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June 23, 2009

Creating Writers: MFA Industrial Complex

Via Barb, this article in the New Yorker, by Louis Menand, about the creative writing program.

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.


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Dear Claire Light,

I came upon your blog via Barbara Jane Reyes' blog. I love this meditation on the post-MFA dilemma. I just wanted to, as we use to say in the 90s on our pager greetings, drop a line. You've made it most clear to us suffering from post-MFA mania: My MFA Program did tell me to stop yammering and complaining, to shut the fuck up and to write. And thus, now, as unproductive as I may be, I have trained myself to shut the fuck up during certain months of the year so that I might call myself a writer. And a teacher of writing. I trick myself and make my English composition students create films structured around thesis statements. This keeps it fun and creative and I fell "active." Sometimes that's enough to inspire me to write again. I push students. Students push themselves to do the work and alas, we have a dialectic. Unless I take it upon myself to mope around as a would-be writer instead of writing. Good Day Now!

i'll definitely be thinking much on this post as i begin my program; thanks.

re: starting a writers' group - let me know when you have a description of what you have in mind.

I liked this post too, Claire. After a decade of trying to make it as a magazine writer in NYC, I finally realized that I need to just write what I want to write.

This is both the best time, and the worst time, for doing that. The best because there are a zillion new ways to get my writing out there. The worst, because the paying markets are all dying.

For me, I really had to stop thinking of my writing as a career. I succumbed to the weird 'business of writing' thinking about how to have a writing career. I know there are many people who have built a career as writers, but I am not like those people. I can't turn my writing life into a 'power of positive thinking' exercise.

My need to write is not a gift, nor is it an oppornity. It is an affliction. It is an ambition sink that precludes me from having any other viable career. Once I realized this, I actually felt a lot better.

Now, I am not writing becuase I am building a career, or reaching a market, I am servicing the monkey on my back, because I am that monkey's bitch, and when I don't produce the words, he torments me.

That's just the way it is. I tried to make it be something else...a calling, for example, a career, an inspiration. Nope. It's a vice that will not be ignored and can't be purged. Point blank. I must write. If I don't, I feel like shit.

So, like you, I have to find a way to live that let's me write. As a man with a wife and kid, I also have responsibilities to them that can't be ignored. That's why I am now living in rual Japan, making far less money than I did in advertising. I am away from my support system, my culture, even my language.

But I have time, and that is what I need most. I write every day now, and that monkey is fat and happy. He lets me enjoy the rest of my day, for the most part, and the soul crushing despair that I feel when I can't write is being kept at bay. It's a ridiculous situation, but at least I can finally be honest with myself about how this thing works, for me.

I am not in any way trying to say that all writers are like this, or that my particular experience is in any way universal. But I did identify with your struggle as a writer, and finding a way to make writing a part of your life. Hang in there, and congratulations on your new commitment to your craft.

This post led me to think on my own road back to writing. After fighting the collective push of instructors and friends for so long I finally gave in and changed my major from Biology to CW. Once I was immersed in the world of writing and forced to tap into my creative jugular on a day to day basis I found a million reasons to write and an equal amount of topics to write on, but sadly I left school my senior year to pursue employment that was deemed "acceptable" by my family and friends. I found a lucrative job which helped to pay for a nice middle class lifestyle, but with each day my creative blood flowed out of me. A few years passed and I realized I was not writing anything at all. I was too tired to bring pen to paper and when I attempted to write I was surprised to find I didn’t know how anymore.
Fast forward two years to a woman who lost her job, her cushy apartment and her nice car and now found herself sleeping on her mother’s couch. I sat on the couch one day and I took inventory. I had done things everyone’s way but my own; at every turn I fought my writing allowing myself to believe that excess is the equivalent of success. But without the trappings of life I could no longer fool myself into believing the lie.
So I bought a trailer with the last bit of cash I had and moved into a trailer park in Stockton, which is pretty much California’s armpit. There devoid of any of the trappings of my pretty Walnut Creek lifestyle and my cool up-and-coming friends I prayed for guidance and the strength to do what I failed to do so many times before, believe in myself.
I made myself a promise, I said ok I am gonna give writing my all for a year and see what that gets me. So I started writing and low and behold 5 months later I had a book completed, which I am now editing. Looking at my accomplishment there in black and white inspired me to try to find gainful employment writing. Dealing with unemployment sucks. So I applied for a job with the Examiner and am now in negations to work for them. YAY ME! And I am going back to school to complete my degree.
The point of my story is that sometimes in the absence of all that you hold on to, that the world tells you is valuable, you can see the true value in who you are. Yea I know it cheesy, but so true in my case.

Wow, good for you, Michelle! Stay in touch, will you? I saw that you friended me on FB.

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