Creating Writers: MFA Industrial Complex
One thing I've been realizing lately -- as I've been tamping down temptation to apply to a creative writing PhD program, despite my contempt for, even hatred of, creative writing programs -- is what the real purpose of a creative writing workshop is. In the past I've been too caught up in my anger at the workshop's uselessness to notice that the point of the workshop is not what happens in the workshop, but the existence of the workshop in whatever form. The lack of a universal program or vocabulary or set of concepts isn't the point. The existence of the workshop is the point.
Which is all by way of saying that the reason we have workshops is to give apprentice writers the structure to write.
That sounds simple, but it's immensely complex. When I was in my MFA program, I seemed to write enormous amounts (I estimated that in 3.5 years I probably spent about 5000 hours writing.) Being able to -- simply and easily and without thinking or agonizing -- sit down and write appeared natural and effortless. It has now been 3.5 years since I graduated, and the enormous difficulty I've had just sitting down and writing regularly has been ... instructive.
The MFA program is compelling; i.e. it compels you to follow its dictates. You've paid for it, you've applied for it, people are expecting things of you, and you must deliver. It is also immutable: it is what it is and it's up to you to fit yourself to it or get off the pot. So -- in subtle and blatant ways -- you reshape your life around the MFA program. You don't necessarily notice yourself doing this ... particularly if you're a single woman with no children who is changing jobs and apartments (for separate reasons) right around the time she starts school, as I was. But you do it.
You organize so that you have time to do your homework (which is writing). You organize so that you have time to do your reading for class. You organize traveling time to and from classes. And you find, slowly or quickly, ways to structure your working day so that the thought that goes into work doesn't interfere with the thought that goes into reading and writing. In doing so, you organize your world so that you can think about writing, or write, throughout most (or the majority) of your waking hours ... not to mention your sleeping ones.
My living/working situation during my MFA program was a perfect storm for writing. Everything I did after my MFA program was -- unintentionally -- a perfect storm of cluelessness. I took myself out of the Bay Area and away from any friends, support network, or artists community for six months, basically situating myself in a cultural and social desert for a half year, and somehow expected myself to be able to produce. I didn't produce.
When I returned, I moved to the East Bay, where my social and professional network wasn't, thereby ensuring that I wasn't surrounded by the inspiring presence of other people doing creative work. I took on a full-time office job that had nothing to do with arts or creativity, in a sector that had nothing to do with arts or creativity, thereby ensuring that the largest portion of my day was spent thinking about anything but writing, and doing everything but writing. I also, in the name of freeing up more time to write, cut myself off from most of my volunteerism and freelance work in creative and arts organizations, thereby ensuring that I had no easy and natural contact to creative communities, except what I cobbled together, meeting by meeting, through my social life.
My life in the 3 years after graduating from my MFA program was basically the opposite of an MFA program ... and the opposite of a writing life. And I did not write.
The one aspect of my former writing life that I could have slipped easily and unobtrusively into my nonwriting life was a weekly or monthly writing group or workshop. I had many opportunities to join a workshop, and did not: becausse of my contempt for workshops and the writing they produce, because of my need for a long break from group dynamics, after seven solid years of working in creative and cultural collectives and seeing those pitfalls firsthand. I was looking, as I said above, at what happened within a workshop. I wasn't looking at what happens around a workshop.
And what happens around a workshop is very simply that you write around a workshop. It gets you writing. It gets you to write.
MFA programs can't work without workshops because, for people to learn to write, they have to actually be writing and have recent writing to talk about. So the MFA programs have to have a way to ensure that everyone is actually doing constant, steady writing. Otherwise the discussions about writing will be silly and hollow.
But it's more than that. Because, more than anything, you learn about writing in an MFA program because you spend the whole time writing. Enormous amounts, in fact. Even if all your teachers are assholes and idiots, all your classmates are cretins, you'll still learn a lot from doing so much writing (and reading.) And the MFA program has to make sure you're doing that.
So a few conclusions:
- MFA programs are still the best way we have to make sure that people who want to become writers shut the fuck up, sit down, and spend a couple, three years writing a lot. That means something very important.
- Creative writing workshops are a great opportunity to do something cool with learning, but they don't have to take that opportunity. Because the classroom opportunity is not the point of the workshop: the outside-the-classroom coercion is the point.
- If almost all writing -- that is, almost all writers -- come through creative writing programs, that simply means that we've found a really effective, regularized, and reliable way of creating writers. If the workshop seems a ridiculously simple way of conquering American letters, all I have to say is that it so obviously works that we need to stop yammering about it at that level. (And by that I mean that I have to stop yammering about it at that level.)
- As Barb points out, the discussion around MFA programs loves to ignore the other structures and communities writers develop for themselves. I tend to think, based on nothing but anecdotal, personal evidence, that the writers who continue to write after their MFA programs are over, are the ones who use the MFA program to learn how to set up their lives to facilitate writing. They can do this by recreating the structure of their lives during the MFA, after the MFA. They can do this by connecting with a community in the program and keeping that community together after the program. Or they can do it by using MFA certification to join academia and make The Writing Life their paying job. However they do it, the MFA offers tools to create The Writing Life, which tools then become invisible after the MFA program is over.
Writers like myself -- who indulged in magical thinking about MFA programs or MFA periods as times when The Writing Just Flowed like manna and ambrosia, and other things that rain from heaven without effort on the part of recipients -- are left gasping for air on the shore, refusing to just jump back into the water a few inches away. That is to say: I am mixing metaphors. That is to say: we stop writing when the MFA is over.
- I need to get myself a writers group. Stat.