MFA Programs: Good or Bad for Fiction?

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Salon.com recently posted an article about the perennial debate concerning the value of MFA programs. (Click HERE to read the full story.)

Mark McGurl claims the creative writing programs have resulted in “a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature,” while Elif Batuman argues “if you take ‘good writing’ as a matter of lucidity, striking word combinations, evocative descriptions, inventive metaphors, smooth transitions and avoidance of word repetition,” then good writing does not equal great books.

From my own experience in MFA classrooms (for poetry), I can say that I’ve benefited from a kind of structured discomfort. But I’ve also noticed how the aesthetic of the teacher can work as an almost unseen force on our writing. Students (myself included) begin to embrace some of the voice, tricks, jumps, and evasions employed by the teacher in their own work. Perhaps that is normal. When you’re apprenticed to a blacksmith, you’re probably going to make horseshoes the same way, right? The important thing, I suppose, is to guard against that influence when your gut is telling you something else.

What is your opinion in the MFA debate? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Please feel free to comment in the section below.

-Chris R. at BookBaby

Chris Robley is an award-winning poet, songwriter, performer, and music producer who now lives in Portland, Maine after more than a decade in Portland, Oregon. His music has been praised by NPR, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and others. Skyscraper Magazine said he is “one of the best short-story musicians to come along in quite some time.” Robley’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in POETRY, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Beloit Poetry Journal, RHINO, Magma Poetry, and more. He is the 2013 winner of Boulevard's Poetry Prize for Emerging Writers and the 2014 recipient of a Maine Literary Award in the category of "Short Works Poetry."

4 COMMENTS

  1. The simple truth is that writing is an art that cannot be learned. One might study the techniques of painting but without natural talent there will be no masterpiece. Likewise, one might earn a masters in music and play an instrument with perfect mechanical response to manuscript, but without natural talent there will be no expression of feeling or creative composition.

    The MFA writer may write to formula, but without a story tell or a point to make, and without the natural talent to tell that story or make that point, the result is no better than painting by numbers or music by MIDI.

    The talented writer with an MFA will write well. Those less fortunate will not.

    • Steve, that is exactly how I feel. The creative writing programs certainly aren’t hurting, but they’re not CREATING the masters. They’re perhaps only helping the masters.

  2. I agree with Steve to a certain degree. There’s something about the “feel” for something that can’t be learned, the natural ability to see a technique, understand it, and be able to apply it.

    But there are many elements of writing that can be (and are) learned. No matter how much “natural” talent someone has, they’re not writing their best on their first try. Writers are always learning. They’re learning how to write better (more convincing) dialogue, how much and what kind of description to include, the best place end the scene, etc.

    What I found to be of the greatest value in my MFA experience was being made to write (and to write a lot0, and the regular meetings designed for critiquing and being critiqued (and I can’t tell you how much I learned by critiquing the writing of others – there were things I would see in their writing that I didn’t think worked, and I would then recognize those same things existed in mine, as well).

    More than anything else, the MFA program is a two-year writing workshop. No one is actually TEACHING someone to write in a graduate writing program – it’s more like a honing opportunity.

  3. I have a quote by my desk that says “All the colleges in the world cannot teach a person how to write, but they can teach how not to write.” An accredited course, whether an MFA or something else, has a lot of benefits you may not get elsewhere – being part of a strong and supportive community, learning how to critique others which then feeds back into your own work, getting used to deadlines, writing a lot more than you probably would on your own, exploring new ideas and techniques, developing a “habit” of writing, getting serious about publication and learning how the publishing industry works.
    I think it’s the intensiveness combined with the amount of writing (plus useful analysis) that helps writers the most. But I also have no doubt that more than a few writers come out the other end and still don’t achieve significant publication.

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