Should You Get an MFA in Creative Writing? That Depends On What You Want To Do With It

March 31, 2015 at 11:05 pm (Uncategorized) (, , )

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After I received my MA in Philosophy, I returned to my love of creative writing. In that time I wrote one manuscript, then another and another. The next step was to enroll in a Creative Writing MFA program, right?  So, I found my best writing samples, procured a few LoRs and applied to nine programs.  I got into seven programs: five low residency programs and two full residency programs. After taking financials into account, I enrolled in Roosevelt University’s MFA program.

That was a mistake.

I’ll spare the details. I reference it in some of the workshop experiences mentioned in this blog and I’d say my experience paralleled what a lot of the MFA detractors have described. Suffice to say, I went out in a fiery blaze after a month. Out of roughly 14 incoming students, I was the third one to withdraw from the program, although to be fair I don’t know their reasons for leaving and I know that at least part of my problem was culture shock from my many years studying philosophy.

Still, I didn’t want to give up on the MFA idea entirely. I regretted not doing the low-residency thing. After all, less time in workshops, more autonomy, a greater orientation towards the novel and students my own age would make it better, right? So, I called one of the programs that accepted me and they agreed to let me enroll for Summer 2015. Meanwhile, I kept writing, kept editing, and started sending out queries for my one polished manuscript.

Now that summer is approaching, with the first payment for said program due in just a couple of months, I find myself revisiting this issue. Should I go through with it? Will it be better? Will it be worth it? Couldn’t all that cash be put to better use by traveling overseas to research my novel? Doing a google search really just results in a frustrating amount of contradictory information and a lot of fluffy talk about being “in a community of writers” and “having space to write.” (I already have plenty of space to write, my own study in fact, and as far as community, well, let’s just say, I’m grateful that I escaped my prior MFA experience without some sort of Jim Jones scenario.) Seeking more reliable information, I decided to look at the New York Times Bestsellers List and research the authors who might, by the standard metrics, be considered “successful.”

I looked at the authors’ webpages as well as Wikipedia and any other available information. If no MFA was either listed or implied, I wrote down “none.” If an advanced degree was mentioned, I listed that. I also made a note of who had an MFA. Of the 16 bestsellers and the four that fell under the “also selling” category, I could only find evidence of an MFA for 25% of the authors. Of the remaining 75%, 15% had a degree in Literature (English or Comparative) and another 15% had an advanced degree in another discipline, such as Law or Anthropology.

The reason why MFA-holders may make up such a small percentage of the authors on the bestsellers list is probably due to a few factors. One is that the aesthetic (and there is a very recognizable “MFA style”) may simply not appeal to a large enough cross-section of people to be widely read. Also, the intensity of criticism received, as well as the manner in which it is delivered, may create the kind of perfectionism that, rather than pushing one to do his or her best, actually results in increased procrastination. In the workshops I participated in, I noticed that many of my classmates (and in one case, one of the professors) had a flair for the dramatic but in a way that wasn’t particularly actionable or useful to the writer. (Here, I’m not just speaking of when my own work was critiqued, but in general.) After I left, I bought a bunch of books on craft to figure out just what people were talking about. Only then did it become useful. For a lot of students, though, I think it results in a sort of operant conditioning, a tendency to do more of what gets praised and less of what gets criticized in a way that results in decreased risk-taking and increased dependence on feedback from others. This is why you hear about people that, after their MFA, fine tune a book for a decade before even attempting to get it published.

Another reason for the low representation among MFA-holders is that, quite simply, the content encouraged in MFA programs is not what’s selling. Calculating genre, more than half of the books on the bestsellers list are some sort of mystery/crime fiction/political thriller. Historical fiction was also heavily represented as well as, to a slightly lesser extent, family issues. (Also, Historical Fiction occasionally overlapped with either mystery/political fiction or family issues.) A lot of what gets encouraged in MFA programs doesn’t fall into this category. Coming of age stories are big, along with “two people coming to terms with stuff while riding a train” sort of stories. Depending on where you go, you might get a bit of focus on “deconstructing plot” as well. Mystery or historical fiction hold an odd place in MFA programs with some hiring faculty who write in that genre and other programs discouraging it. (The latter I encountered in a fiction class I took as an undergrad.)

