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Criticism, Fiction, The Writer's Life

How’s that MFA Workin’ for Ya?

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[1] 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.[2]

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.

[1] The unexamined writing life, etc. etc.

[2] Sorry, had to do that.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


25 thoughts on “How’s that MFA Workin’ for Ya?

  1. As a non-MFA’er I’ve been going through an introspective process as well. I’ve been going through it for some time. I respect what the goal of the MFA is, but I worry that sometimes it’s an ideal not ground in reality, that the writing style and philosophy is a self-justifying approach. If a writer holds up his or her work and proclaims it a work of excellence so good that only a dedicated and well-educated reader with above-average intelligence can read it, then I think there is a problem. On the other hand, if a writer holds up a book and proclaims its written at a fifth grade reading level and taps into the lizard brain within, that’s a problem, too.

    There are two issues I focus on in writing…first, storytelling and readability. I want people to read it. I want them to enjoy it. The second is subtext, the thematic statement, or as I’ve started thinking of it, the song of the author. The closer the story to the author, at an emotional level, the truer it stands as expression.

    When you mention lyricism in MFA writing, I think of another term–masturbation. The worst writer is the one so in love with himself that he thinks by just painting pretty sentences that he can abandon the other elements of storytelling and instead entrance through pretty and uneconomic statements.

    One of the writers’ groups I am in is perhaps fortunate I was not in attendance at the last meeting, for I surely would have thrown about many a wet blanket–mostly calling into question the issues you raised in your post.

    For me, it is a matter of balance. It’s about creating an organic work. Admittedly, some of my writing is slap and dash, meant to be strictly commercial and appealing to a niche with disposable income, but other writing I do is, hopefully, more spiritual and complex, more in line with how I view myself as a writer. I have no problem being more than one type of author and writing more than one type of fiction. We are all multi-faceted individuals. Why shouldn’t that our writings reflect that?

    Posted by Stewart Sternberg (@ssternberg) | May 12, 2012, 1:38 PM
    • Stewart, I think you touched on another aspect of the Creative Writing MFA explosion in academia when you noted “a self-justifying approach.” A major reason universities have adopted MFA programs is revenue–such programs can be profitable. It seems to follow that some effort to brand the MFA experience and the knowledge it imparts as unique is necessary to ensure enrollment. If writers believed they could garner the same knowledge just by reading and writing on their own, they might opt to save the twenty to forty thou.

      Of course, the same is true for academic programs and institutions of all kinds. But in a bottom-line culture, even the arts have to prove marketability.

      Posted by jpon | May 12, 2012, 3:24 PM
  2. And of course, one should proof and edit before hitting submit, whether one is an MFA or not. Please forgive some of the absurd added words in the above text and focus on the meaning. Especially the last two sentences..”We are all multi-faceted individuals. Why shouldn’t our writings reflect that.” Good grief. I’m going to go have a cup of coffee,

    Posted by Stewart Sternberg (@ssternberg) | May 12, 2012, 1:44 PM
  3. You’ve asserted this before, that there is a clear, visible difference, and I suppose I will believe it is true in your notable experience, but I’m not sure I believe it’s true in a universal sense. Many writers who did not get their MFA’s write in a way you would probably deem MFAish. As a graduate, you probably know exactly when the first MFA program began and can explain the talent of writers who came before and/or did not participate?

    Really, you get your MBA mostly to connect with others in the business field. Yes, you learn stuff but a large reason to do it is for the connections. I think the same might be true for the MFA.

    And this bit about lyricism? I must admit, a little voice in my head said, “Oh. Do you mean she writes like a girl?”

    Posted by girl in the hat | May 12, 2012, 2:32 PM
    • Well, no about the history of the MFA, but I have read a few articles that complain about how MFA programs are producing writers who write a lot like each other. Like this one: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2009/06/08/090608crat_atlarge_menand

      And yes about the networking. My MFA connected me with the publishers of the Los Angeles Review, where I’m now the book review editor, and with many other writers I communicate with. With the writing biz the way it is these days, networking is paramount. The days of the unknown writer, toiling away in obscurity before being “discovered,” are long over.

      As for “writing like a girl,” that wasn’t my intention at all. As I said, I have waxed lyrical in many stories, and in part I think that was encouraged by the MFA experience. Ultimately, though, I have become what I call a Chekhovian–simpler language, clear imagery, a disdain for unnecessary backstory. If the characters accurately express the philosophical questions raised by the story through their actions and dialogue, none of that other stuff is necessary. (Did I say that? Man, no wonder people think I’m a pompous egghead.) And that’s not to say I don’t appreciate and enjoy lyrical language–when it’s called. But I find many writers employ poetic language for its own sake, and that usage is debatable.

