I earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College in 2005. It was three years of non-stop workshops in screenplay, novel, and short fiction as well as literature classes, teaching pedagogy, and a smattering of other stuff. I don’t talk about it much, really. I’ve been taught, through gradual experience, that nobody really wants to hear about it.
When you get an MFA, you find yourself situated with a foot in two very different, very adversarial worlds. On the one hand, you are a “writer” among many other people who are also writers and many of whom chose not to spend the money and time to get an MFA. I’ve found, generally to my surprise, that when I mention that I have an MFA among writers, the response (more often than not) is prickly defensiveness. They, more often than not, look at me like this:
Now, maybe this reaction is because of all the MFA-holders who are douchebags (more on that later), but generally I think the fact that I have an MFA and they do not makes them doubt themselves somehow and they resent me for being the impetus for their self-doubt. When you’re trying to become a writer, there is an almost constant worry that you’re doing it wrong, somehow. You worry if you’re ever going to make it and if your plan is just so much pie-in-the-sky dreaming and then along comes me, with my fancy-shmancy MFA, and oh I must think I’m so special…etc., etc.
Then, on the other side of your post-MFA life, you’ve got the academic world. An MFA is a terminal degree, technically equivalent to a PhD in other fields, and entitles you (should you so choose) to dive into the world of higher education. The thing is, though, that nobody in the academic world really thinks your MFA is equivalent to a PhD because, let’s be honest here, you just made shit up for your dissertation and you basically earned a degree for talented lying and now you think, for some reason, you’re entitled to have opinions about things happening at an actual college with real academics. I’m one of the only professors my students have who does not have the honorific “Doctor” in front of my name. I keep picturing Sheldon Cooper sneering at me over my shoulder at faculty meetings sometimes. I think, probably, in this instance it is me having a degree of self-doubt about my worthiness to be in higher ed – probably very few of my colleagues actually look down on me – but the feeling of Impostor Syndrome is often very strong.
So, I don’t bring up my MFA if I can help it. I let my work and ideas speak for themselves, since the degree itself seems more of a divisive thing than otherwise. All that said, I think my MFA was a valuable experience for me and its capacity to get me into teaching higher ed has been an invaluable benefit for my life and career. I did learn to be a better writer in my program. Do you need an MFA to become a better writer? Of course not! You can take the same number of workshops and classes in your free time from any number of programs and probably for less money. My MFA didn’t make me any more publishable and didn’t give me an inside-scoop on the publishing world by any means – I came out of my program a better writer, but just as unprepared for the publishing end of writing as anybody else. And, furthermore, everybody’s MFA experience likely varies a wide bit just based upon course selection, the school you attend, and even the individuals who happen to be in workshop with you. As with so much else in life, Your Mileage May Vary.
Which brings me to this op-ed piece in The Stranger by Ryan Boudinot which discusses the things he, as an ex-MFA teacher, believes about writers and MFA programs. This article has caused a bit of a stir in the writing community, with people reacting very poorly to Boudinot’s tone and argument. In particular, Chuck Wendig tears the guy a new one on his blog. I, personally, did not react quite so negatively. I mean, I don’t fully agree with a bunch of things he says, but the spirit of much of what he says I feel is accurate and, furthermore, very much reflective of what goes on inside MFA programs. Now, is he being an arrogant, elitist jerk about this stuff? Well, yeah. But, then again, maybe it doesn’t bother me that much because, having been through an MFA program, I got kinda used to listening to arrogant elitist jerks (both teachers and fellow students) spout off and I got good at finding the kernel of truth behind all the BS. I mean, you have to understand that, as a science fiction writer in a MFA program, I was basically considered to be some kind of dumb, half-wit cousin to “actual writers.” I was very commonly in an atmosphere of disdain and dismissal when I discussed what work inspired me and what I liked to read. A number of workshops forbade anything they termed “genre literature,” and when I offered up a page of William Gibson’s Neuromancer as good writing, a bunch of people refused to read it on the grounds that “they didn’t read that kind of thing.”
It was all crap, I know, but I learned how to sift useful information out of that crap. That, in and of itself, was an education worth the price of admission, since so much of writing is listening to nonsense about your writing with tiny kernels of useful truth. You gotta learn how to find it.
