(And the tiny crowd goes wild.)
In my capacity as a Bibliophilistine, I was reading the Guardian Books blog this morning, and I came across a line so throwaway I’m not even going to link to it or take the author to task for it specifically. But I’ll tell you what it said, so you know what triggered my ire:
“Now, with creative writing courses churning out novelists by the hundred…”
Half a sentence, containing no explicit judgments whatsoever. Pretty incendiary stuff, I know. But it got to me because I am so fucking sick of this meme that’s sunk its teeth into the cultural conversation (such as it is) about books and writing over the last few years: that creative writing programs are somehow creating hordes of writers who have no business calling themselves writers. (See also: Creative Writing Programs Foster Mediocrity; Real Writers Don’t Need No Skool; Shakespeare Didn’t Have a Goddamned MFA; and No One Wants to Talk about the Real Epidemic Threatening Our Children Today–Bad Writing!)
If you didn’t know and haven’t guessed, I have an MFA.
But my point here is not to defend the credibility of my degree, mostly because it’s already too late for that. Newly minted MFAs are routinely cautioned not to mention that credential in query letters, because agents and editors will merely roll their eyes and say, “Great. Another one.” Another product of the mediocrity factory, another dupe of some university selling false hope to the profoundly untalented at $30K a year. Seriously, the only people impressed by an MFA in writing are those who don’t write and never worked in publishing. Restoring the degree’s reputation as a literary credential would take a lot more effort than I’m willing to put out.
But there are still plenty of reasons why MFA programs aren’t utterly pointless and certainly shouldn’t be blamed for the scourge of crap writing. I can at least make the effort to draw your attention to those.
1. Bad writers were in the beginning, are now, and ever shall be, world without end. What’s more, bad writers have never understood that they’re bad writers and never will. They have always been out there, submitting unsolicited manuscripts to publishers with cover letters saying, “All of my friends have told me this is really good, so I know you won’t want to miss this opportunity to make millions!” Writing programs did not create these people and cannot stop them.
2. They also didn’t create mediocre writers, and this notion that they encourage those is bushwa.
Here’s what people on the outside see: a bunch of mediocre writers get accepted into a program and walk away two or three years later, still mediocre, with a piece of paper saying they’ve learned something. Here’s what people on the inside see: during those intervening two or three years, the mediocre writers get eviscerated in workshops, snubbed by professors, schooled in the harsh realities of the publishing industry, reminded constantly that the likelihood of even the most talented students having successful writing careers is practically nil, confronted with the fact that their relatively successful writer-professors can barely afford shoes, and told again and again and again that the only good reason to be a writer is because you love it. No, it’s more than that, even–the only good reason to be a writer is because you can’t stop. If you have it in you to stop, then lord god, do anything else!
The universities may not, as Flannery O’Connor observed, be stifling enough writers, but they’re doing their best, I promise. For my money, one of the most important functions of MFA programs is disabusing novice writers, talented and untalented, of the notion that their writing is so goddamned special they’ll never be subject to the professional requirements of the industry or the indifference of the public. I didn’t need to learn that lesson at Vermont College because I’d already worked in publishing before I started, but I can’t tell you how many people I met there (some mediocre writers, some staggeringly brilliant) were first introduced to the realities of the business–i.e., you will probably never make a living solely as a writer of fiction or poetry even if you’re doing it better than everyone else, and p.s., you aren’t–during our MFA program.
3. The reason mediocre writers get accepted into MFA programs is that sometimes, they’re not really mediocre. Sometimes they’re just green. Sometimes, two or three years in an MFA program is exactly what they need to stop being mediocre.
These people are not, of course, the majority–but their applications can look very much like those of the majority. How does an admissions committee determine who’s really got the spark and who’s never gonna get any better? There’s no reliable metric for it; they have to go with their guts, and often enough, they get it wrong. So mediocre writers eventually walk away with MFAs, because they got in and did the required work just like the talented ones, however much they also disappointed the committees that chose to gamble on their potential. That’s how it happens; it’s no big mystery. It’s also not a phenomenon exclusive to MFA programs by any fucking stretch.
4. MFA programs are not just gathering spots for novice writers, most of whom suck. They’re also the workplaces of hundreds of extremely talented writers who, like most, cannot make a living from writing alone. MFA programs offer those writers a schedule that allows for writing and an employer that encourages (nay, demands) it. This is a good, rare thing.
Put it this way, even if I don’t personally get shit out of having an MFA, career-wise, I invested my $30K a year in the careers of Nance Van Winckel, Christopher Noel, Pamela Painter, David Jauss, Douglas Glover, Laurie Alberts, Bret Lott, Xu Xi, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Ellen Lesser and Diane Lefer. (Most of whom worked a hell of a lot harder than they needed to for their meager portions of my $30K a year, I might add.)
There’s only one person on that list I don’t feel perfectly delighted to have supported. That person is also the only one you’ve ever heard of before, or are ever likely to hear of again. Get what I’m saying?
