Tag Archives: creative writing

Dudes. MFAs are not that bad.

Why are so many writers so angry at Creative Writing MFA programs?  Do artists of all stripes loathe academic departments where their craft is studied?  Are there a bunch of actors and musicians out there who are really pissed off at performing arts schools?  I am genuinely puzzled at all the vitriol that seems to surround the MFA question when you throw the topic at a bunch of writers.  I don’t understand why I so often run into columns discussing MFA programs as if (1) they are really important and/or (2) they shot the author’s dog.  Chill, dudes.  I went to one so I thought I’d attempt to reply to some of the most common criticisms of this much-reviled but ever-proliferating beast, the Creative Writing MFA Program:

Creativity can’t be taught:  Okay, sure, talent can’t be taught.  But craft can.  Just ask Bob Ross and his happy little trees.

Young writers shouldn’t coop themselves up in a graduate program; they should “go out and experience the world:”  This argument is always delivered with the assumption that graduate programs aren’t part of The World.  They cannot approach the realness of, say, working at an Alaskan fish processing plant.  Okay, lean in for a second while I tell you a secret: writing material comes from people, mostly the fucked up ones.  There are people everywhere, even in MFA programs, and a lot of them are fucked up.  Just watch them.  If you pay enough attention to people wherever you are, they can be used for any piece of writing you like. You could even write a novel set in an Alaskan fish processing plant based on the tortured rich kids in your writing workshop.  I promise.

MFA programs homogenize writers’ voices and worsen the general mediocrity of American letters: This argument always assumes that writing was just better in the good old days, neglecting the fact that the stuff we read now from one hundred years ago is the stuff from a hundred years ago that survived a hundred years.  So, presumably, the best stuff.  It’s been through the strainers of time.  The stuff that’s being published now looks generally crappy by comparison because it hasn’t been vetted by history yet.  (Can you imagine how much poetry must have fucking sucked in Restoration England if goddamn Alexander Pope is the best that came out of there?  Holy fuck.)  Also: if you have the kernel of a unique and compelling voice, an MFA program will not ruin you and make you sound like everybody else, I promise.  It will make you realize what you don’t want to sound like.

MFA programs allow shitty writers to delude themselves that they don’t suck and send them out all fluffed up into a world of disappointment: I think this is mostly false, because there is no way you can make it through an MFA program without thinking that you suck.  Your work will be spreadeagled and pecked over so thoroughly that you will be quite convinced that nobody sucks at writing more than you.  Yes, graduate study is a move towards validating yourself as an artist, but it is also intensely grueling, and may make you decide that you don’t want to do this after all, which is totally okay.  I would argue that the regular beatdowns you receive in MFA programs actually prepare you for the world of disappointment to follow, and that if you get your stuff published, you won’t even blink at being edited because you learned to take your punches like a man in graduate school.

All these domesticated writers in their dinky academic detention centers are ruining the romance of the Author, who should presumably be drinking and screwing a lot and shooting large animals somewhere: Plenty of drinking and screwing goes on in academic detention centers.  If you must shoot large animals, there are a couple of MFA programs up in Alaska.  You can get a huge husky and name him Frostbane, go out into the perpetual snowy night to blow away some bears, and even visit that fish processing plant if you like.

Please don't shoot me. Work on your paragraph transitions instead.

MFA programs are a pyramid scheme, fleecing stupid young people with dreams.  Yeah, kind of.  Honestly, I still feel like a bit of a dumbass having taken out a bunch of student loans to attend one.  So do careful research into MFA programs, and apply only to the ones that will fund you.  If you don’t, well, you will probably feel like a bit of a dumbass for having taken out a bunch of student loans for what is mostly a pretty useless credential.  But, you know, it’s just money.  There are worse decisions you could have made than plunking down a bunch of it to take a couple of years off to write.  If you have made that mistake, take comfort in this List of Life Decisions That Are Worse Than Taking Out Student Loans For An MFA:

  • dating a drug dealer
  • being a drug dealer
  • simmering your whole life in a shitty job you hate without ever trying to go after your dreams
  • tattooing the whites of your eyes
  • meth
  • wearing leggings as if they were pants
  • appearing on reality TV
  • loving someone who treats you badly
  • joining a cult
  • visiting England for the food
  • meth
  • taking out more student loans for two MFAs

You’re welcome.

