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MFA Programs: Are They Worse Than Plane Crashes?

From: Ed Schwarzschild To: Adam Johnson, Chris Castellani, Daniel Handler, Peter Orner The book club event at Odyssey Books was a blast, attended by a handful—a klatch, one could say—of sharp readers, which made the trip out here more than … Read More

By / December 5, 2007

From: Ed Schwarzschild To: Adam Johnson, Chris Castellani, Daniel Handler, Peter Orner

The book club event at Odyssey Books was a blast, attended by a handful—a klatch, one could say—of sharp readers, which made the trip out here more than worthwhile. It made me think more about audience and my dream of a world full of strong, thoughtful readers and writers. This leads, I like to think, to questions about teaching. It's interesting (but not surprising) to see that day one included references to various teachers (some specific, like Andre Dubus, and others less specific, like the soon-to-be tenured beer drinker).

We've all done various kinds of teaching ourselves. How have your experiences as students of writing shaped your goals as teachers of writing? What classroom experiences do you hope to re-create and what classroom experiences do you hope desperately to avoid re-creating? Also: how were/are you influenced by other writers and how do you hope to influence the students you teach? Seems like a great opportunity, too, to talk about involvement/interest in organizations like Grub Street, or 826, or Gotham Writers Workshop, or what have you.

Rock/bop/hard bop on–

E

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From: Daniel Handler To: Adam Johnson, Chris Castellani, Ed Schwarzschild, Peter Orner

The only writing class that ever did anything for me was one I took with Kit Reed as an undergraduate. She had eight students, all of whom had to turn in 20 pages of fiction every two weeks. We met individually with Reed in her kitchen. She was a careful reader and had a great sense of what I might read that might help me. ("This is a creepy story. Have you read Joy Williams? Rachel Inghalls? And look at Kafka again, he's great at creepy.")

The class only met en masse three times over the semester: an opening meeting, a midway check-in, and a party at the end. I wrote a lot that semester, and read a lot too. I also got the message that writing is writing: if you don't like to do it, you shouldn't be a writer.

I don't have an MFA and I've never taught more than the occasional one-day workshop. In general I'm suspicious of the whole enterprise. Certainly many terrific writers are coming out of MFA programs, but in general they seem to have gotten over hurdles that seem inevitable to the whole workshopping process: groupthink, imitation of some flavor-of-the-semester, deification of a teacher, obsession over literary gossip. In my experience there were enough hurdles to get to be a writer without getting these tossed in front of me. And I don't think I know a single teacher of writing for adults who wouldn't quit if they didn't need the money.

The major benefit of writing programs that's often touted is the time and encouragement to write, and I'm suspicious of that most of all. I believe wholeheartedly in that kind of encouragement and scheduling when you're ten. When you're twenty-seven I'm not so sure. Literature isn't begging for more practitioners. You could spend your life only rereading Isaac Singer and end up fulfilled. Some of our best writers overcame unimaginable hardship to get words on paper, and now, increasingly, we have programs for people who are largely (with many significant exceptions) overcoming inconvenience. I'm not sure this makes for the kind of writer I like most: a lifer, a person who can scarcely help themselves but write. I imagine this is an unpopular answer.

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From: Ed Schwarzschild To: Adam Johnson, Chris Castellani, Daniel Handler, Peter Orner

Well, we'll see as the day unfolds if it's an unpopular answer, but I'm betting it won't be. It is, though, most definitely thought-provoking.

Growing up, I was told so often by so many people that I would grow up to be a doctor that, like any good kid, I started repeating that mantra to myself, repeated it loud and long enough that I crammed through pre-med cutthroat courses as an undergrad and signed up to take the MCAT not one or two, but three times, without ever taking the damn thing. Hope they used all those test fees well.

Anyhow, all those years, at least from elementary school on, I loved reading and writing, but I wasn't getting the encouragement, let alone the instruction, I needed. Then, finally, I took a writing workshop, taught by Dan McCall. For me, the space that McCall created was essential—he made it possible to imagine a writing life. He also made it clear that there were no promises of success, but without him, I fear I would have pushed through into med school and beyond (I can, like many Leos, be stubborn), and that would most likely have led to no good for potential patients or my own potential happiness.

