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MFA Programs Featured in SF Chron Magazine

Given my earlier post, I was startled to see that San Francisco Chronicle magazine section features an article about MFA writing programs, with the full-paragraph title, “Great Expectations: Might one get published — or just enjoy a couple of years off from reality — in one of our many packed creative writing programs?” I am too busy working on an essay to blog extensively, but it is worth reading and thinking about.

It was a fairly balanced article, aside from the title (the writer needed to do more research, since many writing students continue to work full-time while attending school–hardly a break from reality, unless reality is defined as “free time”). I love Daniel Handler’s point that if it takes an MFA to help you build the discipline of writing, then so be it. There was the obligatory complaint from editors that writing programs flood the world with mediocre wannabes, though the acceptance rate of MFA applicants suggest that creative writing programs are actually doing the world a great service by winnowing the pile. There was a good retort from someone high in the MFA industry, as it were, that “When somebody plays bad basketball, nobody complains about sports programs at universities.”

But then there was the instructor who shreds the workshop experience and is quoted saying that rather than writing workshops she takes her students on field trips, to, say, haunted houses.

If my school’s workshops were as she describes–“cutthroat, with students delivering vicious critiques and one-upping one another to get noticed”–I might easily prefer a field trip to a haunted house, or perhaps having hot nails hammered into my forehead. But is she referring to her own experience as a student, to the experience where she works, or to the workshop myth? Or did I just get lucky and get into the one school where by and large, students are forced to provide positive feedback, are sat on if they over-share, and are politely ignored by their peers if their contributions are weird or dumb?

(My peers laughed outright at me for my comments about an essay using Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a motif, for which I said that any essay about this song should at least make glancing reference to both “Wayne’s World” and Freddy Mercury’s death by AIDS. I felt foolish at the time–and the student who wrote the essay made me no never-mind–but now I believe I will someday write an essay about “Bohemian Rhapsody” from my own crackpot point of view.)

I find it equally diagnostic that she says, “It would be absurd, the thought of a bunch of people learning to play the violin, playing together with a teacher moderating while another student said, ‘I don’t like that phrasing.’ It’s ludicrous to imagine serious artists paying money for that.” Most of my workshop experience has been skilfully guided by the instructor, and as I suggested yesterday, I continue to believe that workshop functions less to give you your turn in the barrel–though that can be valuable–than to force you to learn to read and critique writing (including, not coincidentally, your own). (I almost fell off the treadmill at the Y last night when I caught a small factual inconsistency in Into the Wild, the sort of error I would not have found the first time I read it.)

I wish I were as much of a self-starter as Daniel Handler, but I appreciate his point that some of us need more help than others. I needed a class to learn basic database queries; I needed a class to learn how to shoot a .38; I even needed a class in killing, cleaning, and steaming Dungeness crabs. In each case, I turned out to be quite educable. I also need instruction to improve my writing, and I need the excuse–yes, the excuse, and if it’s an expensive excuse, so be it–to make writing a discipline when I could be doing other things. I have used the MFA to beg off many committees I “should” be on, to start my creative day at 6 a.m. and my working day two hours later, to give myself permission to let the roses get a little shaggy or the dishes a little dirty, and my life is much better for it.

As for workshopping, yes, there are problems with it. But half of the point of workshopping is learning how to evaluate your own work. And a small but important part of workshopping is learning that even the best writers have more to learn–a heartening fact that builds courage.

I don’t ask to have a publishable book when I graduate. I have published two books. I don’t care to publish another one again (and I have noticed that some of my favorite essayists, such as Malcolm Gladwell, become banal or flabby in book-length form). I do not have a book fetish. I expect to have a series of essays that were my testing grounds for the skills I wanted to learn, and I will take it from there. A piece here, a piece there: that will suit me fine, unless a book reveals itself to me. That’s where I was; I just want it to be better. I also don’t make it my goal to to made scads of money writing for publication (as much as this breaks Sandy’s heart; she keeps whispering that I could be the next Danielle Steele, and then we could live in a mansion in San Francisco and swan around in expensive duds, which admittedly sounds absolutely dashing). I want to write better, and write more, and feel that I am giving my writing the same attention I have given other things that are important to me, because I only discovered writing by accident almost fifteen years ago when an angel of an editor ushered me into the world of formal prose, and writing is my sanctuary, my sanity, my very own haunted house.

I would also not be bothered, in fact I would be overjoyed, by a world in which everyone wrote, and wrote well. Let us all sing the body electric.

Sorry I can’t write more, let alone workshop my own piece (I hate sentences constructed with “there is,” and yet I birthed several of them). Gotta run; gotta write.

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