Smart Conversations About MFA Programs


 This post is a little late and very long, so most of it is below the jump.

Per my previous post, I do not believe that MFA programs are killing US literature, or that they do more harm than good. I do believe though that they do some things much better than others, and we should be able to have an open and critical conversation about that.

1)      We should be clear about what MFA programs can and can’t do

Some people react to the concept of an MFA program by saying you can’t be taught to write. This is substantially true. In fact, most MFA program faculty are aware of this, which is why every spring they spend hours a day reviewing application files in an attempt to only admit students who they think can write in the first place.

An MFA program also can’t teach you to have interesting things to say, though, as before, I am of the opinion that deciding to go to graduate school does not make you fundamentally less interesting, and does not negate the things that happen to you before, during, and after your decision to attend.

The purpose of an MFA program is not to teach you to write, or to teach you to be interesting, but to teach you to edit, which, if you are anything like most writers, is how you will spend most of your “writing” time. On my first day of graduate workshop, the instructor said that if 15% of the advice you got was useful, you were in a very good workshop. That number often seems about right to me, and while there have been days when I’ve been exceedingly grateful for that useful advice, what I really got from workshop was the ability to filter useless advice from useful advice—to be able to articulate to myself what I was trying to do, to dismiss the criticisms that were completely off base, to look at some criticisms that felt wrong and use them to identify what was going on with the work that the reader wasn’t getting it, and to listen to the criticism that seemed right, even if  it meant doing work that was difficult, even if it meant ignoring the people who loved the story the way it was, because I knew it could be better. Developing this kind of filter is critical, not just for writers in MFA programs, but for all writers. Whether or not you ever set foot in a workshop, if you are successful as a writer, the world will be full of people who have things to say about your writing, and what it should be doing differently: agents, editors, publishers, reviewers, critics, your mom. Ideally, the skill set one develops in an MFA program helps you to cut through all of that noise faster. I have to say, I’ve been lucky enough to have never witnessed outright cruelty in an MFA workshop, though I’ve heard enough stories to believe that it happens with some regularity. I am not a person who believes you learn from cruelty (which, even if it’s based in honest criticism, is distinct from honesty). But, if as a writer your faith in your work can’t withstand mean criticism from one instructor, or from some person across the table, what’s going to happen to it when you get a dismissive rejection from the New Yorker, or a mean review?  Your faith in your work, and your editorial instincts have to come from within, but sometimes nothing teaches you that faster than trying to listen to other people.


2)      We should aim for better and more precise criticism as readers, and pick the hard fix over the lazy fix as writers

Having said that, there are things we could work on in the workshop process to bring that 15% number up a bit. The problem with anything that becomes institutionalized is that the vocabulary built around it runs the risk of being flattened, of lending itself to empty sentences or people saying rehearsed things because they kind of make you sound smart. My personal pet peeves are “show don’t tell” and “point of view.” Show don’t tell I don’t like because it’s very lazy shorthand for what it actually means. What it means is don’t bore me, and don’t tell me things you’ve given me no reason to believe. But I’ve seen it morph into a criticism of any direct exposition, of any statement of fact or feeling on the part of a narrator or fictional character. Stories aren’t just about what happens, they’re about the way we tell them, often about the way that the telling becomes part of the resolution, a documentation of a character’s recovery or ongoing damage. We can tell people to cut the exposition or we can tell them to make it sing.  Point of view is one of those critiques that’s often valid, but not in the way we talk about. Often the problem is not that a character has information or a perspective that the text hasn’t explained how they could possess, but that the narrative voice is unconvincing, at so at every moment that’s not explicitly justified on the page, we question it. The danger here is that the writer will substitute the easy fix for the better fix—delete the lines where people wrote “point of view?” in the margins, instead of starting from page one and tweaking the voice until we’d believe anything it tells us, remove the exposition altogether instead of sharpening the sentences, or give us flat filler scenes to show that a character is, say sad, instead of finding the sentence that makes us really feel that.   

3)      We should find a way to stop treating the short story as a training ground for the novel

I do believe that the flooding of the short story market can be directly traced to the proliferation of MFA programs. Let me be clear: I love the short story. I love reading them, I love writing them, and I’m always a bit flummoxed by the reading public’s supposed reluctance to embrace them. But the short story deserves better than to be your practice date. It is its own form of prose, and requires a skill set that’s related to, but ultimately distinct from, the skill set required to write novels. In moving from the short stories in the collection to the novel I’m working on now, I’ve had to unlearn as much as learn. I’ve had to retrain myself to stop cutting what I think of as digressive threads, to let exposition go on for longer than I would allow it in short fiction, and to think about the overall form of the novel sooner in the process. There are many writers who work well in both forms, and writers who sincerely like both forms, but I also think there are people who come into MFA programs as novelists, or with the potential to be better novelists than they will ever be short story writers, and we shouldn’t force them to cut their teeth on work they’re not as excited about. It does a disservice to short stories, by flooding the market with subpar work that’s subpar not because of the author’s lack of talent but because the author only cares about the stories as a means to the end. It leads to jumpy, cobbled-together-out-of- short-stories novels, which I rarely find effective or satisfying.

