Notes toward a Writerly Education—Or: Can We Please, Please, Please Have a Different Debate
by Okla Elliott
I can think of few current cultural debates more frustrating and fruitless than the one over MFAs in creative writing. There are problems with the ways writing programs are run, and there could be a productive discussion about how best to help a writer develop in our educational system, but the incessant repetition of tired talking points on both sides of the argument does nothing to ameliorate the actual shortcomings of writing programs and does nothing to further the conversation about writing pedagogy or personal development as a writer. My primary goal here will therefore be to move us beyond the well-worn rhetorical ruts this debate has been stuck in for over three decades now. But before I attempt to move us past the current debate, I feel I should summarize the key points as I see them. I will then summarize the key retorts to these points. As it turns out, there aren’t that many ways people choose to attack writing programs, and the same tactics are perennially recycled. Here are the three main complaints about writing programs, as I understand them, and the basic retorts to these complaints.
Complaint #1: Creative writing programs homogenize writing, making all writers who attend such programs into identical (or insufferably similar) writers. The basic idea here is that we all have an inherent uniqueness to our writing, but then writing workshops sap our originality, making us into cookie-cut reproductions of our professors, who were in their turn cookie-cut by their professors—and on, and on throughout the generations of creative writing students who become creative writing faculty.
Retort #1: This is perhaps the easiest to refute, since it only takes a few moments of empirical research to prove the inaccuracy of this claim. David Foster Wallace and Richard Ford both have MFAs, as do Andrew Hudgins and Marvin Bell, as do Kelly Link and Donald Ray Pollock. If you honestly maintain that these people all write the same, you have lost your mind. And I came up with that list off the top of my head in about seven seconds, without consulting my bookshelf or the internet. It would be an effortless task to make a list of hundreds of authors who have degrees in creative writing, yet who have little more in common than the fact that they write in the English language. My own forthcoming novel, The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, is a collaboratively written, Brechtian, post-modern, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic story wherein trains are nearly deified and a tyrannical Mayor Adams takes orders from three oracles who can see the future (if in fact they are not a hallucination of Mayor Adams). You know, the same book everyone with an MFA is writing according to those who recycle Complaint #1.
Complaint #2: The second most frequent charge I encounter is that writing programs perpetuate an environment wherein nepotism determines success more than talent and determination. A degree in creative writing, we are told, has become a sort of license to practice; editors only publish work by people with writing degrees; professors give their students opportunities others never enjoy; and so forth.
Retort #2: This one is a bit more difficult to respond to, largely because it has so many movable parts—some accurate, some slightly muddled, and some utterly inaccurate. Let’s get the easy one out of the way and admit that going to a writing program will indeed open up opportunities not necessarily available to those who do not attend a program. This is pretty much unavoidable and, ultimately, only to be expected. The professors at these programs, like professors in every academic department, have a duty to help their students succeed professionally (just look at the internships one might get as a physics major or clerkships one might get via connections as a law student). It is therefore merely part of the reality of attending any academic program that it will help with the professionalization process. Also, these students have usually chosen a life of graduate-student poverty over having a regular salary, so part of their payoff ought to be some help achieving a profession in their chosen field.
But let’s not overstate the situation. It’s not as if every MFA student ends up with a three-book deal with Knopf because of a faculty member’s connections. Usually this help takes the form of writing recommendation letters for summer retreats, grants, further graduate school, and jobs—and blurbs for books you publish due to your own pluck and talent and determination. I have benefitted in all of these ways, but my journal publications and my books have come about without any paving of the path by faculty connections.
As for the claim that journal editors and book publishers only publish people with writing degrees, we can again dismiss this with simple empirical investigation. Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Carol Oates, and William T. Vollmann are three of the most lauded and applauded authors in the US today, yet none of them have a creative writing degree (in fact, of these three literary stars, only Oates has a graduate degree of any sort—an MA in English from the University of Wisconsin). And simply pick up any issue of any journal. Will you find a fair number of people with writing degrees? Of course. It would be weird if you didn’t, since people who dedicate their education to creative writing might end up doing some of it. But you will also find people with a wide range of educational and professional backgrounds, ranging from lawyers to nurses to social workers, and probably a ton of people in the barista or bar-tender business.
