anghara (anghara) wrote,
anghara
anghara

To MFA or not to MFA?

In an interview with Erin Dionne, the first-time author of "Models Don't Eat Chocolate Cookies", cynleitichsmith asks:

As someone with a MFA, how did your education help you advance in your craft? What advice do you have for other MFA students/graduates in making the transition between school and publishing?

And the answer given is as follows:

My MFA is actually in straight Creative Writing (Emerson College, 1999), but I concentrated my coursework in writing for children, even though they didn't have an official designation for that.

An understanding of process, honing of my editorial skills, and being a strong critical reader were all elements that I took away from my master's program.

My classes really taught me how to edit my work and what I needed to do in order to create a strong piece of writing. I learned how to identify the holes in my story. I learned how to read others' work and look at it for ways to improve my own writing.

I really learned how to take criticism in a workshop, how to listen to what readers were saying about how to make my story stronger.

MFA programs come under fire a lot. Some say they churn out "cookie cutter" writers. I guess I can see how that can happen, but that wasn't the case at Emerson. I felt as though everyone there had a very strong, unique voice, and we were able to support one another and learn from others' work.

However, the biggest challenge, once you leave the cocoon of an MFA, is actually writing. Without a course or thesis to motivate you, life and work and everything else can easily usurp your writing time. You need to commit to your work in order to bring it to the level of publication, so protect and treasure the time that you have during your program--and carry that beyond graduation.


Is it just me or is this piling redundancy on redundancy?

The MFA provided "...An understanding of process, honing of my editorial skills, and being a strong critical reader." It teaches "...how to edit my work and what I needed to do in order to create a strong piece of writing... how to identify the holes in my story...how to read others' work and look at it for ways to improve my own writing." It teaches "...how to take criticism in a workshop, how to listen to what readers were saying about how to make my story stronger." And the ultimate - "...the biggest challenge, once you leave the cocoon of an MFA, is actually writing. Without a course or thesis to motivate you, life and work and everything else can easily usurp your writing time. You need to commit to your work in order to bring it to the level of publication."

I... find myself with issues here.

Okay, I might stretch the point to "honing editorial skills" - that's a measurable and quantifiable idea, and even if it's just learning how to mark up a manuscript for your own and others' edification, that's a learnable and useful skill. But define "process" for me, in this context. The process of writing? That is different for every writer, for every BOOK for every writer, and I have my doubts about how much of that is teachable... except by, you know, *writing*. Being taught how to create a strong piece of writing - that comes from practice, really, so - again - from *writing*, and oh yeah, reading. A LOT. Being taught how to take criticism in a workshop... there are those who will NEVER accept criticism, no matter how many letters there are behind their names, and there are those who will accept every criticism and tie themselves into literary pretzels trying to please everyone all the time and wind up ruining perfectly good work and pleasing NOBODY in the process. Yeah, possibly, being taught how to take criticism is valid - but really, you need to join a critique group and you'll get the same benefits, if you are capable of learning this skill at all. Again, what need of the letters behind your name?

And that last thing, the "biggest challenge", the idea that without a course or thesis to motivate you the writing urge will magically get swamped by life and go away. "You need to commit to your work to bring it to the level of publication."

Well, YEAH. You do. But honestly... if you cannot undertake that commitment "without a course or a thesis", you aren't ready for publication anyway. I've heard it said that if you really want to be a writer, nobody can stop you - and if you don't, nobody can help you. You have to want this. You have to want it, live it, breathe it. If you have to write your novel at your kitchen table at three AM, longhand, while nursing your twins - if you have to excuse yourself during an important board meeting to go to the john, not to use the facilities but to whip out your little black book and jot down a few immortal sentences which you just couldn't bear to lose - you'll do it. Others have done it. You do not need the goad of a course work and thesis to do it - you do it because you want to do it, pure and simple, and that's all there is to that. By these criteria, I could probably walk up to a college right now and demand my MFA - because all of these skills, I have. I've even proved them, but GETTING published. I've proved I'm a "real" writer by having people both love and loathe my books (that's an important milestone!) and I've surely earned it by dint of having been in this game for over a decade, and surviving (so far).

