A Dispatch from MFAland

by James McGirk

Mfa-2-640x480 The lowland of online discourse – that virtual Benelux where bloggers, essayists, and opinion writers grope for fragments of attention – has been flooded with essays weighing the worth of writing degrees; particularly the Master of Fine Arts degree. Discussion tends to hit its annual zenith around September as magazines such as Poets & Writers release their annual rankings and thousands of fledgling authors begin preparing applications.

Applying to an art school is a particularly harrowing and personal experience. Other professional schools use board scores to sort applicants. Meaning an applicant generally knows where he or she stands. A perfect LSAT and GPA all-but guarantees a slot in one the United States’ coveted Top 14 law schools, for example, but there is no writing equivalent. MFA programs look for talent and potential, and without any reliable metrics, the writing sample and biographic statement become the only deciding factors. Judging the worth of a writing sample and – this is as important – weighing it against who an applicant is, is an intensely subjective process. For an admissions committee a forty-five-year-old journalist may not seem as good a fit as a twenty-two-year-old, even if the former is a much better writer. But try telling that to an applicant who has paid $150 in fees, harassed former professors for letters of recommendation, and waited six months for a decision. For an applicant his or her work is being judged and more often than not found wanting.

This bitter and excruciatingly personal application ordeal is at the core of many arguments against writing programs. Those worrying that fledgling writers emerge from programs bland and timid, producing work any cliché-wary MFA would know not to describe as “cookie-cutter,” are criticizing the winnowing-out process. A writer enters a program having pleased an audience of older, established writers; therefore the only way to succeed is to continue appealing to those mandarins. Many writers also consider MFA programs akin to a pyramid scheme, imagining an opaque bureaucracy of gatekeepers and tastemakers feeding off of the flocks of naïve wannabe writers. While there are certainly elements of truth to both critiques, there is something deeply repellent about the idea of judging artwork in liberal humanist culture and I think that’s what is feeding into this extreme paranoia about these programs.

Far less has been written about what actually goes on in a creative writing program, so, having just completed my own thesis, I thought I’d describe my MFA experience.

I would rather not disclose which program I went to. Partly because I haven’t graduated yet and continue to work for the University (albeit in a different department), but also because our program is so riven with controversy that a mere mention of it online attracts hordes of single-issue pests. Plus I’ve written about the financial aspects elsewhere. Suffice to say that my alma mater is a large, expensive program in a large expensive city. I took out loans to pay for my schooling but received generous scholarships and will make enough on graduation to pay off my loans in ten years without government assistance. (N.B. debt-saddled students can find information about this government assistance here: ibrinfo.org)

For years I was suspicious of MFA programs. After graduating from college I had published a few magazine articles and worked as an editor, but I really wanted to write fiction. For a year I worked on a semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in India and sent it off to literary agents. This didn’t go well. What I had written was a first draft and a pretty rough one at that. I didn’t get any offers. A couple of agents suggested revisions that made sense to me, (e.g. one thought I should resurrect a character I killed off in the first chapter) but when I went back to make those changes, I was disgusted with my writing; it was so flimsy. So instead of writing another draft, I sought professional help. That was one reason. There were others too. I was lonely. At the time I had never met another writer my own age, at least not a serious one, and the idea of joining a community of writers was really appealing. I applied to and was accepted in the graduate version of the writing program where I got my bachelor’s degree. I knew and liked a few of the teachers. The only thing I worried about was the workshop.

MFA programs vary drastically in their sizes and the amount of coursework expected of students, but they are all structured around the workshop. A workshop is a trial by ordeal. Each week about ten of us sat down together in a classroom with a workshop leader, an established writer who directed our conversation when it began to stray. Three students submitted work at the end of each class. We took copies of stories home, read them twice or more (in theory), then marked them up and printed out page-long critiques. When we came to class the next week we discussed each story for an hour. We took apart the plot. Argued about character motivation. The shape of the story. Whether the point of view matched the story and other nitpicky details while the writer sat quietly and took notes. After three critiques another three stories were handed out and the cycle continued the following week.

The workshop lets you peer into the mind of a reader and as you hear more and more criticism about your work, you gradually begin to anticipate how different people will respond. You learn to dismantle and challenge your own work. This isn’t entirely benign. Too much self-doubt can paralyze you and there are people who see the workshop as this sinister thing which grinds off any originality a story might have, and produces well-written, well-mannered but dreary stories. There were workshop leaders whose personal preferences were obvious, but most of the discussion was about points of craft, details more akin to whether a chair should have three legs or four rather than to craft it in a Bauhaus or Rococo style.

Besides the workshops we took seminars and lectures (and truncated seminars and lectures called master classes). The lectures were broad surveys of subjects like American Short Fiction and were taught by august editors and critics with booming voices. The seminars usually had a more narrow focus, for example I took two separate, very different classes about “Space” and “Fiction.” The seminars were taught by authors in the community, some were on the faculty; others just invited to teach for the semester. We had a reading list and would discuss stories during each class, the same as you would during a regular literature course, the difference being that we were approaching these works as writers rather than critics, meaning there was usually less theory and much more about craft and the author’s biography. The seminars were smaller with more back and forth between the students and teacher. I suspect that most of the time in our seminars we were being let into an author’s artistic process, the subjects usually meshed with their métier. Taking seminars with authors whose work I admired ruined the experience of reading their work afterwards; their sources of inspiration had been revealed, and it became so painfully obvious that it ruined the illusion. (Of course it helped our writing but it was traumatic and in some ways diminished one of the few pleasures I have!)

If the workshops let us model the minds of our readers and understand the mechanicals of a story, the seminars and lectures taught us how our work fit into the “World Republic of Letters.” We learned to measure our work against what had already been written and by knowing what we were doing, it taught us where to look for models and solutions to problems that had already been solved. My school also offered a teaching and a translation track but I didn’t want to do either of those, although I did a semester of work as a teaching assistant for our program’s introductory fiction survey.

It is hard to say how much the program improved my work. I have been able to publish a few of the stories I wrote during my time in school, which I hadn’t before, and it would have taken me years to learn how to draft stories properly without professional help. The one thing that I didn’t find in graduate school was a community of writers, or at least not one I fit into. This was partly because of my own circumstances, I have had problems with alcohol in the past and found that staying away from my classmates’ constant inebriation tended to be healthier for me; and then my partner developed a debilitating heart condition, which forced me to work full-time throughout, and I lived far from school, which limited the time I could spend hanging around campus, but even if I had all the time I needed I’m not sure that I could have belonged or should have.

Masters programs were once finishing schools that gave students in-depth training in a field they were interested in, after they had finished their liberal arts degrees. Though writing programs open their arms to students of all ages, I am not sure that graduate school is a good decision for someone who has already begun their career. I realized halfway through that I had lost the enthusiasm for plugging into a group and feeding off the energies and discoveries of others they way I might have been able to at 22 or 25. At 31 I was interested in my own process and ways of unraveling my own work. Writing and editing is a destructive, negative and above all else a personal process. Being surrounded by eager young writers and steeped in their carefully pondered intimacies for two years is completely exhausting, but then again it was perhaps the best possible spur for perfecting my own work.