I think the problem is that MFA programs and major publishers are working at cross-purposes. Major publishers want stuff that will sell and, if you ever want to stop working as a barista (or a lawyer, for that matter) and write full time, you need your stuff to sell. MFA programs, though, are breeding you for academia. And creative writing in academia is all about writing literary fiction, not mystery or speculative fiction or fantasy or any other genre. The idea is that you’re going to make your living as a professor of writing, so if you only ever publish a few books through a small press, it’s not the end of the world. (My fiction professor at RU wrote one book several years before and was planning on taking sabbatical the next semester so he could get the second book written.) In short, MFA programs groom you to be a professor, not an author.

Where it gets muddied, I think, is that a lot of students entering an MFA program don’t realize this. There are very, very few tenure track creative writing positions and, as most graduates won’t land these jobs, the degree is hyped as a place to “find your voice” “be in a community of writers” even (yes) “give yourself permission to write.” But really, unless you have serious academic aspirations and/or it’s your life dream to have your short stories published in the New Yorker, you can probably save your money. Go to graduate school for Philosophy or History or English Lit, travel overseas, or just read a lot and hang out in coffeehouses. Otherwise, an MFA may take you further away from your goals, not closer to them.

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Literary Fiction and Intellectualism

March 13, 2015 at 10:06 pm (Uncategorized)

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When one researches the precise definition of literary fiction, often you see it defined, especially among non-academics, as work that is obscure and intellectual, something more abstract and requiring a certain amount of effort.

As someone with a not insignificant background in philosophy, who has also read David Foster Wallace, David Markson and other authors who incorporate copious amounts of intellectual messages into their work, I have a somewhat different perspective. Wittgenstein’s Mistress, although initially quite engaging, grated on me after awhile for a whole different reason. The rapid shifting references from the protagonist, which in the first 30 pages seemed like candy to an ex-academic like myself, by page 100 seemed not unlike the first year graduate student that drops every reference he can without really digging into it in an effort to show everyone how much he truly belongs in the academy. It sounds smart, even intimidating, to the person that isn’t already acquainted with the references. For example, when the narrator remembers a quote and tries to recall if it was said by Heidegger or Kierkegaard, being familiar with both, I understand what’s going on. It’s widely known among Heideggerians that the description of Angst in Being and Time is pretty much ripping off Kierkegaard in a secularized way. Before we can really see this fleshed out with the character, it’s off to the next reference. If you already know it, it’s too surface and obvious but if you don’t, it’s too obscure.

I’ve had the same problem with David Foster Wallace. I once read a fairly lengthy interview with him in which he hopped from philosopher to philosopher. One thing about studying philosophy is that it makes you a careful reader. You really read line by line, look for the argument being presented and ask if it makes sense to you. So, when someone raises the issue of whether Heidegger or Wittgenstein is the true destroyer of language and then jumps onto a different point entirely, as if their audience will know exactly what they mean and it requires no elaboration, it comes across more pseudo-intellectual than intellectual to me.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on them. Still, it seems that it’s this sort of writing that leads to the “faking it” phenomenon. I once met a fellow writer in my city that, no matter what book you referenced, would nod knowingly as if it were her favorite author. The thing is, I read a lot about a lot of different things. I read everything from Denis Johnson to Plato to obscure texts on German law to books on the social psychology of language. I’m just really curious that way. After awhile, it became apparent that she was simply pretending to know every author I mentioned. I think that because authors like Markson and DFW are often cited as exemplars of literary fiction, it encourages this sort of phenomenon. You get what I like to call “The New Yorker Effect,” where people know that it’s something literary people are supposed to like and therefore accept or reject it purely on the basis.

That’s where, I think, it’s important to distinguish between literature and literary fiction. When we talk about literary fiction, we’re really speaking of something more contemporary. It’s the sort of thing that’s taught and published by academics, that’s published by literary journals and so forth. It’s a classification but it contains the underlying implication that it is somehow on a par with, say, Dante or Shakespeare or Dostoevsky. Still, for many of the contemporary authors you find shelved in the literary fiction section of your local independent bookstore, that remains to be seen.

