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September 13, 2006

On MFAs

Via Gwenda Bond, I read this slightly incoherent, but impassioned defense of the Master of Fine Arts course in creative writing, and felt ashamed of myself. Ashamed because I do speak of MFA workshops and MFA courses with just such dismissiveness and contempt as the author describes, all the while having benefitted in certain ways from my own MFA course.

It's probably time that I clarified, not least for myself, my attitude toward the formal study of creative writing at a master's level. So here goes.

First, let me outline and then comment on my three main reasons for going back to school to get an MFA:

1. to set aside a few years in which it would be my main job to write --- and this included the legitimation that being accepted into a reputable MFA program gave me in the eyes of others --- to hone my skills and come out of the crucible with professional-level writing abilities;

2. to learn to teach writing formally and to have opportunities to build my teaching resume by teaching in a university system, all for the purpose of being able to teach writing classes in a variety of situations as part of my career (note: I was not looking to become an academic, I preferred to teach in the community);

3. to make professional-level contacts with my professors and with various publishing professionals that would inevitably be offered to me (yeah, right) in the course of my studies.

So to begin with, yes, MFA programs can be useful for people who are looking for a way to set an amount of time aside for themselves to devote themselves to learning the craft. This goal I actually fulfilled in spades. No matter how bad your program is, no matter how useless or even hostile your workshops are, spending three years with your main job being writing for other people to read cannot but improve your writing chops radically. Add to that being required to read a lot of texts and analyze the writing and then discuss these in class and, no matter how ignorant of "other" communities your teachers and classmates may be, you're going to learn a lot about writing. Your program doesn't have to be good. Your teachers don't have to be good. Your classmates don't have to be smart or talented. If you spend three years writing, reading and talking about writing, you're going to learn a lot about writing, period. And I did. So no complaints on this score.

My second reason for going for the MFA was to get experience in and a credential for teaching creative writing, so I could get jobs teaching in the community. Mission accomplished. My "teaching creative writing" course was probably the best class I took in my MFA, and the three classes I TAed were wonderful: the undergrads were smart and responsive and I learned more from teaching them than I learned from being taught. I also got to teach two classes in the community for credit and, through my contacts at school got a paid gig at a high school for six weeks. I didn't get the paid graduate teaching position at SFSU that I wanted, but my resume is pretty built up despite that, so no complaints here.

My third reason was more amorphous. I stated it to myself and on my application as "making contacts in the writing community" but even I wasn't really sure what I meant by that. In most of my classes, the instructors made no effort to bring in outside speakers, so our contacts were people in the department, period. I wasn't interested in most of my fellow students, not because they were stupid or untalented, but because I didn't share interests with a lot of them. Although I really liked most of the instructors I worked with, most of them were mostly too busy to pay any real attention to most of their students. This was not their fault. SFSU's creative writing department during my time there doubled the size of their graduate school (the dept head told me coming in that there were 100 grad students; the dept admin told me going out that there were now 200 grad students) while only adding two faculty members.

This may seem to be an SFSU-specific complaint, but word is that it's happening to a certain extent all over the place. Creative writing doesn't need expensive labs or materials. All you need is an instructor and a classroom and people will pay ridiculous buttloads of money for that. Creative Writing departments are cash cows, and cash-strapped, recession-addled universities everywhere have decided to get out the buckets and start milking. Keep always in mind that the more you admire your instructors, the more likely it is because they're still writing and therefore very precious about their private writing time. So you're going to have to be very, very good and pay lots and lots of money to get into a small, elite enough program to access the kinds of writers who will be giving you any personal attention whatsoever.

So reason number three, a vague and silly reason in any case? No dice. But then, two out of three ... what am I complaining about, really? I got a lot out of the program, so why am I being such a bitch?

One word: workshops.

My reasons for going to get an MFA ignored and avoided the whole workshop setup, and that's why I fulfilled two out of my three main goals. It's like going into a Coldstone Creamery that uses frozen yogurt instead of ice cream. You say, going in, that you don't like ice cream and you're really there for the nuts and chocolate sprinkles. And the nuts and chocolate sprinkles are excellent. But the ice cream sucks so you don't enjoy it. All the other stuff around the workshops (the grad students guild, the readings and community events, the lit and "process" classes, the teaching, the books we were forced to read, etc, etc.) were great. But none of that changes the fact that the center and black, beating heart of the MFA degree is the creative writing workshop. And that institution is evil.