And hey, sneering, non-MFAed midlist fiction writers and poets: do y’all especially get what I’m saying? Mediocre writers in some MFA program are putting food on the table of the contest judge who might award you some prize no one’s ever heard of and thus allow you to publish a book no commercial publisher would touch, since the unfortunate truth is no one gives a rat’s ass about the work you love except other writers. Including, fortunately for you, mediocre ones with disposable income. So shut it.
5. Having brought up economic considerations, let me now put paid (ha!) to the myth that all MFA programs are merely cash cows, and all MFA students are spoiled brats seeking to purchase formal approval for their shitty writing.
First I must acknowledge that I, personally, was one of those spoiled brats (though I was primarily interested in purchasing a babysitter who would demand that I write consistently), but that doesn’t change the fact that most MFA students, like most writers in general, are broke as a joke. And most MFA programs, like any other graduate programs, cough up a whole lot of scholarships and fellowships and assistantships to support promising students; several only accept as many students as they can offer full rides and stipends to. For some people, their MFA funding will probably be the most money they ever make for writing. Not a bad reason to do it, right there.
Unfortunately, this is less true of low-residency programs. For starters, the lack of residency means a lack of slave labor teaching assistant opportunities. It’s also a model that certainly does make some cynical university administrators go, “Hmm… we can pay the teachers less and not give them offices, we only have to find physical space to support the program every six months, and yet we can charge students the same tuition as other programs and have a good excuse to fund fewer, if any, of them. What’s not to love?” I attended a low-res panel at AWP a few years ago, at which a representative of the University of Chicago hijacked the discussion to ask a million questions about how to start a low-residency program, how much you can get away with charging, etc. (I daresay this attitude is especially prevalent at better universities–see also: “Master of Liberal Arts” programs–because they know people will pay top dollar just to say they graduated from wherever.) Those of us who were there because we really knew and loved the low-res model all wanted to kick her in the shins.
And that shit is especially unfortunate because low-res programs are far and away the leaders in providing what I believe is the single best reason for MFA programs to exist:
6. MFA programs offer promising but green writers access to the patient, detailed advice of seasoned writer/editors–an opportunity that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else these days. Maxwell Perkins died 60 damn years ago, and today’s young Fitzgeralds and Hemingways and Wolfes simply won’t get the benefit of the doubt from his successors, no matter if they’ve got potential leaking from every pore. They have to figure out all by themselves how to get the thing written, how to cut what’s not working and do more of what is, how to detach emotionally and view their own work critically, how to keep to a schedule, how to control their finances, how to lay off the sauce as necessary–in short, how to behave like grown-up professionals. That shit doesn’t come naturally to writers. A lot of us need help with it.
But today, we’re not going to get it from an editor at Scribner who sees promise in a manuscript that’s about 80 percent hot mess. That editor doesn’t even know the name of the 22-year-old intern who already rejected said manuscript (and rightly so) after reading three pages. If the manuscript’s only, say, 10 percent hot mess, then we might get some patient editorial advice from an agent. But that was never supposed to be an agent’s job, and it only is now because editors don’t (can’t) do that anymore.
That free support system from encouraging editors is gone–for some good reasons and some bad, but gone either way. Maybe it was never quite enough to only have talent, but now, having talent is barely a start. Being a professional writer is a very, very different thing from being merely good at writing. (Someone more bitter than I might even say the two are hardly related these days.) So people who are good at writing and wish to be professional writers can A) try to figure it all out intuitively–which is possible but might take decades–B) hope they chance to meet an experienced writer or editor who sees their promise and offers a hand pro bono (good luck with that), C) assume talent will carry them and charge forward like arrogant jackasses, only to be rejected over and over and over, or D) seek out an institution whose express purpose is helping good writers learn to be professional writers. (Or less unprofessional, anyway.)
A and B work for a handful of writers. Most go with C. The rest of us are stuck getting MFAs.
We don’t do it because we think the letters after our names will make us sound smarter. We don’t do it because we think it’s a direct route to publishing contracts and teaching jobs. We do it because we want the space and time to practice our craft, the advice of people who’ve been around the block, the community of people who don’t dismiss us as artsy-fartsy weirdos, the thrill of getting to call ourselves writers without immediately having to say, “No, I haven’t published a book and I don’t work for a newspaper, and yeah, there have been a couple stories, but no, you haven’t heard of the magazines, and no, I wasn’t paid, unless you count contributor copies… Did I say I was a writer? I meant I’m an administrative assistant/teacher/copy editor/communications officer/cocktail waitress. Sorry for the confusion.”
And after graduation, all of us–mediocre MFAs and gifted MFAs and all the MFAs in between–are writers just like any others, just like those who rail against MFA programs as if they exist solely to make the world collectively dumber. We hope for the best, but we only write because we love it. We write because we don’t have it in us to stop.