life, poetry, teaching, writers, writing

Where the Liberal Arts Take You

This year, my oldest son is beginning high school. As a freshman, he has begun considering possible college majors that he’d like to aim toward. His big love is theater, especially musical theater (insert pragmatic-dad eye roll here). He is a member of the school band, and he is trying out agriculture, as our family has a long history of farming in addition to teaching and other professions.

As much as I’d like to give him the whole lecture about “getting a degree in something useful,” I’m realize in no position to advise him to be practical about his eventual course of study. I’ve done a pretty unconventional thing, earning a terminal degree in creative writing later in life, and I can’t say it has turned out badly. No matter how many guidance counselors and career advisers may say otherwise, getting a degree (or two!) in the liberal arts can in fact make life more fulfilling.

Readers of this blog know that I recently spent a week in the Wisconsin Northwoods, leading poetry workshops and kayaking the lakes of a beautiful part of the country:


And earlier this summer, I spent a week in Appalachia simply pondering how best to order my latest manuscript of poems:


Then there was the summer of my 40th birthday, where the whole family and I traveled to Lisbon, Portugal because I received a partial scholarship to attend the Disquiet International Literary Program:

And before I became an “international” poet, there was the summer I spent a week at the Juniper Writers Institute (also on a scholarship), where I explored the home of Emily Dickinson:


And the farm of Robert Frost in Derry, New Hampshire:


Oh, and then there was the time (in the middle of my MFA program) that I was kindly given a full ride to the Glen West Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This would have been in 2013:

Add to that the workshops, seminars, and conferences that I’ve been able to attend closer to home (The National Graduate Creative Writing Conference in Carrollton, GA; AWP in Tampa; the Other Words conference at Flagler College in Jacksonville, and many, many, more), and you’ve got yourself quite a travel itinerary spread out over 10 or 12 years.

Lest the audience think that I am only measuring meaning by travel, there are plenty of other ways that my liberal arts degrees have enhanced my biography. Before I entered the realm of education, I used my Bachelor of Arts degree in print journalism to report for newspapers — now nearly an extinct species. In the process, I drove through (over!) the flames of brush fires, got shot at twice, had a beer bottle hurled at my head during a riot, and witnessed life in a way that few other people ever experience.

I spoke with flood survivors, celebrities big and small, government officials, and even the occasional inmate. All these experiences expanded my lens and allowed me to view the world from a variety of perspectives. It wasn’t the liberal arts degree that provided breadth and open-mindedness about our human situation; those understandings came along well after I’d received diplomas, in fact. But I never would have had those encounters without the degrees I earned, and I absolutely would not have interpreted those encounters in the same way sans higher education.

“But what about the money?” you may ask. “Is it true that people with liberal arts degrees earn less than those with vocational and technical degrees?” While I can’t speak to the assets held by those in hands-on professions, I can tell you that we’ve always had enough. My two boys, my wife, and I have had sufficiency and surplus in varying frequency, and even during times of struggle, our scenario has been eased by the knowledge that we are not the only ones to have faced difficulty. A thorough education in the humanities provided both fictional and nonfictional examples from which to learn. Some of our Christmases may have looked like the Bob Cratchit family or an O. Henry short story, but along with that sparsity came the closeness that such stories also featured. Enduring with beloved others is its own wealth.

“What about the cost? Not everyone can afford a spiffy degree from a small, private institution, you know…” True enough. I’m well aware of our national student debt crisis, and I also know that liberal arts colleges can be expensive. For me, the payoff has been worth the initial investment. The promises made by my parents and grandparents turned out to be true: Earn a college degree/ start a career/ live the American Dream, etc. Certainly this has not always been the result for others. I’ll leave it at that.

I do know that when someone is willing to work hard and smart, when he or she gives back to the profession, and when relationships are tended with near-agricultural precision, a liberal arts degree can help make life worthwhile. Sure, there’s a Wall Street Journal article that also bears out the truth of what I’m saying, but for today, I’m speaking from personal experience.

What am I going to tell my son about earning a “useless” degree? Go for it. No, I’m not a proponent of “follow your bliss” or “do what makes you happy” exclusively, but we need at least some modest enjoyment from making our livelihood. Work is still going to be work, no matter what, but fulfillment? That can be achieved, and a liberal arts degree can serve as the welcome mat for it.




poetry, Uncategorized

The MFA — “Legitimizing” writers

I’ve always been a writer. Even when I was very young, I would write fantastic stories about spies and detectives, and as I matured, so did my writing tastes and styles.

At this point, I proudly call myself a poet. I’ve had work published pretty regularly, I have a book of my own out there, and while poetry doesn’t keep the lights on and the kids fed, it does contribute something to my existence (see prior posts). With that being said, I always felt that it was pretty important to have something that proved my “writerness” more than just bylines and a strong publication history. Hence, my enrollment in the University of Tampa’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program.

Yes, I know many of my writer friends out there will quickly jump to the assertion that you don’t “need” a piece of paper proclaiming that you are indeed a writer. With that said, however, the benefits of the MFA program have so far been many and great: I’ve been able to meet and speak with renowned writers, I’ve gotten an inside view of the publishing industry, and my own abilities have become refined as a result of my enrollment.

For some writers, the MFA works. Others believe that a good writing critique group can yield the same outcomes. I disagree. Your writers’ group probably will not  get you introduced to the likes of Philip Levine or Lucille Clifton. If it does, I’d love to know what group you’re attending.

Likewise, it seems that an awful lot of very well-intended people who have been told they have “talent” wind up in writing clubs or groups that are community-based. They bring in their latest piece about granny’s quilt or pappy’s old dawg and expect it to be given the same level of thought as work by Chaucer, all because their ailing mother gave them high praise for rhyming the words “bone” and “home.” Perhaps I’m being a bit snarky here, but I’ve seen this happen.

You get what you pay for, folks. The MFA is an investment in a writing career. If you desire for your writing to be a serious part of your life and not just a hobby, then a degree is the path to that reality. If you’re satisfied being a local celebrity and the “big fish in the small pond,” then maybe a writers’ group is best. As for me, I plan to keep plugging away at the ole sheepskin. One year down, one to go!