The Real World vs. The MFA
On the Long Path to a First Novel
If you are reading this, it means you are interested in books, writing, literature. Maybe you are interested in the writing life; maybe you want to be a writer. Maybe you want to be a writer and you have some talent for writing, a love for language, an ear for how words can go together in the service of more than clever ideas. If that is indeed the case, I say, YES. By all means, do it. The world needs writers. It needs stories. Our stories are a way of connecting. And without connection? Well, we’ve seen what can happen, what is happening. So, connect. So, write.
One way to begin, or to continue, or to get better, is to find a creative writing program that will accept you, mentor you, teach you, give you time and support. Many people take this route. I did, twice actually, over a period of about 25 years. This was not my plan, and (for good reason) it probably isn’t anyone else’s either. But it worked out ok for me. Actually, long run—very, very long run—it worked out a lot better than ok. My novel just came out. I loved writing it, and I love that it seems to have resonated with a lot of people, and I think it’s going to do ok. I am living a dream I was never really brave enough to have. In large part, I get to live it now because of those creative writing programs—one MA and one MFA—and also, at least equally, because of the time between them, which I spent out in the real world. Here is some of what I have learned.
There is something about the study of creative writing that makes people—from both inside and outside the discipline—love to bash it. It seems, for one thing, an increasing number of critics have it that MFA programs are, more and more, simply and primarily a pyramid scheme, designed to keep otherwise marginal writers—themselves MFA grads—employed, and there is indeed a common trajectory: from BA, to MFA, to adjunct, to publication, to tenure track, to further publication (perchance of a “how-to” book), to retirement with a pension and (hopefully) some royalties trickling in from time to time. Setting aside, for the moment, the “bubble” aspect of such a trajectory, the theory is that as more and more MFA programs are created, more and more budding writers will attend, but the talent pool remains static, in which case thousands of people (mostly, but not all, young) go into debt every year in pursuit of a dream that is only going to come crashing down around them—largely but not solely because there are far more aspiring writers out there than the establishment publishing world has room for—but every year a slightly larger (and thereby in aggregate less gifted) handful of the lucky will get teaching jobs, and the cycle will continue until it spirals completely out of control. Or maybe it already has.
As if this Ponzi conspiracy masquerading as a batch of legitimate graduate programs weren’t bad enough, every single soul who comes out of one (or so goes a different but often associated theory), will be writing the same book anyway, because, through some magical, mysterious process I have as yet been unable to grasp, all MFA programs teach them how to write in exactly the same way.
I have trouble with these, among other blanket theories: I do not believe that MFA programs are a pyramid, or any other sort of scheme, and although a lot of what is published in mainstream magazines and journals does seem to hew to a certain esthetic, I don’t believe that is a result of what students are taught so much as what they see modeled in print, because it is what editors can agree on. I honestly don’t know what the formula is, or if there is, in fact, a formula, but even if there were one, it would still be no easy thing to follow it; many have tried, and most fail. It is true, my experience as an editor has been limited, so maybe it is also true that all most editors see is formulaic writing, but I doubt it, and I have never seen a teacher try to get her students to write like she does, or like any particular writer has done.
The MFA bashing that comes from people who have not been in an MFA program, is, I suppose, understandable, or at least not particularly remarkable: “Outsiders” have been bashing what they perceive to be foreign, or elite, or effete, or what have you, since the beginning of time. Ironically, however, many of the people participating in this bash-fest have themselves been in these programs. Some of them have not made it (by whatever measure) as writers, and some have, but all have been on the inside. And many of the most vocal critics, even if they have removed themselves, or been removed from the world of creative writing academia, are still involved; they are still of the broader CW world.
There is something about the study of creative writing that makes people—from both inside and outside the discipline—love to bash it.
From some of those who do not find immediate success, or acceptance, and who therefore must consider other pursuits, a common refrain is: “I just wasted two (or three) years of my life, and ran up my student loan bill to the point I will never be able to pay it off, and have nothing to show for it. And people were mean.” And, yes, this is sad. And happens often. The consolation to the literati may be: at least they will be better readers. The consolation to the students themselves—though it might take a while: at least they will be better readers, writers, and observers. Hell, they might wind up being better people. Or maybe the opposite will happen and they will turn mean themselves, bitter to the end, and write scathing Goodreads reviews, of good books, by the hundred.
Or, maybe, just maybe—because they have gotten a taste, and been introduced sufficiently to aspects of the craft (and, yes, I do believe that craft matters when it comes to writing) to be able to read critically and to write more carefully—they will continue to do it anyway; they will put in their 10,000 hours, nail their own particular art, and “make it,” in one form or another. It happens. All the time. So there is that. Hope, is what that is. And whatever else may occur, it is at least tempting to have some sympathy, or even empathy, if you remember what it is like to be young.