A small thing, that class, and probably not deserving of a worldwide MFA industry. And yet, teaching at a big state school these days, I'm struck by how little encouragement the students I see have been given to think of themselves seriously as writers, to think of how what they read is written, to think of how they imagine and what they imagine and why they imagine. So, at one edge of the spectrum there's the vexed, age-old question of whether or not writing can be taught. But, keeping that at the far edge for the moment, there's the more vital question of can students be given the chance to create some space in their lives to think of themselves as readers and writers. Can they be encouraged to push back against the pressure to pre-professionalize they've been getting since elementary school, if not earlier?

Maybe the kind of encouragement I'm talking about—in undergraduate education, but also at places like 826 and Grub Street and elsewhere—is only an accidental side-effect of the growth of MFA culture, but I like to think it's more than that, and I like to think its benefits to society as a whole are substantial.

And, yes, it's true, if money were not an issue, it's safe to say I would teach less. I might even hire a paper-grader from time to time. But I'd still want to teach regularly, especially since that inspiration I got as a student is, I like to think, a two-way street.

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From: Peter Orner To: Adam Johnson, Chris Castellani, Daniel Handler, Ed Schwarzschild

My thought's this: people are pretty resilient. They survive divorces and they survive plane crashes. Broken homes, unbroken homes. They can even survive the sometimes goofy horrors of an MFA program intact and go on to write decently, lifelong. I do agree that the proliferation of the programs seems to create more writers, but I'm not sure it creates more readers—and this does bother me a lot.

I also cannot stand the way that it academicizes the writing of fiction. Daniel mentioned yesterday that he wasn't even sure what a short story was—and thank god for this. The idea that, armed with MFA, anybody might hold the key to how to write a story or anything else is alarming. And yet those letters seem to encourage a lot of crap. The proof of this is how much work out there is competent, but not inspired or even interesting.

But I think we'd get cookie cutter work without MFA programs too. All you have to do is go to the bookstore and see this.

In my own case I was lucky to have some great teachers who were less teachers than writers and getting a small dose of them—if it was only them saying, go read all of I.B. Singer, go, now, don't talk to me, just go read, do it—often was enough.

Once, as an undergraduate at one of those big state schools Ed talks about, I slipped a story under a writer's door. And he actually read the thing—and wrote me a typed response on onion skin paper. I still have it around here somewhere. He particularly liked that I said a room smelled like potato chips. And then he said, go and read Arcturus by Evan Connell. My own story was dogmeat, but the Connell I still re-read.

Last point—as someone who also works at a big state university, I get a lot of people walking through my door who would normally never get the attention of anybody. Least of all anyone interested in their stories. There's no time, and when the student to professor ratio is like a 150 to one, as opposed to 10 to 1 as it is at some small elite private schools in this country, there's very little opportunity for contact with faculty. But I try (not always, but some days), as someone once tried with me.

Okay last last point: the MFA programs that provide funding in exchange for work — are undoubtedly the best. They give some people a chance who might not have had one, and like I say, sometimes people survive them and go on to write pretty well. It is said that Flannery O'Connor sat at the back of her Iowa classroom and scowled. But by no means are they are necessary—and can be damaging to the brain if people aren't careful. But so can a lot of things. Transfats.

All right last last last point, two questions really, and one I do not know the answer to. Why fewer outlets for fiction than ever before (excluding the internet) and yet all these programs? And why do certain major magazines still bore us with articles on the issue of MFA or not MFA? Why don't they just publish more fiction?

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From: Adam Johnson To: Chris Castellani, Daniel Handler, Ed Schwarzschild, Peter Orner

I think that Daniel's right that eventually you'll have to thrive on the aloneness of writing, and for some that should come sooner than later. For me, finding mentors in writing was pivotal—I'm lucky I didn't find a great mentor in the sanitation or arson field, because if he or she had given me time, attention, and rigor, I'd be burning trash cans right now, your trash cans.

As an undergraduate, I liked writing short stories and was happy to be in the air conditioning, rather than out banging nails in the Arizona heat. It was cool to hang out with other people who loved books and go to smarty-pants parties. But it was a teacher who took me aside, a mentor who made me strive, a writer who showed me that all my perceived faults—lying, exaggerating, daydreaming, rubbernecking—combined to make something good called a story.