Certainly a lot of sentence level skills, or overall conversations about form and narrative are transferable.  I don’t think proto-novelists come out of workshop worse off than they went in, and certainly there are people who do workshop novel chapters and nothing else during their MFA years. But while it may get you in overall better shape, I don’t know that training as a sprinter is the best preparation for a marathon, and while you may get a lot out of one night stands, they’re not necessarily preparing you for marriage.  (I have no idea if those comparisons make sense, as I lack familiarity with ¾ of those activities, but I think the overall point stands.)

Novel workshops pose major logistical challenges. If you require students to come into the course with a complete  novel draft, you interfere with the idea that an MFA program should ideally give you time to write new work, and also risk having students rush the first draft of the novel, to the point that the chapter by chapter analysis you’re aiming for is ineffectual because most of the book needs to deleted or rethought. Since courses have to be on the calendar up to a year in advance, it’s very hard to create a course where enrollments might wildly shift from semester to semester. The means the easiest way  to workshop a novel is still piecemeal. Some instructors are understandably wary of novel excerpts, since “novel excerpt” can be workshopease for “I got to page 30 of my short story, and realized I had no idea how it ended and it was due the next day.”    Sometimes it can be frustrating for student readers to be handed chapter 5 of a novel, and be expected to critique it, when they haven’t seen chapters 1-4. I know a lot of MFA programs have offered novel or novella workshops, so I’d be curious to hear general suggestions about how to workshop novels in the comments.

4)      We should be able to have real conversations about privilege

We should be able to talk about both privilege within MFA programs and privilege that MFA programs grant attendants in the world at large. In workshop, I have seen women get talked over by men with louder voices, people of color pegged as militant for fairly pointing out a racist element in a story, even if they are echoing a critique made by white students, men praised for their empathy and ability to channel women’s voices in stories that would be dismissed as chick lit if they were turned in by female writers. More often though, I’ve seen a sort of benign neglect of work that gets pegged as “exotic,” – because of the author or characters’ class or ethnic background. I’ve seen people be very hands off on stories that needed a lot of work, because they weren’t quite sure what to do with them. It can be hard to get critical feedback from people who lack familiarity with the world you’re writing about. On the one hand, one wants to believe that if the work is good enough, it carries its own authority and explanation, and people who lack familiarity with its context will gain some sense of it through reading. The problem is at the workshop level often the work isn’t quite good enough yet, and for writers from marginalized groups, the question of audience can become consuming quite early in the process. Novelist Tayari Jones wrote an interesting piece about the way her interpretation of the word freak differed from her editor’s.  I’ve had to define the word pressed to most of the people who’ve  reviewd my story Virgins, from workshop to publication.  I’ve also seen people argue with native speakers about words and phrases in other languages. Someone who had taken a few years of Spanish once insisted the word mija did not exist. For problems that are literally issues of the writer and the critic not speaking the same language,  there might not be much we can do beyond acknowledge it. However, at the level of character  motivation, we can be more insistent that workshop readers not assume the character’s race/class/sexuality explains why they make decisions the reader would never make, and not let demographic details stand in for actual characterization.  MFA programs didn’t invent hegemony, but that doesn’t mean they’re not an important place to look for ways to stop reproducing it.

We also need to be able to talk about the privilege we have by virtue of attending an MFA program. It can be hard to convince people with MFAs that they have any sort of advantage—after all most MFA students have files of rejections from agents, rejections from magazines, and rejections from editors. Every year there are at least five articles and a dozen agent blogs decrying “soulless” MFA fiction.  But I know that because of my MFA program, my (awesome!) agent, came to me, and I got to sit across the table from her and hand her my manuscript in person, which meant I got to skip the query letter process. I know this happens at conferences too, but those also take time and money to attend, and I worry about the people who get left out.  At various points in the process of trying to finish and sell the story collection, I got to sit down and talk to friends and mentors who’d already been through the process, and were able to talk me through it at the moments when I felt most clueless. There’s something to be said for having people to talk to about what can be a confusing and emotionally draining process. I do notice that when I go through the author index of an anthology or magazine, I often know an astoundingly high percentage of the writers listed, considering that I’m very young and not especially important. As many amazing, brilliant writers as I know, I can’t possibly  know, say, twenty percent of them. I don’t think this is because there’s a secret Iowa cabal—if there is, they don’t invite me to their parties– but because we trust people we know to recommend books and writers, and if MFA programs (and their extensions—AWP conferences, friends of friends) become the mechanism through which we know each other, then they play a role in limiting who is part of the conversation.

