“I’m going to grad school,” announced “Fenimore” as he strode into my office. I knew little about this student except that his adviser had described him as home schooled and emotionally needy. “Congratulations,” I said. “Where have you been accepted?”
“Oh, I haven’t yet,” said Fenimore. “My adviser said I should talk to you about applying.”
In the English department at Locally Known College, I have a reputation for being skeptical about sending students to graduate training in the humanities. I’m also known for being able to look a student in the eye and politely say “No” to a request. Because of both factors, my colleagues sometimes send their less-promising advisees to me for consultations about graduate school.
I asked Fenimore, “What do you want to specialize in?”
He replied, “I’m getting an M.F.A. in novel writing.”
Some people develop an irrational desire to buy a vehicle they can’t afford. They have Car Fever. Other people feel driven to connect with stunningly inappropriate partners. They’ve contracted Relationship Fever. Still others become convinced that their lives will be worthwhile if, and only if, they pursue graduate work in creative writing. Those poor souls suffer from M.F.A. Fever.
I admire undergraduates who sincerely want to write, but students plagued with M.F.A. Fever usually prove to be less realistic than those English majors who expect to blaze through a Ph.D. program in literature and step into a tenure-track job. I have encountered several different versions of M.F.A. Fever.
Some sufferers refuse to read anything already published in their creative field because they fear that another author will influence their own work too much. To such students I say, “If you don’t read what’s already out there, how can you be sure you aren’t simply reproducing something that’s been done 1,000 times already?” At that point, they often look at me as if they had never considered that possibility.