      Not so sure about the “notable experience” part, but thanks for saying it.

      Posted by jpon | May 12, 2012, 3:41 PM
      • You asked non-MFAers to say what we thought about MFA-like writing, and I still don’t know exactly what that means, but I do see that my comment rather missed the gist of your post. I was probably remembering one of your previous posts when I commented. Perhaps lyrical is in fashion in the MFA world, just as Chekovian/Carverish minimalism was in vogue in the 80s and 90s. I don’t mind a little lyricism–in the right context, it’s a good tool to have. I must say that you do have a knack for making people want to comment on your blog, Joe–keep them coming!

        Posted by girl in the hat | May 13, 2012, 1:20 AM
      • Thanks for the compliment, Anna. It helps. As it happens, when my wife read this blog she remarked that I’m too cynical. So I promised that a future blog will be all niceness and good feelings. It will probably be 50 words long. We’ll see how many comments that one gets!

        Posted by jpon | May 13, 2012, 1:43 AM
  4. Though I haven’t gone the MFA route, I have gone the MA/PhD route, and so I’ve done a lot of the same reading that MFA-ers have done. I mention this because I frequently find lyrical flourishes in my own writing, and my guess is that they come less from teachers telling me to add them (or not at all, since I never took a fiction writing course) but from having read so many. Maybe they show up in so many workshop manuscripts because that’s what the writers are reading. An echo-chamber effect, perhaps? We’re all steeped in the literature of our times, so it’s only natural that contemporary flourishes seep into our writing from time to time (or even on a regular basis) even if we never learned those flourishes in the classroom.

    Posted by Marc Schuster | May 12, 2012, 7:54 PM
    • I think the “echo-chamber” idea sums it up pretty well. Writers are told to read as much as possible, and especially to read writers they would like to write like. So yes, writers can learn literary fiction without the MFA. But most MFA writing programs deal exclusively in literary works, and students can’t help but be influenced by those choices, I’d say. What’s interesting is that there are now some master’s programs in genre writing–would love to see the book lists in those courses.

      Posted by jpon | May 12, 2012, 10:12 PM
      • I’m glad you explained what ‘MFA writing’ is. It’s a term I’ve often heard but never understood, possibly because you need to hold an MFA to know what that style of writing looks like.

        I agree with the echo-chamber analogy, even in genre writing. So much writing advice centers around ‘read what you want to write’ and ‘read to understand your genre’, which is perhaps why all thrillers sound exactly the same (and romances, sci-fi, literary, etc). I think it’s much more helpful to read outside one’s genre and find a fresh way to tell the story, maybe by writing cross-genre or by taking a slightly different approach to structure or whatever–just something to shake things up a bit.

        I wonder if the MFA makes the writer afraid to take chances. Maybe that’s the real downside.

        Posted by Averil Dean | May 13, 2012, 12:14 PM
    • Roberto Bolaño once said that writers afraid to take chances aren’t writers. Mostly though, I wish editors and publishers would take more chances.

      Posted by jpon | May 13, 2012, 1:12 PM
  5. Post MFA my writing is more realized. I still use lots of lyricism like before, but I use it to complement the metaphor of accretion rather than sticking out as showy. One can be lyrical with plain language as well. I think Gerald Manley Hopkins is a prime example of making common language lyrical. And Carver an example of plain language that’s stark and emotional. Although they probably didn’t have their MFAs.

    Posted by Ross Gale | May 12, 2012, 10:54 PM
    • Some great points. Sounds like you have a good perspective on how to put your MFA knowledge to use in your writing. And you’ve anticipated part of my blog for next week, where I was planning on talking about all the great things my MFA did for my writing.

      Posted by jpon | May 13, 2012, 1:32 AM
  6. I wrote a bit about this on my website to encourage other MFAs and non MFAs I know to enter into this discussion.

    During my MFA, I didn’t necessarily feel there was only one kind of story, essay, or poem I might read, but to be fair, I was in a pretty small community of writers. I can feel a shift in my own writing since then, which feels organic to me. I guess, as corny as it is to say, my writing continues to evolve. So much of my writing is driven by my subject matter (for many years now, I’ve been writing about dance, and my experiences in ballet) that I feel the subject determines so much of how I write–just trying to get it right, and be genuine and authentic. But it is tough to get out of my own way in terms of trying to evaluate my writing. I do my best to try to find ways to grow.