When I was a child I wrote as a child - I wrote plenty of immature nonsense, and even then I was aware that I was "practising". I wrote my million proverbial words of crap before I was fully a teenager; I wrote multiple millions of words between then and now, my works published in book form alone in the last five years add up to close to a million words, right there, and that's not counting the bloggery and the essays and the reviews and the short stories and everything else. And that's JUST THE STUFF THAT SAW THE LIGHT OF DAY AND WAS PUBLISHED. If you think I publish every word I write, I sure do appreciate the vote of confidence, but you'd be wrong - multiply that number by two or even three or four to get the real number of words that I've put down on paper or screen over the last few years. And I am not even in the lead of the pack - there are writers out there who easily put out a million words a year, and have been doing it for some time.

But when I ceased to be a child, I put away childish things. I did not need a course or a thesis to learn how to read critically - I am more than certain I can tell good writing from bad just as well as a graduate with an MFA - and perhaps my essays on the subject might not be as erudite as theirs or peppered with as many phrases of jargon and philosophy, but I thought the idea was to be capable of critical thinking where writing is concerned, not to excel at writing academic treatises about the subject. I have also written enough of my own words to know when something is decent, and when something needs improving; and for those times that I am not capable of making that call, I have trusted readers who will point out where I have failed. I *KNOW* what makes a story strong. On occasions, I've even put that knowledge into practice. I know there are scenes in my published work which I would be proud to hold up to any scrutiny (there are also scenes I wish I could unwrite, but there, that's knowledge again. Gained by doing, not by waxing philosophical.)

And in between times... I've been LIVING. There's a Welsh movie about a bard and poet whose professional name was Hedd Wynn - it's in Welsh, but subtitled in ENglish, and if you can get hold of it and you're a writer, get it. It's fantastic. It's about this young man who is full of life and living and loving, with an eye for the ladies, and a luminous and yet unformed talent for poetry which comes pouring out of him in great shining but entirely ungrammatical streams which his more scholarly brother then edits for him into a semblance of accepted format. The brother complains that there is so much in the poetry, so much strength and passion, that he wishes that the poet would concentrate more on his writing and less on the womanising - and gets told, with a twinkle in the poet's eye, "Where do you think the passion comes from?"

The best writing comes from a life well-lived. The most beautiful butterflies are not those pinned to cork boards to be studied and preserved, but those flying free, those you catch a glimpse of flapping their bright wings in a pool of sunshine before they are gone. The ones that you remember only vaguely with real-time memory - but you find burning in your imagination for a long time afterwards, and you find yourself wondering whether that slow lazy flutter of butterfly wings in the sunshine meant that a storm was coming down hard on some island in the middle of the Pacific where you will never go and which you will never see. That's what writing is all about - the juxtapositions, the what-ifs, the glorious improbabilities which it is your job as a writer to make the readers believe - and you can only learn about those while you're living a life of your own. Yes, sometimes that life will swamp you and your writing - the actual physical butt-in-seat writing - will take a back seat. But it'll be the richer for it when you come back and pick it up again.

There's an understanding of process which relies on dissecting a pinned butterfly to find out how it digests its meals, and that which relies on letting your mind follow it as it flies from sunshine to shadow and asking questions about where it might have come from and where it could be going - and how much longer it has to live

I do have a Masters degree, an MSc in Molecular Biology, as it happens. It isn't an MFA, but I think I can lay claim to something which I think I could probably encapsulate as MAL, Master's degree in Advanced Living. I'm not sure that the latter isn't immeasurably more useful - to me, at least - in living a life that includes a writing career.

I think I could summarise it in something of a nutshell if I say that an MFA purports to teach you how to write to live. My own philosophy has always been more that I live to write. An MFA is apparently something of a requirement if one aspires to teaching writing - but I'm not certain that someone like me or a great many of my non-MFA'd peers would have just as much to teach young up-and-coming writers as somebody with those letters attached to their name. And I honestly do not believe that an MFA gives you any sort of advantage in getting your work published in the first place - and in some instances, in the case of students who fall into the trap of being unable to let go of a piece of writing until it is "perfect", it might be an active deterrent.

Leonard Cohen said it best, as always. "Ring the bells that still can ring/forget your perfect offering/there is a crack, a crack in everything... *that's how the light gets in*..."
Tags: philosophical discussions, writing life
Subscribe
  • Post a new comment

    Error

    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

  • 9 comments