Complaint #3: It is often claimed that creative writing programs exploit their students, either by charging them outrageous tuitions for a degree that doesn’t necessarily lead to gainful employment or by exploiting their labor via teaching assistantships. In effect, the argument here is about the corporatization of academia and about these programs being cynical money-making machines.
Retort #3: This one is a bit complicated as well, again because there are several moving parts. There are programs that offer little or no funding, and even more insidiously, there are programs that offer funding for the first year but do not guarantee further funding, thus creating a situation where a student might have to choose between large amounts of debt or dropping out of the program.
There are, however, dozens of programs that fund quite well, offer health insurance, and give their students excellent training in research and teaching. It is incumbent upon applicants to these various programs to assess their own financial situation and to decide accordingly. If you happen to have just inherited a million dollars, then by all means pay the tuition at any MFA program you want. If, like most of us, you need a tuition waiver and a research or teaching assistantship to afford your graduate education, focus solely on those programs that guarantee funding for your entire time in graduate school. There are, as I mentioned, plenty of them—many more than a prospective graduate student should apply to, so 100% of your applications could be to programs that fund. You might need to send out a few more applications, since programs that fund are more competitive, but the added cost of application fees will be more than balanced out by years of tuition waivers and the monthly salary of an assistantship.
Before moving on to the much more useful discussion of how we might improve writing programs, I want to make a plea for everyone to stop engaging in the old, tired debate that keeps us running in circles. This debate, like so many cultural debates, feels more like a prepared script with the roles and lines of dialogue already set in stone with the various participants picking a role and simply repeating the same tired scenes in this not very interesting drama.
So, instead of perpetuating the tired antagonisms between pro-MFAers and anti-MFAers (which has to be the least interesting debate going on anywhere on the planet today), we should be asking ourselves the following questions: What elements should be included in a writing program? Would these elements differ between genres and/or between the MFA and PhD—and if so, how? What would former students like to see changed from their own experiences? What do those of us with writing degrees wish someone had told us or showed us? How can we best educate writers to become the best versions of their writerly selves? How can we give writers the professional skills to survive in today’s market?
It would be impossible to answer all of these questions in the space provided here, but I do think we can offer some general guidelines and even some specific policies that would improve writing programs in myriad ways.
I’ll list four possible changes to writing programs, fully acknowledging that they by no means exhaust the possibilities for improvement. I hope, however, that they are productive starting points for a more fruitful debate about how writers might best thrive in our educational system.
Change #1: MFA programs ought to have reading classes taught by outside faculty. These professors would design the classes with the knowledge that the students are reading as writers, not as Foucault scholars or psycholinguists or what-have-you. I would want a Comparative Literature professor to teach a European or Asian literature course for writing students, but I don’t see the utility in forcing them to write a scholarly paper if they have no interest in ever doing such professionally. If the students want to do that, they can take a regular scholarly course (and I heartily suggest that creative writers do so). The reason I want these courses taught by scholars outside the MFA faculty is that their knowledge of the language and culture and literary tropes particular these other traditions can be invaluable for a creative writer to think about.
Change #2: As a corollary to my last point in #1, I would have MFA and PhD programs offer translation courses. These might be taught by faculty in other departments or by core creative writing faculty, if someone on faculty does translation. There are many reasons for offering translation courses, foremost among them being that there is so much wonderful literature going untranslated. By having students translate the work of others, programs would be offering further opportunities for publication, teaching, and grant acquisition. Also, the students will learn how to write by working in the shapes and feels of these foreign authors’ writing. And, finally, translation keeps a national literature healthy and growing.
The historical importance of translation for English language poetry is undeniable. Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, invented blank verse in order to translate Virgil’s Æneid in 1554, because the Latin original was unrhymed yet metered, and no equivalent existed in English. Blank verse, brought to us by a translator’s ingenuity, allowed for Shakespeare’s plays to be written as we know them. The sonnet (sonetto or “little song” in Italian) was created by Giacomo da Lentini and enjoyed a boom among Italian poets such as Calvalcanti, Dante, and Petrarch in the mid-13th and early 14th centuries. It was not until the 16th century that sonnets began appearing in English, in translations from Italian and from French. And the list of gifts translators have brought English poetry goes on—couplets, villanelles, sestinas, and, some have argued, even free verse via attempts to translate Chinese poetry. In short, translation enriches the student on several levels and enriches our literary culture in equal measure.
