[This is the conclusion, part 3 of a series, When to Get Your MFA. Or Not]
There are skeptics as to the value of a MFA in writing, much less the teaching of writing, and some are not where you might think. I remember a few years ago standing in the parking lot outside of the Wesleyan English department one night, in conversation with a colleague who was also a former mentor, from when I was an undergraduate there (Wesleyan is my alma mater), when he said “You can really do this.” He looked shocked.
“Do what?” I asked.
“Teach writing,” he said.
When I pressed him, he admitted to having been skeptical to the idea it could be taught.
One reason for this distrust is partly that as writers, our palette is language, which belongs to us all. And so everyone feels, and this includes English professors, that if they were to really concentrate, just sit down and really try, they could do what we do. And they certainly believe, in those moments, they can do it without the benefit of a teacher.
I thought of this last spring, reading Louis Menand’s assault on MFA programs in a review of Mark McGurl’s book The Program Era in the New Yorker. Menand begins the review with a blistering first paragraph full of mistaken information mixed to create a hypothetical straw-man of a workshop that doesn’t exist anywhere, if it ever did (I have not read The Program Era, to be clear, just the excerpt available at the publisher’s site). My background: 9 classes in creative writing as an undergrad and then a graduate student, and 13 years of teaching, inform me when I tell you, this class, to my knowledge, has never existed as he describes it, at the graduate level (and that is what he implies).
Creative-writing programs are designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem. The fruit of the theory is the writing workshop, a combination of ritual scarring and twelve-on-one group therapy where aspiring writers offer their views of the efforts of other aspiring writers. People who take creative-writing workshops get course credit and can, ultimately, receive an academic degree in the subject; but a workshop is not a course in the normal sense—a scene of instruction in which some body of knowledge is transmitted by means of a curricular script. The workshop is a process, an unscripted performance space, a regime for forcing people to do two things that are fundamentally contrary to human nature: actually write stuff (as opposed to planning to write stuff very, very soon) and then sit there while strangers tear it apart. There is one person in the room, the instructor, who has (usually) published a poem. But workshop protocol requires the instructor to shepherd the discussion, not to lead it, and in any case the instructor is either a product of the same process—a person with an academic degree in creative writing—or a successful writer who has had no training as a teacher of anything, and who is probably grimly or jovially skeptical of the premise on which the whole enterprise is based: that creative writing is something that can be taught.
By the last paragraph, he contradicts his lead, certainly–we are initially told the teacher is an unpublished one–but by the end, we are given either-or scenarios. We are told of a theory that is at the core of all writing workshops, and yet there is no history of the theory mentioned, no name as to whose theory this is. This is the method of a political slander, and it is also bad journalism. Menand is better than this, for sure.
In all of my time as a student I was never in a class led by an unpublished writer. All of my workshop teachers were published authors, and half had MFAs. As an undergraduate at Wesleyan, Kit Reed and Annie Dillard. At Bennington’s summer program, Toby Olson and Mary Robison. At Iowa, Denis Johnson, Clark Blaise, Elizabeth Benedict, Deborah Eisenberg, Marilynne Robinson, and for seminars, Margot Livesey and James Alan McPherson. These are not the hapless fraudulent unpublished types he would have you believe populate the classroom, but some of the country’s very best writers, and the essay’s beginning is insulting to all of them.