The Writing Workshop, or, Only Do This to Yourself if You Crave Intense Discomfort.

A while back, I wrote a post on stages of the writing career from the point of view of submitting.  I thought I’d track the writer’s progress from the point of view of the Creative Writing Workshop, given that a writing career, these days, almost inevitably involves undergoing a whole series of them.  Here, then, are my findings:

Phase 1: Crippling Terror and Impostor Syndrome

This is a normal response when confronted by the format for the first time.  Having your piece workshopped is an exercise in naked fear, and when it’s up you take frantic notes on everything everyone says since you can’t spend any energy processing the feedback: all your attention must be channeled towards not bursting into tears like a little girl.  Your face is a particular shade of crimson that immediately identifies you as a workshop newbie, which will cause a kind-hearted instructor to go easy on you and a hard-assed one to plow into your guts with renewed vigor.  When giving feedback on other people’s work, you are merely blindly stumbling, trying not to look like too much of a clueless dumbass.

• Phase personally undergone in: 1997, during my first two workshops in college.

Phase 2: Grinding Along

You are now comfortable with the workshop format.  You have mastered the compliment sandwich when delivering your feedback on peer manuscripts.  You write down most of what they say when your work is being critiqued, but know to put your pen down when you hear something obviously spurious.  The quality of your work may be stationary or improving slowly.  It draws a genuine compliment here and there–but you are by no means comfortable: every time you are up, you still receive a beatdown that feels worthy of a gang initiation.

• Phase personally undergone in: 1998-99, later college workshops, then 2004-05, first year in MFA program.

Phase 3: OMGWTFBBQ

Something is happening to your writing.  You are not sure what, and neither are your peers.  Discussion of your work will generally begin with a class-wide flummoxed silence.  The feedback you receive might be very tentative, because nobody is sure whether you mean to be doing what precisely you are doing–whereas before they knew you didn’t.  You are a puzzlement to them and to yourself.  Your instructor might not quite know what to do with you, and might say cryptic things like, “I’m not sure I’m qualified to give feedback on this particular genre,” or might compliment your work using more specific words than the standard “good,” like “seductive.”  Your feedback to your peers is exceedingly thought-out and careful; you treat them as if they are in the same delicate transitory state as yourself.  You do not know if any of this tremendous upheaval is a good sign.  You suspect you might be going insane.  You write down very little of the peer feedback your receive; at least you have become an adept sifter.

• Phase personally undergone in: 2005-06, second year in MFA program.  By the time I finished the program I felt as if I’d been shot into space.  Complete disorientation.

Phase 4: Workshop Transcendence

Seriously, this happens.  This does not mean your work is universally liked, but it does mean that it has acquired authority–so that your peers are aware that you mean your text.  Your work is crafted; it knows what it intends; they will not quibble with that.  You will receive little to no prescriptive advice.  Instead your peers will sit around analyzing your work like literature students, drawing various interpretations (this is actually quite useful, as it highlights which themes are visible to the audience and may help you decide what needs to recede and what needs to be further brought out).  Your instructor may say some crazy stuff like, “this is a perfect story,” which will effectively bring the proceedings to a complete standstill while you shit a brick.  Your feedback to your peers may have reached instructor-grade.

• Phase personally undergone in: 2009-10, taking two workshops while in my PhD program for fun and/or needful units.

Advisory to aspirants: All of the workshop phases are characterized by mild to intense discomfort (even Transcendence involves shitting a brick).  Completion of all phases qualifies you to be at the head of the workshop table as a beginner instructor, which will in turn bring on Cycle 2 of Crippling Terror and Impostor Syndrome.  Good luck with that.