A recent flap resulted from a blog post at The Seattle Stranger, written by a person (Ryan Boudinot) who apparently does not remember what that was like, even though, from where I sit (reluctantly preparing to celebrate 60), he ought to. His post, at any rate, is not so much a direct indictment of MFA programs as it is of MFA students. While I tend to agree with a few of his main points, e.g., “Some people have more talent than others,” and, “Students (in this case those in his low-residency program) who… blow deadlines, and whine about how complicated their lives are should just give up and do something else. Their complaints are an insult to the writers who managed to produce great work under far more difficult conditions than the 21st-century MFA student.” Amen, with a caveat. The caveat because some students’ lives are incredibly complicated; Amen, especially to that final sentence, because the majority’s aren’t, but they think they are, because life has never challenged them very much. Relatively.
So they lack perspective, which if you are going to be a writer, is an important thing to have. Unfortunately, Boudinot undermines himself, and any valid arguments he makes, when he claims to have met only three or four “real deal” writers in his years of teaching, when he says, “No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer,” and (especially this), “Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable.” He goes on to say he wishes some of them “had suffered more.” I can see teachers nationwide both cringing and nodding their heads—not in agreement with Boudinot’s tone, or with his incredibly ill-advised decision to cite child abuse as an example—but in absolute agreement that reading one more account of a teenage breakup, a first time getting high, or another parent-sponsored summer in Paris, disguised as fiction, is enough to make one very, very sad.
Another blogger, Anis Shivani, weighs in on MFA writing programs at the Huffington Post now and again, and has it, among other things, that creative writing is a “stripped (and) dumbed down” “subset of therapy.” Also that “…methods of the workshop lead to ‘improvement’ by subtraction—since by definition the instructor can’t compel the student to produce something that’s not within his capability.” (Italics mine.) Shivani also maintains that what comes out of creative writing workshops, at any level, is not literature. He concedes that creative writing can be taught, but since literature (by his standard), is not what is being created, not only is the entire endeavor a patent waste of time, but “…we are all fucked because of it.” I will get back to this.
In the meantime, without getting too deeply into the topic of, “Who died and made any one person arbiter of ‘real deals?’” and the one or two missing boxcars that might make the “improvement by subtraction” statement at least resemble a train of logical thought (no, I can’t compel my students to do something they can’t do, but I can compel the vast majority of them to do something they hadn’t thought of, or thought they were not capable of; it happens all the time, and isn’t this what studying or teaching anything implies?), I’d just like to say that making blanket statements about MFA programs, or students, or teaching practices, is reductive and unnecessarily provocative, though maybe that is the point. And while both of these writers, among other critics, may well have legitimate gripes, one might ask for a little concreteness, a bit of specificity—as opposed to gross generalizing—as that would better support their views. Or did we (by which, yes, I do mean they) miss that particular aspect of craft, or was it not taught, in our (their) own workshops?
That being said—the part about not generalizing—here is a generalization of sorts. Quite a few writers do make it, at least enough to remain in the bubble, either straight out of grad school (or the odd PhD) or soon enough after. In this case, not only are those who complain, along with their complaints, difficult to understand, they themselves are acutely difficult to have sympathy for. Often what I hear coming from these quarters sounds like, “Well, this worked out pretty well for me. See all these awards? This tenured four-courses-a-year teaching gig? But these things really had nothing to do with the program: Clearly, with my talent, I could have done this on my own.” Right? Perhaps. So why didn’t you? Because you bought into the bullshit? Because your girlfriend applied to MFA programs for you and you got in, without really meaning to? Because everyone else was doing it? Again, perhaps, but you’re going to have trouble convincing me, or a whole lot of other people who have tried to do it on their own. Because this is what I know.
I do not advise waiting as long as I did to get an MFA, if you are sure that what you want to do is to write. What I do advise is gaining some awareness of the world, and of the people in it who are not like you, before you go into a program.
Writing while you are trying to support yourself is hard. Teaching yourself to write is hard. Doing both, and doing them long enough to produce something that will in fact be published takes an enormous amount of dedication, discipline, perseverance, and time; way more than most people have. Which is why a place in a fully-funded MFA program is an extraordinary gift, whether or not you have the good sense to recognize is as one. There is no getting around this: If you are getting paid, for two or three years, to do little more than write, you are ridiculously lucky. If you can afford—with grants, loans, your parents’ help, partial funding, scholarships—to attend an MFA program without working (or while teaching that one Intro to Creative Writing workshop), you are luckier than 99.9% of the people in this country, and 99.99999999999% of the people on the planet, if not quite so ridiculously. Many deserving people (writers or not) don’t get to do this, or anything remotely like it. No matter what, breathing that rarified MFA air puts you in a place few people can imagine, so when your working friends and relatives, or people who are simply paying attention to what is going on in the world outside your very small part of it, raise their eyebrows at your complaints about how rough workshop is, or how you have been passed over again this year for a Stegner or a Guggenheim, maybe have the good graces to clam up.
