To MFA or Not to MFA

by wjw on March 10, 2016

ChristiesNovelThere’s always been a debate in the writing community over the usefulness of creative writing programs.  My own experience with creative writing courses in college wasn’t particularly positive— I don’t think the experience benefitted me as a writer, but I didn’t hate it, either.

Now with the huge increase in creative writing MFA programs— 20,000 students contributing $200 million dollars to universities!— the debate has shifted from whether creative writing programs can actually teach you to write, to whether what they teach you is worth the $80,000 in debt you have to take on to get your degree.

Now Richard Jean So and Andrew Piper have produced an analysis of what difference MFA programs actually make in their writers’  work, by closely comparing 200 distinguished novels produced by MFA graduates with 200 distinguished novels produced by writers without degrees.  (In the latter case, a New York Times review was taken as a mark of quality.  “Hey!” I wanted to say. “I’ve been reviewed favorably in the Times!  I must be distinguished!”)

What So and Piper have concluded is that the MFA makes no difference at all.

They started with writing a program to analyze the text in terms of word usage.  What they found was that graduates use pretty much the same words as non-grads, though MFA grads tend to use words like lakes, lawns, and wrists more often.

They then analyzed themes, and found that MFA grads tend to slightly emphasize themes like “family” or “home,” but otherwise no difference was found.

What about style?  If style is the way that a writer sequences words, then there turns out to be no difference between the two groups.  MFA programs do not teach style or voice.

MFA students would seem to spend $200 million per year in order to learn to write just like everyone else.

But surely the graduate experience produces a more enlightened mind, a greater awareness of the needs of minorities, women, and the dangers of patriarchy.

Um, well, no.  Even though 66 percent of MFA grads are women, the protagonists of MFA grads’ novels are 61% male.  (Non-MFA grads write about men 62% of the time.)

What these statistics tell us is that successful writers are very much alike, no matter how they came to writing.  Successful writers work hard, develop their talent, learn from their mistakes, submit their work for publication, and read more or less everything, in more or less every field.  Successful writers have enough life experience to provide subject matter for their fiction, or at least can fake it well.  (One of my problems with my college creative writing classes is that I had such little life experience that I didn’t have a lot to say.)

Successful writers network.  MFA programs may offer an advantage here, in that they provide a set of peers to network with.  But you don’t have to spend $80,000 to network— you can join a critique group for little or no money, and if you can’t find one in your neighborhood, you can find one online.

So should you go for an MFA?  Sure.  If you get a full scholarship.  There’s nothing like getting paid for two or three years to do what you’re going to do anyway.

Can writing be taught?  Some aspects of writing can successfully be taught, because I’ve successfully taught them to people who have gone on to successfully publish and get nominated for awards.  (And there are still a few places available in Taos Toolbox, to which you should apply if getting published and award-nominated appeals to you.)

But much of it’s down to talent, application, and hard work.  I’ve seen writers with enormous talent fail through lack of application, and writers with limited promise work hard and raise their game and end up in the winners’ circle.

How you want to do this is up to you.  Just don’t take on a lifetime’s worth of debt in order to do it.

Geoff March 10, 2016 at 7:42 am

While I agree with your overall point, that study is a horrible way to support it. It’s like examining 100 gun murders and 100 non-gun murders in terms of stylishness of the crime scene, and finding that the guns don’t matter.

I imagine that MFAs help the marginal writer – the one that is nearly publishable, but not quite there. However, I’m sure that there are many more people who think they are the marginal writer than actually are.

TRX March 10, 2016 at 8:26 am

> successful writers are very much alike

Possibly connected to “what paying customers actually put out money for.”

Mickey Spillane sent waves of shock and horror through the literary and publishing communities, but a lot more people reached into their pockets to buy “I, The Jury” than the “proper” fiction the NYT and others were acclaiming.

Lawrence March 10, 2016 at 9:22 pm

This suggests that learning to write fiction compelling enough to support a successful writing career is based on a specific calculus that is itself the target of the student writer. Where the successful writer learns this calculus has nothing to do with academia specifically, but has much more to do with the writer developing correct technique and business acumen.

The problem with academic courses attempting to teach creative writing is that these courses are taught by instructors who may or may not have a clue about the calculus in question. In many cases, MFA recipients may become successful in spite of what they learned at the hands of an accredited instructor. Conversely, some successful writers may owe their careers to a professor who gave them good information.

This brings us to the question most pertinent to the discussion at hand: where does an aspiring writer go to learn how to write?

The easiest answer for most people (with a focus on younger people) is academia, which, in turn, recognizes a ripe market when it sees one. Universities seek to create their own programs, saturating this particular academic focus with instructors who are not, themselves, successful writers (though, to be fair, sometimes they are), and thus the information passed on to creative writing students is (if the fruits of academia are taken as a whole) profoundly uneven, at best.

This is akin to the old joke: would you take marriage advice from a guy who has been divorced five times? Maybe he knows what not to do…

Perhaps the reason for the fifty-fifty split in this study is that finding the right teacher(s), learning the correct calculus, and having the talent and skill to employ that calculus in the creation of publishable fiction introduces several variables into the equation which must be accounted for by the individual writer if that writer is to find some literary success. I think most successful writers might agree that their knowledge base wasn’t acquired in one place, but accumulated piecemeal over time.