It’s terrifying to talk about privilege. It’s especially terrifying in an industry where everyone at every level often seems precariously situated. But we have to do it not just because we all ought to care about inequities, but because we all ought to care about writing—not just our own writing, not just the fact of bring writers, but the overall state of the art form. If we’re not invested in the idea that words still really matter, that books still really matter, and that accordingly we ought to have the best books and the best words, wherever they come from, then we deserve to be irrelevant.

5)      We should discourage people from conflating wanting to be a writer with wanting to write

A large group of writers can be a supportive community, or it can be a series of endless distractions. Sometimes MFA programs appeal to people who want the distraction more than they want the community, or the distractions become too tempting.  It is much more fun to drink a lot and say inappropriate things and sleep with the wrong people because dammit you are reckless! And interesting! And a writer! than it is to put your butt in the chair and fix your lousy sentences. And it’s not even like virtue and responsibility have inevitable rewards here– you can walk away from years of diligent work on a book with a splitting headache and a broken heart, and if you’d spent those years drinking and making bad decisions, at least you’d have some interesting photos to show for it. Certainly, the social aspects of an MFA program are important— misery is not actually the effective writing tool that people make it out to be— but if your vision of an MFA program involves more bar scenes than completed work, there’s probably something better you could be doing with your time.

22 thoughts on “Smart Conversations About MFA Programs

  1. Last year I taught novellas in my intro to creative writing class. I found that a long(ish) narrative seemed to come easier for students than a short one, and they turned in some really outstanding work….

    Wonderful and provocative post….

  2. Thank you for both of these posts, which are great. I just wrote up a quick response on my own blog (linked above).

    I entered my MA program with about four chapters of a novel written, which wasn’t a bad place to be — but it’s hard to mandate that for entering students, I agree. And I did end up writing some short fiction I wasn’t passionate about in workshops that wouldn’t allow novel chapters.

    I dream of teaching a novel workshop in which the class would study a couple of novels — really picking them apart to see what works — and then the students would produce either a first chapter or a detailed outline, depending on what kind of writer the student is. (I’m an outliner, but I know some people hate them, so basically the requirement would be some kind of proof-of-concept piece.)

  3. incredibly smart post, Danielle! I especially appreciated point #4 about privilege. right now, i’m in a workshop (first time in a few years) and finding that almost all the men have gone OVER page count, whereas all the women have stayed UNDER page count. haha, but not really haha. and yet, we are also all privileged, too, to be in a summer workshop; and i am privileged in so many ways, too, even as a woman of color in that I have had the MFA experience and had access to knowledge and mentorship.

    anyway, thank you for putting your voice out there and for putting out these intelligent points.

  4. Nice post! You are dead on about workshopping the exotic. In fact, I now wonder if I have been unconsciously using the exotic to hamstring my would-be critics. It would probably be a grant-worthy psychology project to track the workshop criticism of MFA students & their work as related to race, class, gender, etc.

    Also don’t overlook that the overwhelming majority of MFA students are plucked from a pool of people that have enjoyed a quality education for their entire lives, so we are talking about the privileges of and amongst the exceedingly privileged here.

    Since you brought up novel workshops I’d like to give a little nod to flash. We had a course and it was absolutely thrilling to read and write.

    Your conversations don’t include the pedagogy aspect –has that topic been picked over or is it just that nobody wants to get an MFA to teach?

  5. What a thrill it is to discover this blog–a really fantastic read.

    I am a recent graduate from the Syracuse program (09), and in the three years I was there I almost exclusively workshopped my novel, which I have since sold to Doubleday. I came in sort of terrified of exactly what you mention above–that I’d be forced to cut my teeth on work that I was not excited about. I was also wary of doing a disservice to my peers around the table (by hamstringing their responses with my context-free pages) and to myself (should they, as a result, go easy on me).

    But thankfully, for me, the dogma that novels can’t be workshopped did not play out. This is in part due to the specific circumstances at Syracuse–three years with the same group allowed me to workshop chunks of the novel straight through, albeit in pieces. My peers seemed to both recognize the limitations of scrutinizing longer work in the short-form workshop, yet still read my pages with their most critical and generous eyes. Because when you get right down to it, lousy sentences and moments of emotional laziness and avoidance are as evident in the paragraph as they are in the arc. It was of course my job to apply those lessons to other moments that they hadn’t seen, and to the larger work. This is, I think, little different from how short story writers approach the workshop. The real work happens after the fact, alone with the page, and can’t be reduced to deciding which pieces of advice to follow and which to ignore.

    I also wanted to add, just briefly, that reading other people’s work was as or more important to my writing as getting their comments back. Being able to correctly identify and articulate what I saw as false steps or missed opportunities made me a much better (meaning more honest) reader of my own work.

