadn't had those experiences at all.

  4. Wasn't it Flannery O'Connor who said something like, "Anyone who has had a childhood has enough writing material for life."

    I enjoyed this post, Denis. Thanks.

  5. Good post! I live by that quote you mentioned. It seems like as soon as I turned 30, all I could write about was 5th grade! lol

    Marita...I'll send you some info on contributing!

  6. "And even if you were in some prison, the walls of which let none of the sounds of the world come to your senses - would you not then still have your childhood, that precious, kingly possession, that treasure-house of memories?"--Rilke

    Good luck at Hollins, Denis. Enjoy those old, old mountains!

  7. There’s been some amazing work that hasn’t relied on “life experience” as much as the act of re-imagining the ordinary into the extraordinary.

    I really agree with this.

    As I mentioned on Tory's post, I think the issue of experience in an MFA program is more of a factor in reading than in writing.

    But I also wanted to mention that I have also seen younger MFAers get a little smug with older MFAers, acting as though because they chose to go into an MFA at a younger age that somehow made them more "naturally talented" at writing. As if someone who waited until 30 or 40 or 50 to pursue an MFA wouldn't have been able to do so at a younger age. So the age "discrimination" goes both ways. And it's all equally silly.

    Good post!

  8. I got that too - the whole you're too young for an MFA. I also get a lot of the you shouldn't lock yourself in an ivory tower to learn to write remarks. My response: only the person writing knows what kind of experience they need to become a better writer. For some people it's the Swiss Alps and for others it's a writing workshop. Similarly the best day to start writing is right now - not 10 years from now or 10 years ago. Great post!

  9. Great post, I'd have to agree with what many have commented here. And in fact, I'd love to see a further exploration on this topic. How age (and to a certain extent, ageism) affects those in programs, and how it affects those on the other end, students that are in their 30's, 40's, 50's, like margosita mentioned. It seems like a contentious topic, one definitely ripe for good conversion.

  10. For real. I think the same people that want writers with 'life experience' are the ones who also think drugs are a necessity for writing, to 'open up the mind.'

    I've linked to your blog entry from my blog.

  11. JayTee too funny about waiting till 30 to write about 5th grade!

    I didn't start an MFA until I was 31 (well almost 32) but I could have easily have started after undergrad when I was 23.

    Life experience - harumph - how many of us are still writing about kindergarten no matter how old we get?

    Great post!

  12. Okay, I'm going to be a little bit contrary. =o)

    I'm 25 (near 26) and just starting to apply for MFA programs this fall. The last four years, I've been working as an ad copywriter. The "life experience" I've gained in this case amounts to greater discipline, wider perspective, and a fundamental change in my writing as challenged by what I do at work. (It's easy to write three paragraphs of exposition, not so easy to write a compelling headline in less than five words sometimes. Working at being concise has made me a stronger writer.)

    I wasn't ready to apply to programs right out of school. After attending the Prague Summer Program six months before I was done with school, I was fed up with pretentious writer types and talk about grad schools. But five years later, having experienced the drudgery of the real world and the politics of working in an office, I am SO ready to return to academia.

    So, not to say that "life experience" isn't used as a BS phrase, but that it also encompasses all the behaviors, traits and skills that may be sharpened through contrast in the working world. I know I'm much more equipped to handle the hard work of grad school after having put in 50-hour weeks at a high-pressure job.

  13. i feel you, mlledhaze. i finished my undergrad as a nontraditional student and my work ethic was extremely different these past two years as opposed to my previous carefree approach to academics before being immersed in the "real world". Some people don't need that, they just get it from the start. I definitely needed to mature first.


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