Stray Thoughts on M.F.A. Programs

by Colin Pope

In preparation for an upcoming panel at the Nimrod Conference for Readers and Writers, I thought I’d scribble down a few personal observations of my experiences in graduate writing programs.

Among literary circles, debates over the virtues of master’s and doctoral degrees in creative writing have garnered a considerable amount of column space. A somewhat infamous 2015 New York Times piece goes into great detail about the multifarious viewpoints writers hold on this topic; included in this article is a mention of the similarly notorious n+1 essay “MFA vs. NYC,” which posits, essentially, that the only two ways to be a writer are to live in New York or to get an M.F.A. And within the last ten years, a number of books have been devoted solely to criticizing the M.F.A. program. It seems writers writing about the best way to learn how to write has become its very own genre of writing.

I have attended two graduate writing programs, both for poetry. Early on in my M.F.A. career, a student asked during a workshop, “Can writing really be taught?” The teacher pointed out that this is a silly question. Do we ask this of any other artistic pursuit, be it dancing or painting or music? This is now my standard response to this query. Now, for the questions, “Can voice be taught?” or “Can originality be taught?” I might have a different response.

But by the end of a graduate workshop, most people can write a poem that, if compared with undergraduate writing, will usually generate more interest and display a noticeable consideration of craft. And I think the reasons for this may be worth expanding upon.

1. Students in a workshop interact with other students in a workshop.

I mean, duh. But the very fact of a bunch of adults getting together to seriously debate the virtues of their own poems breeds a sort of wacky combination of camaraderie and competition that helps writers grow. In every workshop I’ve ever been in, there’s been this unspoken contest for the writer of the most interesting or original work that day (even if they don’t know they’re in competition or don’t want to admit it). This pushes everyone to explore beyond their comfort zones. In my opinion, this may be the biggest virtue of the workshop model, whether that workshop takes place in an M.F.A. program or in someone’s living room. But you also get good criticism from your classmates and learn how to hone your critical vocabulary. Now, without thinking too hard, I can easily reel off a typical workshop response to a poem—“this is a timely and engaging conceit for a poem, but the voice turns toward an omniscient muddiness in the second stanza and the language overwhelms the poignancy of the ending.” Not bad, right? It’s important to learn a critical vocabulary, if only to apply it to your own work.

2. Students in a workshop interact with other students in a workshop outside the workshop.

Perhaps the second most helpful thing, for me, was befriending other students and drinking with them. We’d meet at the bar after a weekday workshop (workshops always seemed to be on Tuesdays or Wednesdays) to discuss the events of the class and clarify and expound upon comments made in class. For instance, if someone said of your poem, “I want more from the ending,” but didn’t explain this comment during class, it’s likely they’ll be more willing to clarify after two or three beers. You also learn what your fellow writers are reading, how rigorous their writing practices are, how and where to submit pieces for publication, and so on. Hanging out together is common practice for students in all M.F.A. programs, be it for coffee, drinks, dinners, house parties, or whatever. In truth, the workshop never ends; it just changes location and focus. I’ve never known an M.F.A. writer who’s gone on to writing success without interacting with their cohort on a regular basis. I can’t say it’s a hard and fast rule, but those of us who publish steadily are, largely, those who went out together most often. Please note: Mr. Pope is not saying that alcohol is the key to success as a writer. I’m saying that being around serious writers often will make you a more serious writer.

3. Oh, yeah: the teacher.

From an outsider’s perspective, writing is an absolute mystery. You see a poem in TheNew Yorker and your poet-ego says, “Hey, I’d like to publish things in places like The New Yorker,” but you don’t know how to accomplish this. Not only are you a neophyte, but you don’t know how or who to contact. So how does one go from outside to inside? This is the gap where the exemplar of the workshop teacher is most useful. If you’re very lucky, they will have connections and will use them to help you (I wasn’t so lucky, though I’ve heard it’s great). But you will get to hear the teacher discuss their path from your seat to theirs. And knowing someone who’s made that journey is important. Knowing your teachers are regular people and not superhuman geniuses gives you a how-to case study. Of course, these instructors will also help you improve your work and will provide learned commentary on stuff in and out of class (frequently, their opinion on workshopped pieces feels the most definitive). This commentary is what many potential M.F.A.-ers think will be the most important thing they get from teachers. But in-class comments fade away in memory, and what’s left is the spirit of the person giving those comments. Yes: take their comments, improve your work. But first and foremost, learn how they got to where they are. Maybe this will help you get where you want to go.

4. Coursework outside the workshop.

I’ll try to keep this one short. But, for me, taking classes outside the workshop was incredibly helpful in rounding out my critical brain. And I think a good literary writer is always a good critic also. You need to know not only what you’re doing but why you’re doing what you’re doing. There are two types of M.F.A. programs: the “studio,” which is based entirely in workshops, and the “academic,” which can include coursework in areas like literature, film, poetics, craft and forms, and so on. Mine was academic. One of my favorite genres of class was entitled “Problems in Language and Literature.” It was great; we just read cool stuff and bitched about everything. I’d recommend an academic program unless you already have an M.A. in literature.