To be clear, you can find classes taught by the unpublished, but they are taught by graduate students to undergraduate students, and this is a way of of teaching these students to teach creative writing. None of their students are graduate students. What’s more, each program, and in many cases each class, has its own protocols—there is no single protocol for the handling of a critique, and he even says this later in the essay. But for his beginning straw man workshop to be horrific enough to get the reader’s attention, he must suggest the teacher has no power in the classroom. When, after a few more mistaken and error-filled paragraphs later he says, “this may seem like a formula for debunking,” you can only agree, even as he says it is not. He gives off the appearance of having been so terribly scarred by either his experiences or what he’s heard of the programs that it is impossible to believe his review’s ending. It is clear to see Menand is practicing a rhetorical flourish of a classical kind: build an argument against something, typically by using its truths, though, and not by lying about it– and then end by arguing the opposite— here, with what is nearly a palinode:
For, in spite of all the reasons that they shouldn’t, workshops work. I wrote poetry in college, and I was in a lot of workshops. I was a pretty untalented poet, but I was in a class with some very talented ones, including Garrett Hongo, who later directed the creative-writing program at the University of Oregon, and Brenda Hillman, who teaches in the M.F.A. program at St. Mary’s College, in California. Our teacher was a kind of Southern California Beat named Dick Barnes, a sly and wonderful poet who also taught medieval and Renaissance literature, and who could present well the great stone face of the hard-to-please. I’m sure that our undergraduate exchanges were callow enough, but my friends and I lived for poetry. We read the little magazines—Kayak and Big Table and Lillabulero—and we thought that discovering a new poet or a new poem was the most exciting thing in the world. When you are nineteen years old, it can be.
Did I engage in self-observation and other acts of modernist reflexivity? Not much. Was I concerned about belonging to an outside contained on the inside? I don’t think it ever occurred to me. I just thought that this stuff mattered more than anything else, and being around other people who felt the same way, in a setting where all we were required to do was to talk about each other’s poems, seemed like a great place to be. I don’t think the workshops taught me too much about craft, but they did teach me about the importance of making things, not just reading things. You care about things that you make, and that makes it easier to care about things that other people make.
And if students, however inexperienced and ignorant they may be, care about the same things, they do learn from each other. I stopped writing poetry after I graduated, and I never published a poem—which places me with the majority of people who have taken a creative-writing class. But I’m sure that the experience of being caught up in this small and fragile enterprise, contemporary poetry, among other people who were caught up in it, too, affected choices I made in life long after I left college. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
If I were Dick Barnes, I would not be feeling so sly and wonderful. In any case, I didn’t want to give any more advice on the MFA without first addressing this review. The place I went to, Iowa, where I lived inside a constant conversation about writing for the two years I was there, with some of my writing heroes, present and future, and was supported as I worked to become the writer I am now, is not anything like what Menand describes. And neither is even one other American program.
* * *
MFA programs are designed to prevent everything Menand accuses them of practicing, and it’s worth noting that the novel many of the French read last year to anger President Sarkozy (after he insulted its importance), La Princesse de Clèves, was the product of what many of us would recognize as a 17th century writing workshop. People have been helping other people with their writing for quite some time. What’s more, the un-credentialed skeptical writer teaching classes that he describes does exist still here and there, but he or she rarely gets by a hiring committee anymore, if ever, for teaching at the undergraduate level much less the graduate, though this sort of writer once did, often leaving long scars and many suspicious faculty for having no training in teaching, and often taking the responsibilities lightly.
Nowadays, to land a teaching job, you need to come to your interview with syllabi in hand. And at the least, a MFA.
Despite this, I do not believe the MFA is the only route for the serious writer. I believe it is the only route for the serious writer who would like to pass muster with a provost or dean’s office for a program looking to hire a writer. The MFA program is a formal community based on the pursuit of a literary standard in writing and the teaching of that standard, and if you believe you would be helped by participating in the process and standards of that community’s life, you should consider applying. Or, as I like to say, “Spend two years finding out whether or not your writing is any good rather than 20 years wondering.”
When a student tells me he or she is interested in pursuing a MFA, this is what I look for before I agree to recommend them:
- You write on a regular basis, even sneaking off to do so from whatever your job is, perhaps even becoming a bad employee.
- You frequently attend reading series at your local bookstore, college or university, you buy books to the point you have personal relationships with booksellers and you typically wander off to used bookstores at the drop of a hat.
- You talk about writing with friends and are friends with other aspiring or established writers.
- You have sent work out to magazines and journals, and have had work published or at least rejected with a personal note, or have placed as a finalist or winner in a competition.