There is also a sharp distinction to be made between, say, the existential concepts we find embedded in Kafka or Camus’ work and the name (and even concept) dropping in Wittgenstein’s Mistress. The difference is that in a work like The Trial, to the thoughtful reader, it will become apparent. Indeed, the argument can be made that existential literature is another way of doing philosophy. (And philosophy and literature engage with one another historically. Hegel’s magnum opus, Phenomenology of Spirit, was in many ways a nod to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.) With Wittgenstein’s Mistress, we’re seeing a certain deconstruction of plot going on. Really, we’re peeking into the isolated inner world of a very well educated, very detached individual and in that sense, the “plot” isn’t just slow, it’s a depiction of state of mind, which I suppose is my gripe about all the concept-dropping. Perhaps it’s intended to be aphoristic, but it lacks the punch of aphorisms, or the multiple levels of meaning one finds in them, where one can have a surface understanding but the more studious reader can glean a deeper meaning. At the same time, it isn’t all that faithful to the thinking of the mad logician archetype, who takes us much deeper into her occasionally idiosyncratic interpretation of the ideas she is consumed by.

This, I think, is where the accusations of deliberate obscurity and absence of plot come in. In a work like that, and there’s a decent amount of literary fiction out there that does this, there’s a large extent to which the medium is the message.  There’s nothing wrong with that, there’s nothing wrong with conveying a state of mind and deviating from traditional plot in order to do it in a new way that will jar the reader out of his or her complacency. However, writers have to be careful to not run afoul of the same problems that you find in conceptual art, where it’s not clear if the artist is being wildly creative or trying to cover up their own creative stagnation by slapping on a theme that may or may not really be inherent in the piece itself. For this reason, it’s crucial to connect the disparate references and allusions to the over-arching concept in a piece. Danto’s art world public be damned, some of us need a reason besides literary reputation to get behind a work.

 

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Speculative Fiction

March 11, 2015 at 11:29 pm (Uncategorized)

I just stumbled across this explanation of speculative fiction. It’s the most clearly written, comprehensive definition that I’ve found to date. Since it also happens to be what I write, I figured that I would pass it on.

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Ryan Boudinot, MFA Programs and Pedagogical Responsibility

March 8, 2015 at 4:33 am (Uncategorized)

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I wasn’t going to write about Ryan Boudinot. I really wasn’t. I was a bit late to the party. No doubt owing to my rather small Facebook friends list, I didn’t find out about the article until yesterday. When I read it, it immediately struck me as clickbait. Still, when I learned that it created tremendous waves on the internet, including a former colleague demanding he apologize to his former students, I couldn’t resist chiming in.

First of all, there’s one thing that needs to be made clear. Boudinot taught at Goddard, which means he was teaching a low-residency program, not a traditional one. I’ve seen a lot of the debate centering around the workshop format and teaching 24 year olds. However, at Goddard, this would have been a small part of his experience. The average age of his students would have been around 42. He would have worked one on one with his students remotely, generally only seeing them at residencies, with workshops being minimal. (Most low-residency programs only have workshops during the 10 day residency, although some programs have incorporated an online workshop component.) So, issues of youth or the value of the workshop aren’t really relevant here.

However, the format must be considered when evaluating his criticism. First of all, it means that when he says “But for most people, deciding to begin pursuing creative writing in one’s 30s or 40s is probably too late” that he’s addressing the person who, in midlife, decides they want to be a writer and enters an MFA program. Some of these students may have enjoyed writing earlier in life whereas others may have only taken a creative writing course at a continuing education center six months before applying to grad school. Low-residency programs are attractive to people that want to get an MFA without having to quit their day jobs, and these jobs can range from journalist to lawyer.

But is it really too late? It seems he’s playing free and loose with neuroscience when he says “You have to be crazy about books as a kid to establish the neural architecture required to write one.” In fact, it remains very much an open question as to whether younger really is better where writing is concerned . Although I started writing when I was nine years old, and although it has always been a passion of mine, when I finally went to college I decided to major not in English but Psychology and Philosophy and it only helped my writing. Writing is, at bottom, a highly syncretic pursuit. Without life experience and a significant knowledge base, you’re stuck with coming-of-age tales and little else. There’s an argument to be made for only seriously approaching writing once you really have something to say.