Accordingly, here are the kernels of truth that ought to be taken out of Boudinot’s piece, and what I instinctively took his points to mean:
Assertion #1: “Writers are Born With Talent”
Yeah, I agree that writers aren’t some kind of elite genetic sub-class. That said, people clearly have varying levels of talent for doing it, and the most talented people who work the hardest have the best chance of succeeding. I can see how Boudinot, after years of wading through reams of indifferent prose, might grow embittered towards those students who weren’t very good at writing. That said, I feel as though this assertion is a non-entity, a non-statement. Yeah, we all have certain talents. We can hone what talent we have and get better, yeah, but some of us will never be prima ballerinas, try as we might. I mean, right? Is someone going to kick down my door and tell me I could be greatest kung fu master who ever lived if only I wanted it enough? I kinda doubt it. Desire is arguably more important, yeah, but to say talent is irrelevant seems odd to me.
Assertion #2: “You Need To Take Writing Seriously as a Kid to Make It”
Okay, so first off this is provably false, yes. Of course you can still make it, and at any age. The kernel of truth in this assertion, though, is this statement:
Being a writer means developing a lifelong intimacy with language.
This happens in about a million different ways, and everybody I know who is a writer has this love of language (whether consciously or otherwise) that they have developed throughout their lives. This doesn’t really mean “taking writing seriously as a teenager,” but it does mean having that connection with language since a young age. If you never read a book in your life and hated writing things, the odds that at 40 you can somehow make it as a novelist seem low. Not impossible, mind you, but low. Furthermore, for Boudinot, many of his students weren’t teenagers all that long ago. If you’re 22 and in a MFA program and you hadn’t already developed some kind of serious interest in language, you are probably wasting your time and everybody else’s in that program (and one wonders how you got in).
Assertion #3: “If You Complain About Not Having Time to Write, Drop Out”
This is one spot where I stringently disagree with Chuck Wendig. I’m sorry, if you sign up to get a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, you are well past the point where complaining about having time to write is a sensible objection. You (and the rest of us) are shelling out significant money and time to do this, and if you can’t figure out how to actually write in your writing program, what the hell are you doing there? Students like this in my classes used to piss me off. You were told we were going to workshop your story on the 10th so we needed it by the 8th and NO you can’t have an extension because my story is up next, you lazy dipshit. This isn’t high school, kid. Suck it up.
Assertion #4: “You Must Be a Serious Reader”
Now, on the one hand, Boudinot’s definition of what makes a “serious reader” is elitist BS of the kind which I was regularly exposed to while attending my MFA program. That said, he is right – you need to read and you need to challenge yourself while you read if you expect to do good work. Reading nothing but Lois L’Amour Westerns is not a roadmap to the bestsellers list, as fun as they are. Writers need to read widely and deeply to succeed, and everybody says this. They just aren’t being jerks about it, like this guy is.
Assertion #5: “Nobody Cares If You Suffered If the Writing is Bad”
Okay, is this poorly put? Hell yes. Is it offensive and dismissive of people’s experiences? Absolutely! Would I have put it this way? No, I would not. Is he right?
I spend 3 years in my MFA reading a LOT of navel-gazing, pointless, error-laden prose about a person’s personal baggage and it sucked. A lot. This guy is picking the meanest way possible to say something (sadly) very true: nobody cares how good the story is if you are bad at telling it. Let’s not beat around the bush, shall we? Sometimes you are not the equal of the story you wish to tell. That’s a fact. What you need to do, though, is get better so that you will become the person who can tell that story. If you just want to get the story out on paper, then fine – more power to you – but there’s more to it than that in order to be a storyteller.
Assertion #6: “You Don’t Need My Help To Get Published”
This comment reflects a certain attitude towards the publishing world at the moment – that the Old Guard, the New York elite are not as essential as they were. Do I agree with him? Well, not exactly (I went traditional, after all), but he’s welcome to his bias. Honestly, much of the publishing advice I received from professors during my MFA program was a lot less clear than that, so I can’t complain.
Assertion #7: “It’s Not Important That People Think You’re Smart”
Here he is 100% correct without reservation. Furthermore, I can say that there were a lot of people in my MFA program trying very hard to seem smart (or edgy or sensitive or whatever) and it always came off as them trying too hard. A couple years of reading stuff like that, and no doubt you’d be singing the same tune as this fellow.
Assertion #8: “It’s Important to Woodshed”
Again, this is some of the best advice in the piece. The MFA (or any “writing instruction”) does not spit you out a ready-made hit machine. Writing, more often than not, requires time and privacy and perseverance. Showcasing your crappy first drafts to the universe doesn’t help anybody, least of all you. You can’t expect good commentary to come from unfinished work. It isn’t until you’ve got the whole something sitting in front of somebody that problems become clear and the good parts really shine. Woodshedding doesn’t mean suffering for your art, it means focusing on making the art rather than telling people you’re making it. Craft before coffee shop, folks.