    I will also say that my physical being influences my writing a ton. A few years ago I had knee surgery which alleviated some pretty intense pain. Once recovered, my writing took on a new lightheartedness. The physical, mental, and emotional connections in my writing surprises me in good ways.

    Posted by reneekristine | May 13, 2012, 2:49 PM
    • Sounds like your writing is headed in the right direction. Whether MFA or not, growing as a writer means growing from within, organically. Sure, there are plenty of outside influences, but a writer has to be comfortable with what s/he is saying and how s/he is saying it. Readers can tell pretty easily when the writing isn’t real.

      Thanks for commenting.

      Posted by jpon | May 13, 2012, 4:15 PM
  7. The truly succesful MFA graduate is one who can incorporate the elements of craft and create his/her own unique alchemy, beyond the homogeneity that all institutions of higher learning entail (this applies to all branches of learning, by the way.) The truly succesful MFA is the one who can retrace such a journey on his/her own. I respect and encourage learning. While writing a good story makes one a writer, I suppose, there is a higher purpose in being a writer, which for me encompasses the knowledge that I am coming in on a long story, the story of other writers and their work and travails.

    Posted by Nadia Ibrashi | May 13, 2012, 10:37 PM
  8. The truly succesful MFA graduate is one who can incorporate the elements of craft and create his/her own unique alchemy, beyond the homogeneity that all institutions of higher learning entail (this applies to all branches of learning, by the way.) The truly succesful non-MFA graduate is the one who can retrace such a journey on his/her own. I respect and encourage learning. While writing a good story makes one a writer, I suppose, there is a higher purpose in being a writer, which for me encompasses the knowledge that I am coming in on a long story, the story of other writers and their work and travails.

    Posted by Nadia Ibrashi | May 13, 2012, 10:39 PM
    • You’re right, Nadia. MFA and other programs can only teach the available knowledge. After that, it’s up to the individual to take that knowledge and apply it in new ways. And whether MFA or non-MFA, writers should continue the intellectual journey by reading and engaging other writers in discussions of craft and purpose–and I thank everyone who comments here on helping me do that.

      Posted by jpon | May 14, 2012, 12:23 AM
  9. Right, I was very intrigued by your comments. I used the stories I am currently workshopping to try and get into about five MFA programs, and was not successful. I think I am going to belt out whatever is within in my primitive voice until I am done with that. I think I am very attracted to the writing in the Sun, Calyx and Tin House, but I am starting to hate Glimmer Train. I am not sure what that says about me. I really didn’t get that story at first, but I did like it. I just saying to myself. “Is this girl for real?” And since she didn’t seem ‘real’ I thought the whole thing was imaginary. (no news reporters and even the policeman was unsympathetic) I guess I will have to absorb stories a little slower and watch for this type of writing.

    Posted by Jake Pagan | May 17, 2012, 7:55 PM
    • Ha! I could go on at some length on what I dislike about Glimmer Train. Talk about sentimentality! Anyone can start a journal and be a literary gatekeeper. Not familiar with the writing in Calyx, but Tin House and The Sun are first rate. Keep reading them!

      Posted by jpon | May 17, 2012, 8:23 PM
  10. I realize this is a year old, so you’ve probably moved on. But I just found this post from the sort of random googling that one does on their lunch break. This topic is something I’ve thought about a lot. I haven’t gotten an MFA, but I did my undergraduate degree as a dual major in English lit and creative writing (in a very mfa-like program), and I worked for the past two years as the events’ director for a Boston bookstore, which means I met and listened to 15-25 published authors a month and sat in on monthly MFA-program readings.

    Let me just say first that there is an “MFA style.” It is a varied, multi-colored, multi-gendered thing that creates just the sort of over-indulgence in language you’re talking about. But I think it is perhaps not entirely because of the MFA. I think it’s actually just a stage of a writer’s development that all writers probably need to pass through. With the length and focus of an MFA program and the point in a writer’s development where they are most likely to enroll in an MFA, I think you just get a lot of people who end up in that phase by the program’s end.

