Q: Am I a better writer because of my MFA?
A: No doubt about it.
Q: Did I thoroughly enjoy the experience of those two years?
A: I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
So then what’s the problem?
The writers published in MFA vs NYC who went through MFA programs feel pretty much the same as I when it comes to their experiences. If nothing else, attending an MFA in creative writing gives a student a reason, and an opportunity to write. This may not sound like much, but in a culture that values family, work, leisure, commerce, sports, movies, TV, shopping, et al before writing, it means everything. It provides the raw materials from which a person can create a writing life, if that is her/his desire.
The critics of the MFA don’t question that result. But they do take exception to the kind of writing that seems to come from MFA graduates as being largely uninspired—dulled by its immersion in a program subculture that has, by opening itself to almost anyone who wishes to write (in order to fill rosters and turn profits), allowed the mediocrity of this mass of beginners to dictate style and substance. With so many programs across the country, and the institutional need to make money from them, the emphasis, these critics imply, is to keep students happy (i.e. enrolled and paying) by focusing the programs on technique and encouragement, rather than the content and criticism necessary to mold writers.
The twin pillars of the MFA in writing are the short story (which I mentioned last week) and the workshop. In those workshops, students critique each other’s work. But critique may be too strong a word for what goes on there.
In two of the final essays in the book, by Diana Wagman and Elif Batuman, MFA programs are cast as touchy-feely enclaves that ignore what writing’s really about—content and impact, the forgotten aspects of writing designed to make readers think, and occasionally to make them uncomfortable. The emphasis, as Wagman’s hilarious yet sad report of her semester as an instructor in one of the best-regarded programs makes clear, is on self-actualization—the program serves more like group therapy than education for its students. She wrote about how the established teachers at her program believed in a philosophy of passivity—in workshops the students, all inexperienced and usually unpublished, commented on submissions, with only the gentlest guidance from the instructors, who themselves were instructed not to provide specific advice on how to improve a story, but only to foster the workshop process. Wagman writes, “That kind of leading—don’t call it instruction—is exactly the problem. Some stories aren’t uplifting. Sometimes endings really are awful. But after being workshopped again and again, even the stories of neglect and abuse become appropriate, each word slipping noiselessly into the next. The messy narrator is scorned, coarse or uneven language discouraged, and the disturbing image should always be beautifully rendered. Toward the end of the residency, a student brought in a tale of rape she had rewritten many times. ‘So well written,’ hummed the workshop. ‘The rainbow metaphor is lovely.’ Then why was I fighting to stay awake? How could the rape of an eleven-year-old girl be so boring?”
That comfort level bothers me. A story about the rape of a child shouldn’t allow a reader to get cozy for a second. When I was reviewing books for LA Review I encountered such stories—novels and anthologies—gentle tales of sympathetic angst as exhilarating as a dose of ZzzQuil. Crowd-sourced literature, so much of which seems based on disappointing personal experience, in which every setback in life is fodder for sympathy. The wound culture, as Mark McGurl called it in his oft-quoted The Program Era. Writers working out their childhood traumas, their bad marriages—claiming victimhood, assigning blame. If there’s a grievance, there’s a story.
Is it possible to agree with both sides of this debate? That’s the position I find myself in as an MFA grad who recognizes that those two years of intense reading and writing changed who he was as a writer, and as a person, but who also understands (or so he thinks) that his two years in writing heaven, and his career since, have been cheapened by these criticisms. Maybe that’s the price one pays for selling his soul to the writing devil—knowledge of reality destroys the dream, even while one is living it. The loss of innocence.
Perhaps it’s best not to look back after reading this book, or writing this blog, but to keep moving forward, keep writing, oblivious to the ills that plague the system, and focus on the page that fills the screen.