My half-boiled thoughts on MFA programs in Creative Writing

I’ve recently read Madison Smartt Bell’s thoughts on the essential flaws in the design of the modern MFA program in Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form, and it’s made me evaluate a lot of my negative emotions associated with my pursuit of post-graduate education. Bell has some very sharp criticism for the workshop model, which at this level is more relevant than I think it is at an undergraduate level, but still it’s likely that it’s overly harsh. I love the workshop. It’s one of my favorite places, and one of the few places I feel like I’m really able to consistently communicate effectively with other human beings. The workshops at my undergrad differ essentially from what I have come to understand as the MFA workshop model, though. My undergraduate workshop was more like a tight-nit fan community than anything else. We loved each other’s work and rooted for each other and wanted every poem or story to succeed in earnest. Maybe in sifting to the top of that pile, I was blind to any sort of jealousy that might have been happening around the fringes, but my experience in the undergraduate workshop was always miraculously and encouragingly positive.

My first workshop in the MFA program at my first (or rather former) program was a stressful experience. I wanted very badly to impress, to show everyone in the room my poetic muscle, and to place myself with a group of my peers that I could learn from and mutually help grow. We had a very experienced and accomplished workshop leader, and let me preface all this by saying that I believe she is the sole reason that these shenanigans didn’t ever get out of hand, like they did at another workshop in the same program that I only heard about. In this workshop, and in this program, there existed a literary elite. That is to say there was one impenetrable clique of students that had already decided on their aesthetic and decided theirs was superior to every other in the classroom. This group would habitually flock together and tear to pieces any poem that crossed the desk that was outside their narrow definition of art. Partway through the semester I even wondered now and then if they weren’t intentionally sabotaging the works of certain other students. It sounds paranoid, but there was a sort of general toxic energy around this small group of students that was really undeniable. What was most frightening to me about this wasn’t the toxic energy itself, but that the workshop tended to follow what seemed to me a very immature and narrow-minded approach to the work of others. In this respect, I completely understand Bell’s criticism of the workshop, now that I have experienced this kind of mob-mentality, I can picture it happening in the best of programs.

I do think however, that all of this can be reigned in and controlled by the tone of the workshop leader. I think it’s essential to contextualize this experience for any students, let them know how they are expected to read as well as what they are expected to read. Working in the writing center on campus and with the book Sharing and Responding by Peter Elbow and Patricia Belanoff helped me to understand how I might approach leading my own workshops in the future. The book helps above all to keep egos in check; the response techniques you learn remind you that approaching any book you are simply a reader, and remind you to respect the author.   I’ve not seen it done with creative work yet, but I think it could go a long way to keep the nastiness and cultish behavior out of the academic workshop.

I have wondered though, if the problem with a number of MFA programs (I’m sure there are exceptions, I wish I could find them somehow) doesn’t lie in the perceived hierarchy of educational or professional achievement. This first occurred to me while having a conversation before class. We were being asked to write weekly two page responses to the reading material, and a group of us were advising each other on how exactly we went about generating the content, whether we explicated poems, whether we responded to the text and the poetry, ect. I interjected that I often hoped to disagree with the professor’s perspective on a poet because I felt like that gave me more to write about, and a male student responded simply, “you know he has a PhD, right?” I was so confused about what that might have to do with what I said that I just nodded and let the conversation continue.

I was reflecting on it later and realized this student had more or less demonstrated to me what I had often felt but never realized was awry about the system under which I was learning. I concluded that it was very possible that the real basic problem with the program was the vision of the grad student as a beginner or intermediate in her field. Everyone I was working with had a four-year degree in the subject and at least one publication under their belt, and yet felt unqualified to disagree with the professor on a subject that a high school student could speak on. Achieving a PhD somehow put the professor in the position of lofty expert instead of colleague. Given four more years of experience and education, it is likely that a professor might have a more well-formed opinion that a graduate student might, but assuming that this is a certainty completely kills the academic conversation before it can even start. I wondered if my classmates simply didn’t participate in class discussion because they felt that had nothing worthwhile to contribute. I should hope after four years of studying literature, they might have something to say.

It seems to me that this is equally damaging on the level of creative work, perhaps especially destructive when it comes to creativity because succeeding in this business takes such self-confidence and occasionally a hardy ego. The dynamic causes the ambitious student (me) endless frustration in practicing her opinion (if she’s so lucky as to have them) and causes the under-confident poet (a number of my classmates) to have no ability to build her own protective ego. Thus, her originality of craft is ground out of her by way of always deferring to her mentors as authority figures instead of guides. It thereby stops the creative process cold. It occurs to me that this perhaps another issue that is causing MFA programs to produce such uninspired uniform work on the whole.

If I could go back and do my initial applications one more time, I would use the whole preceding year searching for the program that is the exception to the rule. Perhaps there is no exception to the rule. Maybe it’s my responsibility as a student and an artist to resist the pressures of these programs and come through the experience unscathed. I do know that my disillusionment with the entire process is part of my choice to apply to a number of low-residency schools. I suppose my hope in that arena is that if the program becomes too crushing a force on my own creativity, I have my own life to retreat back into for strength. It continually amazes me how much of life is about resistance.


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