Thursday, July 19, 2007

MFAs, Community Colleges, and University Extensions

A while back, when I mentioned that my friend Rufi Cole had won a scholarship to the University of Virginia MFA program, the redoubtable Jeremy James suggested that this was the worst thing a talented young writer could do. I have to say that, given a scholarship and a stipend, two years with nothing to do but write sounds like something that ought to be grabbed with both hands, both feet, and, for those of us who can, with our prehensile tails as well.

Nonetheless, I understand what Jeremy means. Some outstanding writers have emerged from MFA programs over the years—John Irving and Michael Chabon come to mind—but I’m not sure the overall effect of MFA programs has been beneficial to storytelling. MFA grads are typically competent stylists, but much of the fiction they produce is cautious, unimpassioned, and a little on the precious side. This is the nature of academia; though there are some professors who encourage a robust approach to fiction, there is an overconcern with the clever, the precious, the metafictional—the kinds of stories that appear in literary journals published by academics for the reading pleasure of other academics (mainly their contributors). “Genre” is considered an ugly word, and in some quarters even “story” is considered suspect. American and English fiction both did quite well prior to the MFA, thank you, and some would argue that it did better. People like Chabon (and like my friend Rufi) were already well underway with their novels before they were admitted to their MFA programs.

There’s some wonderful writers teaching in MFA programs (Peter Carey, for example), and some university English departments employ luminaries like Joyce Carol Oates (though I wouldn’t count on spending one-on-one time with her just because you’ve enrolled at Princeton), but most of the writers at major MFA programs and top universities are academics who write, not writers who teach.

For my money, I think the best place to look for writers as teachers is in the community colleges and the university extensions. Face it: most writers would rather be writing, and if their income from writing were high enough, they’d drop the teaching gig. Many of the MFA folks and the university professors are professional academics rather than writers. The community colleges and extension programs, on the other hand, are filled with real writers—people who use teaching as a way to pay the bills while they keep on writing. And many of these folks will promptly fade out of academia when and if their writing garners enough ongoing cash. A surprising variety of writers have taught community college or extension courses; back in the 1980s, before his career really caught fire, you could have taken classes at a number of colleges from noir novelist Lawrence Block. (Larry Block at a college? Who would have thought?)

The big trick is finding a good teacher and a good format. The first requirement for a good teacher is that you like their stuff—or, if you don’t actively like it, that you at least appreciate their craft. (I’m constantly astonished that people sign up to be taught writing without first reading some of the teacher’s work…but the majority of students don’t. Weird, very weird.)

The second requirement is that the writer can teach. Here, you’re on your own. The fact that someone has writing chops is no guarantee that they’ll run a good workshop. All I can suggest is that you ask around.

And, a good format? Here I have only one criterion, but it is absolute: Pages must be photocopied and passed out for review the following week. Standing up and reading aloud is nonsense in a workshop. Writing needs to work on the page, and shouldn’t be influenced—positively or negatively—by delivery. How writers paragraph their material is important. How they weave dialog into their narrative is important. How much white space the reader sees is important.

Indeed, everything about the page is important. Reading aloud should be a last resort—for example, if you are ever in a prison camp, writing in blood on toilet paper, without a copier for a thousand miles.

Not that I have strong opinions on the subject.


alternatefish said...

thanks for the post. thought-provoking and very close to my heart.

my mother knows I want to be a Writer and she's decided I should go into an MFA program, but she hasn't really convinced me that it's actually a good idea. I've had some iffy writing classes, and I don't know that I would actually be a better/more publishable/happier writer after an MFA.

Matt Curran said...

Hi David

These are interesting insights into the whole MFA thing. Years ago I attended a Masters degree in Writing in Sheffield, England which was a different experience in many respects. In the MA it was widely perceived that writing was the main drive, and trying to be clever, metaphysical etc was down to the taste of the writer, and not taught (there are other degrees for that sort of thing). The philosophy of writing (if there truly is one) was marginalized in favour of a more personal approach – tailoring advice to the individual’s writing needs and tastes.
I suspect this was driven by the tutors who fall into that latter category “community colleagues and university extensions”. The tutors at Sheffield Hallam were, and I believe still are, bona fide writers who need to supplement their incomes and are not academics. The student then gets the best of both worlds – a curriculum based on creative expression without restraint, and the plundering of the wealth of experience displayed by the tutor.

If there are - and for me, were – any downsides, it was that in some cases these writing tutors went off to explore their own writing at the expense of the students’ tutoring. The other problem for me was that it attracted a group of students who, by their own admission, “had nothing better to do.” At times, they were more interested about talking about their life stories than actually writing, and the group became quickly stagnant, despite the efforts of the tutor to rein them in – the two reasons why I left the MA to pursue my writing alone. For the money I was paying, at the time I saw little benefit…

However, I stand by the notion that writing cannot be successfully taught by tutors, but can be successfully encouraged and guided, which is a different matter. Like anything, we learn through experience, and if someone is there to encourage you rather than lecture you on the perceived dos and don’ts of writing (which is a fallacy in itself – writing is largely a free-form of expression – anyone who tells you different is an academic!), then I think that’s a good thing.

PS: Like you, I don’t have any strong opinions on this either. Honest!

David Isaak said...

Hi, alternatefish.

Yeah, I wonder...Like I said at the start of the post, if they offerred a free ride, it's one thing; if you have to pay for it, it's another.

Let us know what you decide!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Matt

I think the starting point for anyone should be realizing that all writers are selfish and self-absorbed at their cores. No matter how nice and helpful we are, we'll abondon you if helping you do your work gets in the way of us doing our work--right? Writers who manage to write are a bit ruthless, otherwise they'd never get anything writtem..

So, yeah--students never be major priorities for working writers; yet those working writers are the most useful folks to be around. I guess the real question isn't what can and can't be taught, but how well any of the process can be institutionalized.

There's always a bunch of folks around any writing program who want to be writers rather than write. Fortunately, though, they don't tend to last long!

Sam Taylor said...

My Bachelor's is specialized in Creative Writing. For many years, I felt "burned out" by college. I don't think it was my writing classes so much, as the whole social/monetary/acedemic pressure-cooker. Maybe I was a rebel at heart but got the rebel beaten out of me.

That said, now that I've gotten over my existentially-angsting 20's, I've learned (and somehow remembered) a lot of nice stylistic techniques from my major. I can only hope I use them correctly.