All the bad press about MFA programs is probably true—mediocrity, burned out teachers, politics, proficient but heartless work—I saw all of that as I milked the grad school world for as long as I could. But I also had great peers, wrote a ton of writing and was in the game every single day. More people will read the Unabomber's "Manifesto" than anything I ever write, so I'll set the quality issue aside.

Mostly, the MFA program allowed me to practice being a writer—showing up every day, reading as much as possible, humbling oneself to improve—until I became a writer. And in general, I don't think most people would look back at the end of life and regret having spent a couple years doing something they were passionate about.

Remember when Dante strayed from the path and encountered the She-Wolf of Incontinence? What Dante needed was Virgil, and what I was most blessed with were great teachers—writers who were generous, patient and demanding, who helped me make leaps, see faults, and who treated even my worst work seriously. Writing stories was cool, but my teachers showed me that to be a writer was different: it meant seeing the outside world differently and it meant being on a first name basis with the voices in your head; it meant being evangelical about the oracularity of narrative; and it meant seeing the humanity of pretend people in order that we better approach real people.

I know it sounds like I'm writing a pamphlet on earnestness, but there's no way to be pithy about people who gave me so much, whether I deserved it or not. And since there's no way to ever pay back your teachers, it's what makes helping my students so dang rewarding.

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From: Chris To: Adam, Daniel, Ed, Peter

Hello Sexy Ones,

I want to say first that mentors were *crucial* for me in my MFA program. One professor and three (of 9) classmates offered invaluable perspective on my work, and helped give me the confidence to pursue it. They were my first editors, and who doesn't need editors, especially when they're insightful readers and, personality-wise, a perfect mix of cheerleader and critic? Is it so wrong to seek these editors at a certain stage of your career?

Though I've made many of the criticisms of MFA programs you've already mentioned, I bristle a bit when I hear writers complain about them. It smacks of elitism. I am guilty of this myself, going on and on at parties and conferences about how lifeless American fiction has become thanks to all these programs churning out the same Chekhovian story again and again.

It makes me feel important to rail against these programs and pretend that "real writers" like me don't really need them, even though I attended one and basically learned a hell of a lot from it, and would give my right arm to produce a story worthy of being called Chekhovian. But frankly, I can think of worse problems than a proliferation of programs promoting the craft of writing, whether or not I agree with their approach.

Yes, these programs are cash cows; yes, they take some advantage of people who have naively idealized the life of the writer; yes, individual instructors tend to teach to a particular aesthetic. But these programs put money in the hands of emerging writers (like me, like many of my good friends); they create and fuel often passionate conversations about things like character development and point of view; they valorize the discipline of writing itself; they create a world, however fleeting, where the written word is king.

I think it's a myth that the majority (or even a large minority) of these programs focus mainly on the marketplace and not the art. In *every* program I've either participated in or had friends participate in, the instructors belabor the point that if you're not in this business because you love stories and words and art, you're in for a rude awakening.

The whole "cookie-cutter approach" to writing may also be a myth. I think it's rare that a truly original voice that doesn't fit the "classic" model of a short story or novel gets discouraged or "molded" into a form where it doesn't belong. Quite the opposite: teachers are thrilled when they discover or nurture a voice like this. The people who get molded are usually those who are trying to achieve that particular model, but are failing miserably because they simply haven't read enough or haven't written enough stories (i.e. haven't practiced enough).

I like to apply to MFA programs what Grace Paley (may she rest in peace) said about the teaching of creative writing to children:

"For some people it meant that as a teacher you had to make great writers: either a student becomes a great writer or what's the point in teaching writing? Whereas the person who believes that you can teach math never thinks about whether or not the idea is to make a great mathematician. Nor does the history teacher belives that it is essential, in order to be a honorable teacher of history, to produce a great or famous historian. In a way, they are right about what they're doing: they want to produce women and men who love history, or math, or chemistry, and would understand what they (the teachers) are doing, and love and maybe understand the world a little bit better."

Like all of you, I absolutely wish that, instead of printing another article about what's wrong or right with MFA programs, journals/newspapers/magazines would print more fiction. But I do think (naively?) that the proliferation of writing programs are, in fact, creating more and better readers. Who else—other than friends, family and the homeless—takes a couple hours out of their night to attend a reading at a local independent bookstore?

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