Before I launch into this I'll just admit that there are many possible opinions on creative writing workshops and I'll admit the possibility that some people really actually get something worthwhile out of them. I don't believe this myself, but I'll admit the possibility. To reduce, workshops are a class time in which your classmates, who have the previous week read a story you turned in, all come together to discuss your story. There are many different ways to style and structure such a class, and since I've been in some sixteen workshops and writers critique groups (not to mention the painting and drawing critiques of my visual arts study), I've seen a lot of these. The parodies of workshops in books and films don't actually bear out my experience: the hostile, grade-school-recess style of workshop has not been my experience (much). I've mostly been in supportive, touchy-feely workshops where participants genuinely felt a responsibility to help one another. If anything, I would have been the most hostile and childish member of most of the workshops I've been in.

The problem isn't in the opportunity workshops offer for people to bring out their worst selves. The problem with workshops is that the bulk of the commentary you're getting in a workshop is from people who've read and written the same amount or less than you, have published the same amount or less than you, have the same or less experience than you, the same amount or less knowledge and skill as you do. You take a workshop because of the instructor, but the people who are doing the bulk of the teaching are your fellow students. Who the fuck pays $32,000 a year for that?

They don't know what they're talking about any more than you do. Because the workshop consists of the talk of people who've just walked into class, you're not actually getting a lesson. You're working with what you yourself already know coming into the class, and what your classmates already know coming into the class. What happens by the end of class is that you have more confidence in your ignorant opinion, because you've expressed it forty-five times, not that you've necessarily learned anything new. And if you learn anything it's a workshop vocabulary, refined by committee, which may or may not have anything at all to do with good writing, getting your work published, or advancing the art form. How would you know if it didn't? Your classmates, who are your teachers, don't know any more than you do.

What actually happens, even in the most well-intentioned, kindly workshops, is that your workshop partners pathologize your writing and, like so many doctors, sit down to diagnose the disease. If you turned in something that was really good, two minutes of a half-hour workshop would be spent telling you it was good (if that), and then the rest of the workshop would be spent picking nits and pushing this (good) piece toward a consensus comfort zone. Even if most of your classmates, if they had read the piece in a journal, would have found the piece to be complete and publishable, they're not capable of saying so in a workshop setting, because they go into the reading looking for faults. The person who brings in a good piece to a workshop will likely leave thinking it's a mess.

Additionally, they're all writers, instead of readers, so they've begun, through the workshop process, to feel empowered to push writing in specific directions. So, instead of applying that power to their own writing (because after all, only twice in the semester will the workshop be about them, whereas the rest of the semester the workshop is about someone else) they apply it instead to yours. They want to read a piece that is written poetically, so they attack your expository sections as "lifeless". They want to read a piece that dots all its i's and crosses all its t's, so they tell you they "want more" information about this or that character or situation. They praise techniques they've seen before in published work (because that means it must be "good", right?) and criticize techniques they've never seen before (because that means it must be bad.)

Creative writing workshops, more than any situation since junior high sleepovers, offer people the opportunity to group-decide what another person gets to wear in public, and the miracle isn't that faddish, safe, and personality-free writing results, but that any individuality escapes its clutches at all. My main problem during my MFA course was how to stop my ears up to the comments of people who hadn't read what I've read, experienced what I've experienced, and who didn't want to write what I wanted to write ... and who didn't want to read anything I wanted to write, or learn from me any new experience I might have to offer. They're insidious, those little "I loved the mother, can we get more about her?" comments. You want them to love more of your story, so you try to give them more of the mother, even though the story isn't about the mother. You write more poetically, even though your experiment was with transparent prose. You ground the piece in "realistic" descriptions, even though you were trying out surrealism. If what you're looking for is a shelter in the storm of indifference in which you can try out your little learning experiments, a creative writing workshop is quite possibly the worst place in the world to do so.

The writing workshop is a crutch, it's about permission-giving. If you've never been published before or done a reading in public, you have no idea how your work will be received. A creative writing workshop gives you a softened audience response, and once your work has been workshop-approved, you'll feel much better about sending it out to editors or reading it in public. Never mind that all the best writing is risky, and all the books that changed literature were lambasted by gatekeepers. The writing workshop reins in those things that'll get you lashed in public so you can feel safe. I can't tell you how many times I've heard classmates say "I'm thinking of reading this at a reading next week and I wanted to workshop it first." I've said it too.