If that was the crux of Boudinot’s complaint, though, it might not be so bad. What’s really disconcerting, however, is not that he held such a pessimistic attitude towards the adult students he was mentoring. Rather, what really struck me was just how much of it masked weak pedagogy. At the beginning of his article when he says, “The MFA student who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare, and nothing excites a faculty adviser more than discovering one. I can count my Real Deal students on one hand, with fingers to spare” I can’t help but wonder about his own acumen in giving feedback. Giving feedback that is actionable and pushes the student to try harder without deflating them is extremely hard to do, and I think, is probably the most challenging thing for any teacher to learn. It’s easy to write it off as “some have talent and some don’t” but at the end of the day, it’s a bit of a cheat. If you spent eight years teaching and can’t point to students who showed significant improvement thanks to your pedagogy, then it isn’t just the students who are at fault.

Equally unsettling is his claim, “Anyone who claims to have useful information about the publishing industry is lying to you, because nobody knows what the hell is happening.” While it’s true the industry is changing, if you’re teaching Creative Writing at the graduate level and you’re publishing (and if you’re teaching in an MFA program you really should be) then there’s no excuse for not knowing what’s going on in the industry and relaying that to your students. Their success is your success, whether you realize it or not. Furthermore, while the changes may be rapid, there’s no shortage of information out there. Arguably, it’s much easier to get the inside scoop on the industry now than ever before. Authors with small presses blog. Agents blog. Editors blog. If you’re going to be in the position of instructing graduate students, keeping up with what’s going on in your own profession really ought to be a top priority and you really ought to be able to relay that information to your students. In the very least, you should know in which situations a student ought to seek an agent, when a small press might be more appropriate and what the pros and cons of self-publishing are.

In conclusion, I think we can all agree (including, I’d imagine, Boudinot) that it’s probably a good thing he isn’t teaching anymore. I’m not sure that writers, especially in MFA programs, need any more discouragement. If anything comes out of this controversy, I hope it’s more than just making Boudinot’s name more readily recognizable. I hope that it promotes a discussion of pedagogy above and beyond the “MFA: Pros and Cons” variety. I hope it leads to a discussion of what it really means to mentor students, what it means to be a good Creative Writing instructor and what sort of responsibilities a professor has to his or her graduate students.

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On Motive

March 7, 2015 at 12:10 am (Uncategorized)

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I wanted to say something about the motivation to write as well as about the motivation to publish.

In my last post, I addressed the distinction between wanting to publish versus wanting to be read. In it, I alluded to external validation and my belief that, while not a primary motivation, this is a very common one and one which I believe the literary world promotes.

Today, I’d like to take that a step further. It’s true, it promotes it, but indirectly. I remember reading an article in Poets and Writers awhile back, where the author, who had taught MFA students, was appalled by the level of scathing criticism his students had towards a well-respected an anthology. An anthology, he was convinced, that many of his students would never publish in. He remarked that students in workshops “should be criticizing each other, not other writers.”

Often, I’ve seen this sort of disconnect in the literary world, the one between those that are published and those that aren’t. You see it in MFA programs. You see it in industry magazines. You see it from agents and publishers. At the same time, there also is this stigma in the literary world (at least in MFA programs and in magazines like P&W) around having any motive aside from the pure desire to move others with your writing. It seems a bit naive, if not downright disingenuous, to bestow a higher status upon those that have published and then criticize those who haven’t for wanting what has clearly been presented to them as the criteria for credibility.

I think it’s part of a more over-arching mythos of authenticity that surrounds the literary world. I say mythos because of the associated belief that only those with purity of purpose, only those whose goal is to uplift others by tapping into something universal, can somehow lay claim to being authentic. Anything else–the desire for credibility, for self-expression, for sharing one’s inner world, for understanding, for a career–is deemed as somehow not only vulgar and inappropriate but is tainted to the point where one is better off leaving the profession than pursuing it for the wrong reasons.