- You have taken a writing workshop and found the criticisms helped your writing.
- You feel you’ve reached the limit of what the community around you can offer, or worse, that community is unsupportive or even hostile to the idea you want to be a writer.
- You seek a credential that would allow you to teach creative writing at a college or university level.
The publication part of this list is arguable. To explain, yes, students are regularly admitted without having published–it is not a pre-requisite for admissions committees, though it does prove you are serious. But the reason I put it there is that I have seen many unpublished writers—and by this I mean, unpublished in journals, magazines and anthologies—stymied by the critiques they receive. Students who are published typically take such criticism in stride–they know they can “do this” in a way an unpublished student does not, and a single hostile critique does not make them question whether they should even be writing.
You should not go if a single hostile reception for a story, from either a class or the professor, will make you question whether you should be a writer. I recall a novel I began at Iowa that Marilynne Robinson found unimpressive, and I had chosen Iowa in large part because I wanted to study with her. She was one of my idols then. I didn’t question whether I should be a writer, though, for all of that—I just thought, what is my hero teacher missing of what I’m trying to get the reader to find in this, and how do I get it in there so she can see it?
My students who succeed without MFAs–one just finished his novel– have most of the following in common:
- They have formed a writing group on their own that supplies regular helpful criticism, thought-provoking conversation and emotional support.
- They are unable to show work to anyone until it is finished, as otherwise the criticism is too powerful and they routinely destroy whatever they are working on in an attempt to please the last person who read it, making them fear showing anyone anything until it is done to their satisfaction.
- They work best in a kind of secrecy.
- They achieve at a high level, getting published.
- They have found mentors in the community around them who are available to read their work.
- They prefer a tutorial to a seminar, and do better one on one.
- They have an excellent job, or a job that allows them time to write, or a job that allows them time to write and also establishes a reputation for them as a writer or fosters connections to a network within writing and publishing.
If you find the idea of listening to a group of strangers talking about your work terrifying, you may be constitutionally unsuited to this process. This is something to view without judgment. It does not mean anything about you as a person, you are not ‘weak’ for being this way. It is just how you are. The process of becoming a writer involves listening to yourself to understand who you are as a writer.
Some Basics to Keep in Mind
- Your cohort, as it is called, the people you study alongside while you are there, will be your peers for decades, and you, in attending, become part of the school’s future legacy culturally. When you choose a program and they choose you, each chooses a community of considerable durability.
- MFA programs look for students who display talent, stamina, intellectual ability, teaching ability and emotional maturity. Each program has its own formula for figuring this out from examining the applications. When you apply, if you apply, ask yourself if your application really represents this to a stranger.
Common Myths and Mistakes
- One mistake I see often concerns what graduate school even is. To be clear, graduate school is a place where an aspirant is tested, in general, as to the sincerity and quality of their aspirations—whether a Masters program, a MFA, or a PhD. Part of this involves a winnowing–thus the application process. Any mentoring that occurs happens after an initial harrowing, to see if you are worthy of meeting a high standard. Why? Because if you can’t handle this, you can’t handle what’s next, which is the world. In particular, publishing and academia.
- I have heard people tell me they believe MFA programs are a place to learn to write. This is a not true. You should not apply without experience. Successful applicants typically will already be writing at a high level before applying. If you have never finished a short story, sent it out and gotten it published, or even rejected with a note, you are applying before your time.
- MFA programs will not force you to write. The only thing that forces you to write is your responding to an idea that will not let you go.
- Last but not least, there is the idea that the MFA forces all of you to write the same. This is a mistaken idea. All I can tell you in that I write nothing like Brady Udall, Benjamin Anastas, Whitney Terrell or Tom Piazza. I do not write like Kirsten Bakis, Emily Barton or Chris Adrian. And what’s more, they do not write like each other. Brady and I did not like each other’s work at the time, but this is, I think, one of the values of a workshop: you are exposed to the views of people who do not agree with you. And this, in the US, is nearly absent as an experience in the classroom, much less anywhere else.