In addition, and this is important, any writer who is interested in studying and developing either ethnic literature or genre fiction (much less both) along with their "literary" fiction, is going to have trouble in most of America's MFA programs. They should put a sign over the door that says "Colored folk and nerds, prepare yourselves to fight." I have no excuses; I knew this going in and my experience bore this out. I went in prepared to fight and was actually surprised at how seldom and mild my fights were. The main fight was to find people who shared my interests enough to say anything intelligent or insightful about my work. My main complaint there was that I didn't expect how little relevant or interesting critique I received. I was expecting hostile critique, which would actually have been useful and revealing. Instead, I got well-meaning but ignorant and pointless critique.

And this is the essence of my criticism of MFA programs and especially workshops: in their essence, they are largely irrelevant and useless.

I'm not saying they don't feel good. The passion with which the abovementioned writer wrote of his MFA experience must have come from what I can only call the "discovery of my peeps" experience. That is, that time when you finally go and seek out "people like you" in certain key ways and actually find them and get to spend quality time with them. All those arguments you had with family and neighbors all your life ... you were right after all, and all these people agree with you! It's thrilling to find that other people in the world not only care that you're writing, but care enough to help you make your writing better. I get that. I really do. And if I hadn't spent the six or seven years before I went into an MFA program in artist communities with other artists and writers, having just those smoky drunken shouting conversations and experimenting with words onstage at poetry slams, and curating exhibitions and writing copy for readings and taking checks for writing classes ... then I'd probably have had my "discovery of my peeps" experience in the creative writing department of San Francisco State University as well. MFA programs, for most of their participants, are a way for people to out themselves as writers, to ceremoniously, publicly, join the ranks of the artist/intellectual. I'd already done that, publicly, years before, so the MFA program was not only not that experience for me, but having to watch my peers having that experience was tedious.

Finding a community of the like-minded is a powerful reason to go back to school, don't doubt that. But this can be done in other ways, ways that don't require application processes and tuition payments (not to mention massive debt). The MFA program, despite its expense, is merely an easy and passive way to attach yourself to a writers community, albeit one composed mostly of amateurs like yourself who are all scratching away (or not) at the door. But then, writing is hard work, it is active work. If you're looking for an easy and passive way to do it, then you're not going to be a successful writer anyway.

In conclusion, I'm obviously torn. I got a lot of what I wanted to get out of my MFA time, and my writing improved immeasurably as a result. So I'm glad I did it. But I'm not sure I should encourage anyone else to do it. Just because it feels good and I got something out of it doesn't mean that it's helped to make me into a writer the world actually needs. For all of those, like me, who have to stop up their ears to writing workshops, avoiding the MFA may very well be the best thing you can do. And for those who listen to the MFA workshop voice and use it as a crutch, I don't think the world needs your writing.

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Comments

Wow, thanks for the nice essay. Impressive. Interesting to read from the perspective of someone from a completely different discipline. Keep up the good work.

mr. t: thanks for stopping by! come by any time.

You're doing it again!

what, about the workshops?

lol. i still remember the first time you critiqued my work in mfa writing workshop. i thought you were completely unimpressed by my stuff. there was a word you used, i can't remember what it was, something synonymous with dailyness, but you were criticizing me for wanting to write bestselling fiction but not writing in the style of bestselling fiction or something like that. you said more crazy stuff had to happen in my story, like things blowing up or babies being kidnapped, instead i was writing about the day-to-day stuff of life. you were a bit intimidating, and i was of course a bit sad you didn't like my writing, but i actually liked that you weren't trying to be nice. i admired you for that.

katinka, that first thing you turned in of your novel was *dead*. and yes, i was unimpressed. i didn't think anything could be done with it. but then you came in with a completely different idea about how to do that novel and it was really, really *alive* and i was sooo impressed.

i've told my students that anecdote to impress upon them how impossible it is to tell if someone is a "good writer" just by reading a few rough drafts they've turned into a workshop. i hope you're still working on that novel.

plus, the word was "quotidian". another favorite word of mine.

Hey Claire.

I'm also ambivalent about the MFA, but I'll still apply in December. Your post didn't acknowledge the slew of programs that waive tuition, or the dozens of schools offering stipends or even fellowships on top of that. I'll tolerate the worst workshops for free!

Also, I'm not sure when you graduated, but "ethnic", "minority", or--oh God--"fiction of The Other" is all the rage these days. Top programs like Indiana base an uncomfortable amount of stuff around it, including fellowships, admissions, etc. Flip through any AWP-endorsed book (or Best American, even) and count the number of bland, insipid tales that wouldn't exist if characters didn't mention exotic spicy foods of the homeland or say things in italics like *My tia Juanita is always giving me a hard time about tacos. Don't be a gordita! she says.* etc. There's a whole cottage industry of very rich, third generation Americans teaching and producing that crappy stuff. (Not that it can't be done well--quality's just not too much of a requirement anymore, let alone authenticity.)