    Thank you so much for the post–a really fantastic, thought out read.


    P.S. Cruelty, even when based in honest criticism, is distinct from honesty. How good is that?

  6. Great piece. Though, I don’t believe you combatted the criticism that MFA programs somehow shape American writing, so that now critics (meaning bloggers) can claim that a story is an obvious MFA piece. I’ve even seen some people claim that teachers try to teach students how to write a story. However, looking at the top programs, the writers are as diverse as they come, and their writing comes from the soul and fist, not a suggestion or a line edit, though those can help, sometimes. I, too, was at Syracuse for three years and worked with Mary Karr, Mary Gaitskill, George Saunders, Amy Hempel, Arthur Flowers, Chris Kennedy, Michael Burkard, not to mention meeting all the visiting writers. That aside, programs that offer money and are not Ivy League and based in New York City, give you the most important thing a writer can have, time to write. A beginning writer should be able to afford making mistakes. Three years, a stipend, experience teaching at the college level, working with great artists and peers, and some ins to the industry, not only that, you pretty much have to work to live off the stipend (you know, get that valuable ‘life’ experience)…I’m still trying to figure out how one claims this is a bad thing. Who says a starving artist can’t be a teacher? Have you seen the paychecks?

  7. Thanks everyone for visiting the blog, and participating in the conversation. Lots of good points, and some useful advice for thinking about how to workshop novels. Nate, I don’t know of that many MFA programs that have a heavy focus on pedagogy, so I don’t have enough firsthand experience there to critique how it’s handled. I do think it’s a good idea to allow students to get some teaching training or experience before throwing them into a classroom, but I’m not sure it’s necessarily a good idea to institutionalize it. It does seem somehow inherently dishonest to act like everyone with an MFA can (or should) get a teaching job– it’s an ideal job for many writers, but not all of them, and at a certain point the numbers just don’t work out– everyone who attends an MFA program can’t possibly find a job teaching in one, because there just aren’t enough jobs, and we should be up front about that. In my ideal, and probably bureacratically impossible, MFA program, students could choose to focus on teaching, or on publishing and editing, or on freelancing, and would get some practical guidance for each of those potential career paths.

  8. Patrick—I think the complaint that writing programs have led to monotonous “workshop stories” is pretty much just lazy criticism. I mean, these critics need to read more stories—there is tremendous diversity out there! At the same time, I don’t think it can be denied that writing programs have had an overwhelming impact on American literature—for the last 60 years or so almost all writers go to college, and most to graduate school. Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing is a very fine discussion of the importance of writing programs….I certainly teach my undergraduate students how to write stories. I have to. The majority of them come to class having never read any imaginative prose this side of Poe or Hawthorne. (The Texas school system is resistant to modernity). So we start with the basics—what a story is, how it works…and, as Alexander says above, closely reading the work of peers is an important part of the process….

    Danielle—I’m ordering your book….

    Great discussion….

  9. enjoyed your post, i see some of my folk have engaged the dialogue, figured i would add my 2 cents, on the question of novel workshops

    you raised some very good issues that i will keep in mind for future workshops – always trying to elevate my workshop game

    you asked about novel workshops, i have in fact tried to make novel friendly workshops my forte,

    i do believe in ramming that 1st draft out, and i tell folk just let it be trash, thats inevitable, but get it out of your head and on paper

    difficult to critique a novel in a workshop, i let folk bring chapters in but i tell them not to pay but so much attention to the critiques because you dont know what its going to do, your workshop members cant possibly know

    i dont believe that critiques, from me or workshops members, are but so viable, like alex said you have to do a lot of extrapolation, you can take advantage of the sentence and narrative feedback but structurally and conceptually you have to go for yourself

    ive found a novel is not generally good for feedback until its a mature manuscript, i let folk bring in relatively large segments

    but what ive found with novel workshops, which i do regularly is that its mostly a one on one thing, everybody in the workshop may not have read the whole manuscript but i have to have read it and i dialogue with the student one on one mostly, and even then with a very light hand, its mostly me going rah rah, you can do it

    i have them give me segments as they do it but mostly to give them production goals, i dont really feedback them until theyve got a manuscript, preferably a mature manuscript, because with a novel its just too easy to lead folk astray, specially when they are in early stages and vulnerable to suggestion

    the biggest thing is reading the whole manuscript, which when its early stage and bad, can be a daunting chore, but i like working with novels, i like helping students make novels happen

  10. I know it’s been a year and a half since you published this, but I’ve just found it, and #3 #3 #3! A million times! It seems impossible to believe that you can be a novelist if you can’t put together a short story to save your life, but it’s true, and how do you get publishing credits that will convince a publisher to look at your excellent novel if you can’t write short stories? Ack!

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