    Telling stories is hard. It’s incredibly, terribly hard. But it’s relatively easy to write poetically or descriptively (it’s still hard, but it’s easier than telling a story). And similarly, teaching someone to tell a simple story well is nearly impossible–they have to learn how to do that by telling a lot of overly complex stories poorly until they get tired of them. In other words, it’s pretty easy to learn how to paint a car, to make an old beat-up wreck look staggeringly beautiful. But learning how to fix the engine, the radiator, replace the belts, etc. is a lot harder.

    When writers first encounter a lot of great literary writing, the first thing they notice is the nice paint job–the way someone like Woolf or Joyce can use beautiful words to make your heart hurt. What they may not notice, or what they (and their professors and classmates) may not be able to articulate, is the fact that your heart only really hurts because of the human stories behind those words. The apprentice writer starts to emulate the language as a way of trying to reach the deeper storytelling.

    I should say, it’s not only poetic language that holds this threat of imitation–I have read far too many Carver-ripoffs to think that “They drank hard. They drank long. They drank and drank and drank,” is inherently better than florid prose (you also find a lot of MFA grads who will write about the same subjects as famous writers to try to capture the same magic–when a 20-year-old black woman is writing about middle-aged white guys drinking on patio chairs, you know that Carver is having too much of an influence).

    What you end up with are a lot of bad storytellers who are good writers–a lot of clunkers that look like brand new BMW’s. And because the surface-level stuff is so beautiful, you can fool a whole lot of people into buying your fake BMW’s. Some people make a whole career out of it, in fact (you can find their published books very easily–if you read the blurb on the back, and it praises the “beautiful, lyrical, powerful prose,” but you’re left wondering, “Okay, but what actually happens in this book?”)

    The danger of the MFA, I think, is that because you have so many people in this same stage of their development, you get a lot of positive reinforcement for surface-level writing. I am still a developing writer, but let me tell you, by the end of my undergrad degree, I was certain I was in line for the Nobel.. Because I could paint a beat-up Cadillac and make it shine like the sun. And everyone else was trying to paint their cars as well as mine, so they were impressed, and they told me so in workshop. If I hadn’t gotten my head knocked out of my lower anatomy after grad school, I very well could have kept working on my painting skills instead of studying engine repair, which is what I really need to work on (this metaphor may have gotten away from me).

    The problem is, most drivers do not care how pretty a car is if it won’t get them to the grocery store, just as most restaurant-goers won’t eat an under cooked piece of chicken just because it’s topped with truffle oil. And most readers (aside from MFA grads) do not care how beautiful the language is if there’s no plot.

    I’m not pro or anti-MFA (though I am anti-paying 40k a year to get a degree that won’t repay that money). But I think all writers need to realize that two years won’t make you a master, whether it’s two years in a program or in your basement typing away. It’s more like a ten, twenty, thirty-year thing. And if your MFA makes you keep dwelling on the brilliance of what you’re doing after only two years, then it’s hurting you, not helping you. If, on the other hand, you can view it as a stage you have to pass through, one part of your development, then I don’t think it will “ruin” you.

    Posted by Evan | September 27, 2013, 6:35 PM
    • Hello, Evan,

      I was quite surprised to find the notice of your comment, considering the date of this post, but really happy you took the time to write it. After reading I went back and reread the post, and laughed out loud at the excerpts from the story discussed. They sound even more pretentious than the first time, but of course they’re also out of context.

      Your analysis of the causes of the MFA writing style is spot on. It makes sense that students at that stage of their writing lives engage in a bit of literary one-upmanship, especially because it’s not that difficult to learn. But I’ve discovered, as have you, in submitting stories to both my writers group and to journals, it’s the story that matters, and whether the language is street or penthouse, that’s what drives a reader’s interest. They want to know what’s at stake for a character, and why they should care about him or her.

      A year after that post I’m still in the learning process, but at least I’m worrying less about language and more about creating sympathetic characters. in fact, I’ve taken the last nine months off from submitting to journals while I review the stories I thought were ready and see if there’s opportunities to add the kind of depth readers need. As you said it’s a process that takes years of commitment. I’m still glad I took my MFA, but I realize that it wasn’t an end, but a beginning.

      Thanks for taking the time.

      Posted by jpon | September 27, 2013, 7:31 PM
    • Hi Evan:
      You articulated beautifully my thoughts. It took me years to reach the same conclusion as yours, and I’m still and will always be in a learning phase. Character development and story are crucial ingredients, a fact often overshadowed by beautiful prose. Note to self: reread your own comments.

      Posted by Nadia Ibrashi | September 27, 2013, 8:13 PM

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