5. You’ll learn a lot about yourself in relation to everyone else.

Who goes for an M.F.A.? There’s the young, just-out-of-undergrad, aiming-for-wunderkind-status writer. Then there’s the former lawyer or professional. Then the recovering slam/street poet or the academic tourist from a wealthy family who’s decided to see what it’s like to be a writer. You learn where you fit. Some of writing is learning how your “narrative” is perceived by those around you and—hopefully—by the wider world of publishers. Each type has its virtues. My narrative is of the kid from a poor family who happened to be okay at self-expression. Knowing your story in relation to other writers helps you to improve your writing and to understand what it is your audience might want. If this sounds yucky to you, that’s because it is. The M.F.A. overlaps with the publishing world, and the publishing world sells writers as well as their writing. You from the South? Publishers will want to see that you’re writing about the South. You a veteran? Publishers will want you to write about war. Yes, on one hand it’s gross and commercial. But on the other hand, if we subscribe to the dictum “write what you know,” it’s very helpful. If what you know is soldiering, then you should probably write a few things about that life. But be careful: I know more than one writer who’s regretted becoming pigeonholed as the character they made of themselves. This is a problem most pertinent, perhaps, to poets and nonfiction writers.

6. Originality can be taught to the ambitious.

In every M.F.A. program, ambitious and talented writers rise. They gain accolades and publications. Such writers can be encouraged to push themselves and to read more difficult work. They will eventually accrue a bibliography of writers whose work challenges them to alter their style and, sometimes, create things that haven’t been created before. This is the goal: original virtuosity. I do not claim to be such a writer, but I’ve seen it happen. On the other hand, certain M.F.A.-ers will not change. You can offer them highly specific critique, examples of writing that will help them, line-by-line edits; it doesn’t matter.  They may have a dead ear or may not read a wide enough breadth of texts to know what “originality” means compared to what’s already been written. But originality and inventiveness can indeed be taught to those ambitious enough to know that all art succeeds or fails based partly on how it innovates.

7. There really are tropes, techniques, and systems that work.

I don’t mean they succeed because they’re regurgitated; I mean that there are shapes to styles of writing, and learning these shapes will give you boundaries to push against. I like Kurt Vonnegut’s description of “The Shape of Stories,” for one. When I teach creative writing, I also like to show proof of the adage “good poets borrow, great poets steal” by asking students to compare Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” to James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” One doesn’t innovate by inventing completely new forms; innovation occurs by infusing different tone, language, or action into styles that already exist. The M.F.A. offers novice writers texts and advice that’ll help them get to such realizations faster.

*Bonus tip: do not pay for an M.F.A. degree. Unless you’re from a wealthy family and the 30k+ it might cost doesn’t matter, it’s probably not going to be worth it. I applied a few different times to a lot of places until I was finally good enough to warrant getting paid for the degree at a place I wanted to go. I knew I had to be patient. Most of the heavy criticism I’ve read from ex-M.F.A. students is flavored by some version of “it wasn’t worth the money!” If they’d asked me before enrolling, I’d have encouraged them to wait and to be persistent. Apply multiple times until you get accepted where you want with the financial assistance you want. Then, when a good program offers you an attractive financial offer, you’ll be more confident in your talent and your ability. And if it doesn’t work out, you didn’t lose anything! It’s an arts degree; there’s absolutely no guarantee about job placement or success after.

***

Ultimately, the M.F.A. is a terminal academic degree. The “terminal” denotes that one is qualified for tenure-track positions (though few new M.F.A. grads land such jobs). The degree is meant as an entrée into teaching as well as writing; a large (very large) portion of M.F.A. graduates are teaching composition classes at universities across the country, often as adjuncts. I see no problem with this system. Teaching at the college level affords writers free time to write and gives them continued access to libraries, reading series, and an arts community. Plus, teaching college students is fun.

In The Triggering Town (a book I’d recommend to every aspiring M.F.A. poet), Richard Hugo writes, “A good teacher can save a young poet years by simply telling him things he need not waste time on.” This is the best summary of how I feel about M.F.A. programs. A writer will write regardless of a degree, but the M.F.A. offers a speedier route to finding out what kind of writer a person can be.

Colin Pope is a Ph.D. candidate at Oklahoma State University. His poems, essays, and criticism have appeared in or are forthcoming from such journals as Slate, Rattle, West Branch, The Millions, Best New Poets, and others. His debut poetry collection, Why I Didn’t Go to Your Funeral, was a finalist for the Press 53 Award and was released in 2019 from Tolsun Books.

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