Maybe also have the good graces to not, from where you remain inside this bubble, breathing the rarified air that keeps it afloat, bite the hand that has fed you, because it all ends up sounding quite like sour grapes. To me, at least, it sounds that way, and maybe that is because it took me 30 years to get from point A (knowing I wanted to write, but not knowing one more thing about it) to point B (a pretty, at least for now, comfy spot in the bubble), and along the way I gained a lot of the perspective I was talking about earlier, or at least I like very much to believe I did.
I started writing short stories at 24 or so (which, according to Boudinot, should disqualify me from being a bona fide writer, because I did not start when I was a teenager). I worked my way, as a newspaper truck driver (a job I loved), through my first, unfunded, creative writing MA. I learned a lot, acquired enough knowledge of craft to keep going, if only a little less haphazardly than before the Master’s. Things were not so expensive then, so I came out without too much debt. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a funded creative writing program, so I did not feel in any way robbed, and I still don’t.
After I graduated, I had to keep making a living, so I did many things, and I traveled when I could afford it (basically, I worked so that I could take time off to travel), and I began to pay attention to the world. Twenty years went by, and I wrote a few more stories, attended a handful of writers conferences, took what I learned there and what I learned from reading more critically than I had had the insights to do pre-MA, to revise old stories until they were pretty much unrecognizable, but much, much better. Still, it became increasingly apparent that I did not have the discipline, or the energy, to write anything worthwhile and substantial (enough to wind up book-length and publishable), because I was busy trying to keep myself housed and fed, and at the end of the day I was just too tired to do much more than drink a few glasses of wine and watch the Newshour on TV. That was me, and sadly so, for a long, frustrating, time.
Until one day about five years ago—and then every day after, until I did something about it—when I woke up saying, If not now, when? Out of the blue, or the funk, or whatever, I was ready. Realistically, I had probably been ready for at least ten years (but not necessarily a great deal longer). I was 53 years old. I applied to MFA programs. The University of Wisconsin at Madison took me. They supported me. They taught me. They gave me time. I wrote a novel. Found an agent. Sold the book. No, it was not as easy as it sounds, because writing—all writing—is hard, but it happened, and now I have enough money, and because of the money, I have enough time (if I use it wisely), to write the next book. I don’t know how appreciative I would have been if this had happened to me much earlier. Maybe I would have felt as though I was entitled to some success (though that would have been untrue). I do know there is no way I could ever have written the book I did if I had not already seen what I had of the world, and had not subsequently been given the gifts of time and support to write it. I am sure that, a decade or two prior, I would not have felt quite so enormously, so dizzily, fortunate.
No, I do not advise waiting as long as I did to get an MFA, if you are sure that what you want to do, what you are cut out to do, is to write. What I do advise is gaining some awareness of the world, and of the people in it who are not like you, before you go into a program. And I recommend practicing your craft until your fingers bleed (metaphorically of course). And being your own toughest critic, because people—especially people who love you, and those who don’t want you to get better—will lie to you. Above all I advise, if you do happen to land a spot, recognizing and appreciating what you have, and not complaining about it, particularly around people who don’t live in your bubble, and who never will. Yes, sometimes you do make your own luck, but that does not alter the fact of its existence. Write your book. Count your blessings. Do it quietly. With grace.
And (I said I would get back to this) I also advise, no matter how tempting, how clever that line sounds, that when, from deep inside the bubble, you think it would be a good idea to say that we are all fucked because creative writing can be taught, that you don’t demonstrate your bad judgment by actually saying it. Because that is not, by any stretch of the imagination, unless you really have lost all sense of perspective, or never had it to begin with, why we are fucked. (And we aren’t, completely, yet, but it is probably coming, for many reasons that have nothing at all to do with creative writing.)
Right now, though, the Syrians living in the Zaatari refugee camp—they are that. And the Libyans drowning off the coast of Italy when their boats catch fire. And those girls in Nigeria. And the Christians in northern Iraq. And people who don’t have water, or have too much of it and their countries are drowning. And the polar bears. And the elephants. And people living in appliance boxes under bridges. Those are the fucked ones. You do not—none of the people who will read this do—get to count yourself among them. Something to remember when you write, anything at all.