But, you know, you don’t need to listen to me. I’m just one guy talking about his experiences, here.
- I wanted to become a professional author and was at a loss at how to actually do it.
- I wanted to be a better writer (note how this is not connected to #1)
- I had nothing better to do with my life at the time.
My program was very helpful in a variety of ways. It did make me a better writer, though not in the ways I imagined it would. It earned me a career, though not exactly the career I anticipated at the time. It did, indeed, give me a worthwhile way to spend my time.
It also meant I spent three years in a large number of writing workshops among like-minded individuals (would-be writers) refereed by the kind of person we all aspired to be (professional writers). This, I realize, sounds like writer-ly paradise to many. It sounded like that to me, too, when I first started. Here it was – an opportunity to have my writing read and considered and critiqued and debated by people whose opinion about such things actually bore weight. This is a rare and valuable commodity.
If you write, you know of what I speak: of all the various friends and relatives who step forward to read something you’ve written, 75% of them (or more) will not actually read it. Of the 25% who do read it, the vast majority of them will just compliment you to be polite and their criticisms, if they exist, will be indications of taste rather than actionable critique. Then there’s that guy you know who takes a real, honest-to-God crack at it and tells you stuff that is about 80% worthless (“did you know you missed a comma on page 3?”) and 20% puzzling (“honestly, I thought the main character was a woman the whole time, so when she went to the men’s room, it was jarring”).
So, a writing workshop sounds like a refreshing break from the solitude of writing. The thing is, though, that all the same rules that apply to your friends and family also largely apply to writing workshops. The only difference is the moderator in the room – the professional – who, if they are doing their job well, will prod the chorus into providing more interesting and useful critique. As a writer of science fiction and fantasy, I caught a variety of my peers in this program off guard. My most common comment was “I was surprised I liked this,” which is about as backhanded a compliment as it is possible to give and, furthermore, entirely useless critique. All it indicates to me is that you are incapable of judging something that does not exist within your own narrow band of genre awareness, which belies a certain inability to separate genre (which is specific) from the art of storytelling itself (which is universal). The criticisms ranged from the occasionally thoughtful and useful to the completely useless (“I find science fiction pretentious” is a hard nut to swallow from somebody writing self-indulgent navel-gazing lit fic).
Then I had that one workshop where the majority of us in the class were fantasy or scifi authors. It was cool – a lot of that ‘genre-shock’ stuff was cleared out. I had a professor who knew her stuff, who challenged me about my understanding of my main character, and so on. It was pretty great. I walked away reeveluating my entire novel at the time, and that was well worth it. Even within that context, though, there was a fair amount of chaff to be winnowed from the actual wheat. It took a lot of effort from all of us.
Since that time, I’ve steered clear of most writing groups. I learned a lot about myself as a writer during my MFA program, and most of it was stuff I taught myself. I taught myself how to evaluate my work objectively, how to keep writing to a deadline, how to accept criticism you disagree with, how to accept a compliment (I’m honestly the worst at that one), and how to frame questions for others that will get them to address the concerns I have with my own writing. The people I was in workshop with, well-meaning and talented as they were, could only help me so much. I rather doubt I was much help to them myself, despite my efforts. I have had some trouble seeing what I am to gain from another writing group; what am I hoping to learn about myself?
That’s the trouble, I suppose – the unknown unknowns. If you know you don’t know something, you can learn about it. If you don’t know that you don’t know something, you can’t – you need somebody else to tell you. It’s searching for buried treasure without intending to; it’s somehow blundering into self-awareness. The odds of it happening are slim, let’s face it, particularly if you’ve been at the whole self-reflection game for a while. And writing groups can have negative effects, too. They can become an echo chamber, inflicting a kind of subliminal homogenization on the participants. The group and what it considers ‘good writing’ is often only one kind of good writing, and sometimes it isn’t the kind you want to write or that feels good in your bones. Sometimes, if you’re good, all you hear from the group is how good you are and you forget your own flaws. Sometimes, if you aren’t very good, all you hear is how bad you are and forget your own strengths. This can be as damaging as it is helpful, sometimes even moreso.
As I write this, I have informally joined a new writing group of sorts. They are all talented, prolific, and many of them (like me) have professional sales under their belts. This is why I joined (I’ve been alone in this too long, methinks), and I’m considering how and when to submit my first piece for critique. I’m wondering if there’s a nugget of wisdom waiting for me out there, somewhere, for me to stub my toe on or, perhaps, for some brave soul to chuck at my head. We shall see.