Recently a writer friend posed the following question to me and a few other MFAs he knows.
“How has your writing changed from before you entered and graduated the MFA program? Do you see a change in your style or how you approach writing? If so, then why do you think that is? How much of the change is natural evolution someone goes through by writing regularly and how much of the change was directly influenced by the program?”
I actually think about that from time to time, so it was easy to come up with an answer. Thought I’d share it.
Am I a “better” writer having gone through an MFA program? Or merely a different writer? I guess it’s not for me to answer that question, but for readers.
What I can say is that I am a more thoughtful writer. I write deliberately, with far less speed than I did before the program, and I think this is because I have been exposed to styles and techniques and forms that I would never have imagined previously. That’s important because those things I’ve learned give me a greater opportunity to communicate themes and meanings to readers. I am no longer limited to techniques of my own invention, but have access to those of other writers as well, and all that mixes together as I plan and write. And while I could have been exposed to those things on my own, it’s through the MFA that I have been able to more easily acquire and systematize that knowledge so that I can employ it in my own work. I’d estimate the MFA allowed me to compress maybe 10-20 years of reading on my own into 2 years of intense study by helping me focus on the most useful aspects of literary craft and how they are connected to effective writing.
You might think that all this knowledge, all these connections allow me to write faster or more easily, and maybe sometime in the future that will be so, but for now my ideas and prose must be filtered through everything I learned in the program, and I find this is what slows me down. So much to consider in every line. So much criticism regarding my default style that I literally have to rewrite almost every sentence. Does it mean what I intend it to mean? Will the reader understand that intent? Does it connect to what came before, what comes after? Have I employed a literary cliche to accomplish it or is the writing clean and unpretentious? … ad infinitum. Despite the loss of pace, I believe I’m a more effective writer. Once those writing issues have been resolved, the final text is usually publishable (even if it hasn’t been published yet).
One big positive about my writing after the MFA program comes to mind, and that’s my ability to convey emotional (character) depth in a narrative. Writing everyday is an excellent method of self-psychoanalysis, since all one’s characters are to at least a small degree, aspects of the writer. By analyzing them, the writer analyzes oneself, and I have come to some remarkable realizations about moi in the past few years that have opened me to change. In turn, the acceptance of these personal aspects has made it easier to understand who my characters are, what motivates them, and how best to convey that to the reader. I recall that in my pre-MFA work, many readers had difficulty parsing the characters, mostly because I was withholding evidence about them, just as I was subsuming my own problems. Although this is still a work in progress (in both fiction and reality), but I believe I’m getting there. Again, I may have been able to accomplish this on my own, but compressing the process through the MFA achieves the result faster. Going through a program and learning from instructors is kind of like learning to rely on professionals in any field—you can service your own car, you can paint you own house, you can design your own advertising—but they all come out better when you use a professional for the job. I don’t quite understand the attitude that writing is somehow different—so personal that formalized education will corrupt rather than benefit a writer, or is at best superfluous to what the writer can learn on his own. It’s all in how you choose to use what’s taught. (And even after the program you must never stop learning.)
One other point: networking. The MFA also provides access to a network of intelligent writers (instructors, students and professional writers) who love, as much as I, discussing the craft. Of course the writers’ group is great, but for me, once every two weeks is not enough. I find the relationships I’ve made through the MFA intriguing and inspiring, and considering the number of rejections I get from journals, also very encouraging. If they’ll keep trying, so will I. Plus, there is a certain amount of credibility an MFA holds in the eyes of editors and publishers (which I guess means I could be published even less often). This network also provided me the opportunity to become an editor with the Los Angeles Review, which is decent cred in the literary world.