Further, while I almost agree with your take on workshop speak, people in my undergrad classes felt the same way or at least were aware of the workshops problems or limitations, which made moving beyond those difficulties much easier. I can only hope that if the untalented kids at East Podunk U are wary of writing towards some workshop consensus, someone at Syracuse, Iowa, Brown, etc. will be equally as cautious.

I mean, if you got the time you wanted and emerged a better writer, the MFA can't be as bad as you make it out to be, can it?

unreliable: oh yes, the fiction of the other. that's a whole 'nother blog post and i'm not gonna write that right now. short version, "ethnic" writers have two choices in today's literary economy: write white, or write "ethnic". writing "ethnic" means writing the euro-determined immigration story structure with, as you pointed out, little ethnic details. (see my article "loose canon" in hyphen #4 for a history/critique of this in asian american fiction).

anyway, i graduated last december, which is why i'm taking stock right about now. and you'll notice that i said i was torn about the mfa, still undecided as to its ultimate utility or point.

yes, people are becoming more and more aware of the problems of workshops, but being aware of the problems of workshops doesn't solve them ... if you're still workshopping. when i teach workshops, i keep the reins rilly, rilly tight and don't let anyone express value judgments at all (good, bad, works, doesn't work). all they're allowed to do in my workshops is analyze what is in the work (as opposed to what isn't that they would want to see in there) and present it to the writer. prescriptions are allowed but subtly discouraged.

this cuts down on the workshop group rewriting your story for you, but i'm not sure how useful it is to the writers. that's the problem: workshops, at base, aren't all that useful. you have to spend so much time in workshop on damage control, that you have little time left to grab what little utility there might actually be. your workshop partners tend to be people whose opinions on what/how to wear, eat, vote, act, or think you wouldn't even consider taking, yet you listen to what they say about how you should write? the people in workshops i've been in who say that they respect the opinions of all their workshop partners are always the worst writers.

at best all a workshop can do is give you a pool of potential writing friends with whom you can then form your own writing group or simply exchange feedback one on one. in the sixteen or so workshops i've been in, i've only, so far, gotten one writing friend out of any of them. one.

oh yeah, another thing i've learned to use workshops for, which i'm now using slush readers' comments for instead: seeing which of my writing experiments really strikes clich├ęs at the root. i can tell this by how much the group hates that particular experiment and wants me to change it. when i get a lot of hostility on something, i know i'm on the right track. and when i get a lot of love, particularly for language, i immediately go home and change it.

basically, what i'm saying is that you might like and enjoy the mfa program, but end up a worse writer as a result. and you might never know that you're a worse writer as a result. but that's not going to stop anyone, i'm sure ;)

Hi again and thanks so much for your response. I've added it to my growing Word document to be mulled over if and when I get to lead my own undergrad workshop next year.

But I'm definitely going to find that Hyphen article--there's a group of very, very recent Asian-Texan-Americans I know (people who kind of laughed at me in this kind way and patted me on the head when they read the books I described as insightful Asian American fiction) that will read it with great interest.

Thanks again.

Wow, I just stumbled on this blog post looking for something else. My biggest fear is that I could do an MFA program and wind up a worse writer. My past experiences with workshops were pretty mixed, and I definitely had to leran to take a lot of feedback with a grain of salt. But then, with my second novel, I finally felt confident enough to take *all* the feedback on board. Mostly because I showed it to people (like you) whose opinions I trusted. I've been toying with doing an MFA at some point, but it would be mostly to help launch my career and get a credential for teaching. I wish there were statistics online somewhere about which programs produce the highest percentage of successful authors, and which programs you're most likely to get a good teaching job out of.

charlie, i have no worries *at all* that an MFA will turn you into a bad writer. you're waaaay too experienced a writer--not to mention, way too published--for that to be an issue.

i think you might be bored to death, though.

I totally agree with everything you said about writing workshops. Also just coming out of an MFA program in the Bay Area. (Not SFSU). But I've struggled with all the same things. The bullshit of the workshop is something that I've lost my patience for as time went on.

Your arguments against spending 30 Grand so others as poorly informed as you can critique you are why I chose a brief-residency MFA program, where 10 days a semester we get together with other students and workshop, but the bulk of the semester is at home, getting feedback from an experienced mentor who is devoting attention to just your work. LOVE IT!

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