Except it’s a lie, a myth.

When you say things like “I want to write something universal, something that will move other people” really dig deep into your psyche to tease out the answer to one simple question: why? Is it because you want to help people, inspire them? Great, so why do you want to do that? Nor does the “writing because you must” response get you out of it, because again, why must you? What is underneath that driving urge to create? If you dig far enough, you’ll find something. Maybe there’s a lot of gunk from the past that needs resolving. Maybe you have a deep-seated feeling of alienation and you want to connect with readers who may feel the same way. Maybe writing is like a puzzle to you, a way to work through concepts in a manner that’s less systematic than philosophy or the sciences. Maybe, like the INTJ author from this MBTI forum, you simply enjoy it and aren’t cut out for the corporate world. The fact is, no one does anything in life with a completely pure motive. There are always some sort of secondary benefits. Whether it’s money, fulfillment, intellectual stimulation,  putting a part of yourself out in the world or simply feeling valued and useful, we all have them and, as long as you don’t lose perspective, there’s nothing wrong with that. To claim otherwise is pure pretension.

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Meaningless Statements

March 1, 2015 at 9:08 pm (Uncategorized)

There are two things I’m not a fan of: meaningless statements and beating around the bush. When I was an undergrad, I had a psych professor who gave the following advice to prospective grad school applicants: “Don’t ever write ‘I want to help people’ on your SOP. As opposed to what? All those people that want to hurt people? It’s a meaningless statement and doesn’t tell us anything.”

In the March/April issue of Poets and Writers, there’s an interview with agent Jennifer Joel. The magazine, in hyping the article, promised to tell you, among other things, “what writers should really want out of publishing.” Most of the article centered around her experiences as an agent but when asked what she would like writers to know in advance of their query, she states,

Writers need to understand the distinction between wanting to be published and what they really want. Publication is a means to an end. And the end is being read. If you’re looking to get credit, there are easier ways to get credit. But if you feel genuinely that you could make a promise to a reader, and that what you have to say is worth somebody you’ve never met and may have nothing in common with spending ten hours of their time on, that’s the goal.

Unfortunately, this is a meaningless statement. Okay, sure, there are lots of writers that want the validation that comes with publishing, a physical product that, in a results-based society, says that you’ve managed to do something. The literary world, with its often sharp distinctions between published writers and aspiring ones,  is no exception to this. Still, how many writers would be ecstatic to publish a book that never sold a single copy? Obviously when someone says “I want to be published” they mean “I want to be read.”

The problem comes in with the differing definitions of what “I want to be read” means. This is where the beating around the bush comes in. What’s actually being said here is that writers should want to be read by lots of people, i.e. they should want to have mass appeal. They should want to sell a book that will make it on to the bestseller list. For a lot of writers, though, it’s all about wanting to share a certain inner vision. If you get too audience-oriented in your writing, if you let the “what will sell” question dictate too much of the process, there comes a point when you have to ask yourself why you aren’t working as a technical writer or a journalist. Obviously, if you’re pursuing a highly competitive career with little to no financial certainty, it’s because you have something that you want to get out, something operating at a level beyond what’s pragmatic. Certainly, all writers should aspire to the universal, but there is a difference between the universality of a work and the popularity of a work, and at times, they may be very much at odds.

This is what I mean by beating around the bush. There’s a lot of beating around the bush in the lit world, and maybe I notice it more coming from a background in philosophy where the emphasis is on clarity of communication. Still, too much subtlety, too much obfuscation, not only makes the statements appear meaningless (as in the distinction between wanting to be published and wanting to be read) but it makes them actually meaningless. Why? Because in order to decipher them, you have to know what the author is referring to in the first place. If I didn’t already know that agents and publishers often get flustered by being hit with queries for great ideas that “won’t sell” (or, more likely, will be a niche market that won’t produce the numbers that publishing houses require) then I’d probably read such a statement and dismiss it as bloviating. In other words, it only makes sense if I already know this. However, if I have to already know something to understand a given piece of advice, why bother saying it in the first place?

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