When I decided to go for the MFA in Creative Writing, a good friend counseled, “Don’t let them ruin you.” I had no idea at the time what she might have meant.
Now, three years after graduating, I understand she was warning me to maintain my voice and avoid falling into what some critics of MFA programs have described as a homogenized tone and style that is characteristic of many MFA grads. The thought of doing some writing self-analysis had been in my mind for a few months, and moved up this past week, as I critiqued a flash fiction written by a new member of my writers’ group.
The story, a mere 900 words, was quite good, and included a brilliant revelation at the close. Although only version two, with a tweak here and there it could easily find space in a variety of publications. But from word one I recognized it as the product of a writer with an MFA. In it, a holdup at a McDonald’s was subordinated to the narrator’s preoccupation over her coworkers’ personalities and the emptiness that characterized her marriage—a thoroughly character-driven piece as opposed to plot-driven. More telling was the author’s use of language—lyrical passages dappled throughout: “I felt giddy and fractured”; “Terry drew deep, forgotten gulps of air”; “the sunrise peaking above the Bungalows…looked bruised.” Few opportunities to sprinkle such literary garnish on the omelet of the story were passed up.
I couldn’t help thinking this writer had been encouraged by the instructors and classmates in the MFA program to develop this writing style. I admit, I’ve written many stories that incorporate this same lyrical tone. The environment at an MFA program seems infused with such poetic sensibilities, perhaps to the point where the writer who speaks in plain language is sometimes thought of as a bit of a primitive, or at least as unsophisticated.
Since graduation, however, I’ve been a member of two groups made up largely of non-MFAs, and I’ve often battled with them over the use of lyrical language. It’s made me start to compare my early work to more recent writing, and to evaluate whether the lyricism is warranted, as well as to weigh the plot v. character aspects. No judgments yet—this will be a long and ongoing process.
But I’m interested to know what MFA grads think of their writing as compared to before the program, and what non-MFAs think of MFA-like writing. Looking forward to your comments.