The title of this is a little off. Lewis Buzbee is way more than a post-MFA. He’s a working writer, a popular teacher at USF’s creative writing program — where I took some great classes with him — a former bookseller, and a helpless victim of terminal book lust. He’s more than just some dude with an MFA (like me).
But, Lewis did get an MFA and that makes him prime fodder for an interview here, and I’m glad he agreed to do so.
Full disclosure: I consider Lewis a friend and somewhat of a mentor of mine, and I want to do whatever I can to help get the word out about his books: “After the Gold Rush” and “The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop.”
If you love books — if you can’t stop yourself from browsing shelves, buying $1 books, stacking up books by the side of your bed — then “The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop” should be sitting on top of that stack. Trust me. And if you’re drawn to short fiction in the California lit vein, “Gold Rush” should be in your Amazon shopping cart as well.
In the first of three parts, we talk with Lewis about the MFA experience…
How did you arrive at getting your MFA? What were the factors that made you decide to go to school for a graduate degree in creative writing?
A total whim. I was just about to graduate from college and was being offered jobs I just couldn’t see myself in — most notably writing technical manuals for weapons’ systems — and so I thought, hey, this MFA thing sounds pretty cool. This was 27 years ago, and there weren’t nearly as many MFA programs as now, so it was still a bit of a mystery. I chose the program I went to (ed. note: Warren Wilson College) because Raymond Carver was listed as faculty, and that seemed reason enough. It was Ray’s last semester, alas, but the program was no disappointment. It changed my life. Why? Because it made me write and revise with great diligence for two years, it forced me to become a critical reader, and it offered me a community of writers, which I’d not had before. So, what’s not to like. At its most basic level, because of those two years of focus and drive, an MFA program asks every student the big question: is this really what you want to do? And that’s an important question to have asked.
What was your life like after getting your MFA? Any moments when you asked yourself whether it was worth it?
Life after the MFA was hard. I didn’t write much of anything for three years–although not for lack of trying. I was used to having all of those teachers on my shoulder, and they were still there, and every time I wrote a word, I would stop and listen for their response. It is a problem. As if you’ve taken the jello out of the mold before it’s quite set. But I kept at it, never stopped. And that’s the big test right there. Some people–a lot of people, actually–will stop after the MFA. Others slog on. That’s the bonus question to the big MFA question–now keep writing. Eventually I wrote a novel that I hoped my teachers would hate. And at least one of them did hate it. And that felt like a victory of some kind.
What were the two or three things that really stuck with you from your MFA experience? Lessons in the classroom, or even outside of it…
The two biggest lessons, both from teachers, just as I was about to graduate. Stephen Dobyns said to me one morning after a workshop, “no more donuts.” I knew exactly what he meant, too. He meant no more big starchy lardy fluffy things, no more screwing around, no more staring into space. He meant that if I really wanted to do it, I should just do it. Writing was, he told me later, and more explicitly, a matter of will. It took me years to incorporate that lesson, but I got it eventually. And from David Huddle, who told me, “Lew, you’ve got to give the reader a physical sense of your characters.” I argued for a moment, claming there were only a few physically memorable characters in great literature. No, he told me, not memorable, not a portrait. A sense, he meant, of the characters as physical beings moving through the universe. And we talked at great length. David taught me–as did Stephen–many many things, but this last little chat we had has always stayed with me. That’s one of the great things about an MFA program, when you find great teachers, the lessons are many, and they’re varied, from the cosmic to the page. It’s been twenty-four years since I graduated from my MFA program, but the lessons from my MFA teachers, all of those lessons, still float around in my head. I suppose that’s what I’m offering my students–lessons from my teachers who got them from their teachers who…Etc.
How about teaching? How does a post-MFA get into teaching? How did you get involved in teaching?
I got into teaching haphazardly. I’d published my first novel and was just about to quit the book business to immerse myself in my writing, when I got a call from a friend of a friend of a friend who needed an instructor. I took that class, and I stayed. So, very lucky. Because I love teaching, and I find, at least for me, it’s made me, I hope, a smarter writer, and certainly a more engaged reader. But listen, not everyone is going to love to teach. And the money’s not that good, and you don’t really get summer’s off. One should teach because one loves to teach. It’s still a job. Get another job if you don’t like teaching. Being a teacher is no gateway to publishing either, so perish that thought.
Richard Hugo says that MFA grads, or any writer, for that matter, shouldn’t teach until they’ve been writing, really writing, for ten years. Can’t think of a better piece of advice. Getting an MFA degree is no conference of authority; in fact, receiving one’s MFA is just the beginning of the real writing journey. Why should one leave an MFA program and immediately begin teaching. I’d like my teachers to have some more experience in writing before they begin tossing around exercises and maxims. To get back to the brain surgeon again–though the analogy isn’t explicit. I think I’ll go with the brain surgeon with 10 years of experience, overall, as opposed to the newly minted resident.
Do you think anyone who wants to teach writing should have an MFA?
Lord, no. You don’t need an MFA to do anything, not to write and not to teach. We did just fine without MFA degrees for thousands of years. The MFA is a very recent development, around WWII, actually. So, no, not necessary. And let’s be reasonable, logical, almost. Not every MFA holder is going to be a teacher. If that were the case, we’d be overrun with MFA students and teachers in a couple of generations. An MFA is just a piece of paper; it’s the writing experience and the aptitude for teaching that makes a good teacher. But there’s something to it. Someone with an MFA, who wants to teach, will probably have studied with some good teachers, and so done their apprenticeship in teaching that way. Teacher to student to student to student. Etc. But if you’ve got the chops for teaching and writing without a degree, then do it. I know several great teachers who don’t hold a degree. But they all love to teach.