So it makes perfect sense for an aspiring writer to learn his or her craft from many places, not just one, which may explain why writers with MFAs don’t dominate the sphere of commercial fiction. Personally, I have benefitted more from information found in instructional books written by successful writers and by taking courses given by professional writers than I have from the courses I’ve taken in college. The professionals, after all, know much more about that elusive calculus than those simply teaching ‘theory’. But that is only my experience.

If you are seeking to learn how to write successful fiction, first consider the source – and then always remember that ‘learning to write’ is a lifetime study, not something completed in a certain number of credit hours.

Michaela Roessner March 11, 2016 at 3:20 pm

This is too generalized, and my guess is that the survey primarily addresses programs where the prose fiction concentration is dedicated to “Literary Fiction.” (Which it would sort of have to, because that’s by far the bent of the large majority of graduate creative writing programs.) With that as a given, I’m surprised that the percentages are actually that good. Literary fiction writers rarely get paid — or paid well — for their non-academic work, and those who go on to become published with a major publisher are a very tiny percentage. It would be far more interesting to see a survey that took into account the very few MFA programs that have a Genre Fiction concentration (Stonecoast, WSCU, Seton Hill), and those that don’t but who at least allow writing in the genres, in particular those who provide coursework in one or more types of genre fiction, like Rosemont.

wjw March 11, 2016 at 11:28 pm

The market is clearly not going to absorb 20,000 new writers per year, whatever genre they’re writing in. But the success of MFA programs in placing new writers isn’t the issue here— those data don’t exist. (And would be very difficult to collect. If a writer sells a novel five or seven or ten years after graduating, is the MFA responsible for that success, or rather lessons learned in the intervening years?)

So and Piper’s work was focused on whether MFA programs make a difference to the actual writing of successful MFA graduates, as opposed to successful writers who don’t have the degree. And their conclusion was that it doesn’t— which is unsurprising, considering that successful writers have a lot in common, and are all writing for the same markets.

As for whether the programs are worthwhile, clearly they are for some people. I’ve also heard from graduates who succeeded in making their programs work in spite of their instructors, and from instructors who grew tired of having to teach so many untalented people (who were nevertheless being milked for tens of thousands of dollars).

My own biases are formed by my own experience: I know a whole lot of self-made writers, and plenty of writers who did well after getting some help from workshops like Clarion or Toolbox. I don’t know very many MFA graduates, and some of those I know (like Kelly Link) would clearly have found their way with or without the degree.

TomB March 15, 2016 at 3:04 am

George R. Stewart taught English at UC Berkeley. That would have been something to experience. And his friend Wallace Stegner taught creative writing program across the Bay at Stanford.

I’m not saying the big modern programs are anything like that. But maybe they should be.

wjw March 15, 2016 at 11:45 pm

A number of programs advertise the big names, but sometimes the big names aren’t required to actually do any teaching, or meet with the students more than a couple times a year.

Though if you can get a good mentor, a writing program can be a wonderful experience. I’ve found online any number of graduates who say in effect, “The program wasn’t much, but this one teacher made my career.”

Tom March 17, 2016 at 5:22 am

I suppose one of the good points of the MFA is that it gives you plenty of time to write. An expensive way of trying out the profession in a structured setting and getting a lot of practice. However, it seems a good old-fashioned job as a journalist was a better starting point in olden days. At least it seems to get rid of procrastination and other bad habits, if you get through it, which seems important for the actual working writer. And the next day, your somewhat failed article was just fish wrap and you got to do it again.

Journalism also got you some potentially interesting life experience, which is something I often feel is lacking in new writers. This not infrequently appears to manifest in either writing a campus novel, or something that seems a bit regurgitated rather than self-experienced. Journalism also puts you in contact with hoi polloi so you can learn to write a wide range of life-like characters and dialogue.

The fault of the MFA might be when I find annoying little flourishes like adjectives that don’t make sense and which should have been quietly been put to sleep. More revision please. (There was an article in The Atlantic some years ago about this in literary fiction … Let’s see: ) So that’s not necessarily blocking the aspiring MFA from achieving some measure of fame, perhaps a university position, but it still seems like a kitsch imitation of the actually great writers because of its lack of depth and understanding.

Speaking of workshops, I still recall the tragicomic student revolution when Gene Wolfe had one. He appears to have been more demanding and more direct than the aspirants were used to; horses were led to water; feelings were hurt; angry complaints were made; apologies were demanded; Wolfe went home. Ah, one thinks. What a wasted opportunity for those students. Here it is:

Tom March 17, 2016 at 5:30 am

And regarding the workshop, I should also add this one from a participant:

Tom March 17, 2016 at 5:48 am

(Sorry, in case of confusion to quick readers: I’m not referring to Taos but a workshop in a previous comment caught in moderation.)

wjw March 17, 2016 at 11:51 pm

An MFA will give you time to write, unless of course you’re expected to be a Teaching Assistant while you’re there, at which point you’re writing in your spare time again, and you should probably get a job that pays real money.

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