[Side note: One possible way to conduct a translation workshop would be to pair a foreign language student and creative writer together, with the former’s task being to get at the source language and the latter’s task being to shape the English translation into aesthetically sophisticated literary language. I do not mean to suggest this is the only way to run such a workshop, but it could be fruitful for both students.]
Change #3: A study abroad option could be offered by writing programs. This time abroad should culminate in a portfolio of nonfiction travel writing, fiction set in the location, or poetry that somehow incorporates the culture/location. The idea here is that incorporating this new cultural material will broaden the students’ range of writerly materials and techniques. Funding could come from finding a partner institution in the host country where the students could teach English as a second language, thereby broadening their teaching CVs as well. I would suggest that MFA programs limit the time abroad to one semester, while PhD programs could have options of either a semester or a year. I suggest this out of practical concerns, given the respective lengths of MFAs (2-3 years) and PhDs (5-7 years).
Change #4: This proposed change perhaps applies to graduate education in general. I would like to see more graduate certificates and graduate minors offered, in fields such as psychology or history or Latin American studies, etc. This could help students of political science or German as much as students of creative writing, but let’s limit ourselves here to creative writing. If a student wants to become a historical novelist, a certificate in history could be quite useful; if one wants to write polemical articles about current affairs, a certificate in law or perhaps political science could prove helpful; if one wants to go into editing/publishing, perhaps a certificate in design or non-profit management should be pursued; and, as a final example in a list that could go on almost indefinitely, if one wants to write science fiction, a certificate in the newly burgeoning field of neurohumanities might be a wise choice.
Aside from the obvious expansion in writerly possibilities these certificates would provide, if we make them central components to writing programs, people with undergraduate degrees in things like geology or philosophy or animal sciences might be more prone to attend writing programs, thereby greatly diversifying the kinds of writing produced. We could also have graduate certificates in creative writing for people in other programs, such as comparative literature or translation studies, where skill with producing aesthetically pleasing language likewise has value.
Now I would like to invite readers to reimagine what we expect from writing programs. I am not suggesting that we all settle on one opinion on the matter, but rather that we allow for a proliferation of opinions on the matter beyond the current conception.
Reimagining #1: Even though I tend to operate on what I’ll call the greatness model of literature— i.e., I judge the merit of writing by how awesome it is—I see no compelling reason for this to be the universal model. Why isn’t a model that aggrandizes people of whatever success/talent level working through and enriching their lives with literature just as valid? In fact, we’d probably have a much better and happier world if we thought that way. And there are other possible models as well, such as one that privileges the process of collaboration and judges the merits of a work by how many people are involved and made happier and wiser by the process.
Since I am a both/and as opposed to an either/or kind of thinker, I propose we bring in all of these models and let them co-exist, thus obviating complaints about mediocre products by writing students. The final product is not necessarily the most important part of writing, so let’s stop fixating on it so much. Also, even if we prefer the greatness model, who says writers can’t produce some horrible stuff at one stage of their development and then create genius-level awesomeness at another stage? In fact, that seems to be the way it goes even for the greatest among us.
Reimagining #2: Creative writing programs may not crank out a new Kafka or T.S. Eliot or Joyce Carol Oates every semester, but they do crank out readers of such writers. In fact, I daresay that the vast super-majority of poetry and short fiction collections are purchased by creative writing students in BFA, MFA, and PhD programs around the country. So, we need to think about how many readers of contemporary literature these programs create. So, in this case, I am advocating for a re-evaluation of what we expect from such programs. If your standard of success for MFAs is that everybody with an MFA is on the level of Norman Mailer or Margaret Atwood, then, with all due respect, you need to rethink your position. If the student comes out with a greater appreciation of literature and an apartment lined with books, then that’s a grand success to my mind.
I’ll close by saying that there is no such thing as a perfect education in any field and that there isn’t a single best-possible education for every student. But even if we admit these two insoluble facts, we should not simply throw our hands in the air and declare defeat. We can have better educational paradigms and more flexible programs of study, and we can design educational possibilities that allow writers from all walks of life and from various educational backgrounds to thrive.