Alcestis Graduate school Teaching Writing

The value of creative writing degrees

Several months ago — sorry, Nadia — a reader emailed to ask me my thoughts about creative writing degrees. Specifically, she wondered whether I thought my master’s in creative writing had been useful. Today, John Scalzi posted a response to Lionel Shriver’s interview about MFA programs (shorter Shriver: I’m glad I got an MFA but I feel conflicted about the fact that many MFA students will not become professional writers) that’s collecting a lot of comments. Clip from Scalzi’s post:

I find an MFA optional at best and a somewhat frivolous expenditure of time and money at worst (especially if, like Shriver, all you really want is an audience). Naturally, your mileage may vary on this opinion.

So there’s perhaps some measure of irony — if not to say bald contradiction — for me to note that even though I share Shriver’s ambivalence on the value of a writing MFA, I disagree with her ambivalence (or more accurately, guilt) about the value of teaching writing to people even if the majority of the people you teach don’t go on to be professional writers. Indeed, I think her feeling guilty about it is a little silly.

Why? Because that’s not her problem.

Most of Scalzi’s commentariat seems to agree that Shriver should not worry about the possible fate of her MFA students. Many also agree that MFA programs are “optional at best and a somewhat frivolous expenditure of time and money at worst.”

The creative writing program I attended at UT is actually an MA program, though it’s identical to just about every other two-year MFA program I’ve learned about (perhaps even nicer, in some ways, given that it benefits from and interacts with the Michener Center). Students work in one primary genre, get a year and a half of teaching experience (2/3 lit TAing, 1/3 creative writing TAing), plus one semester on fellowship to complete a thesis. The teaching appointment means tuition remission and benefits along with a wee but manageable monthly paycheck. When I was there, we also got small summer stipends. Because I was only a year out of college and unencumbered with other responsibilities, I didn’t have to seek other work besides my TA positions (and my full course load during the term). Teaching is time-consuming, especially when you’re learning how to do it, and I didn’t always have time to write as much as I wanted during the semesters. That was partly my own fault, as I’d already decided I wanted to stay for the Ph.D. program, and I took a lot of lit classes. During my two years in the MA program, though, I wrote and revised Alcestis. I also wrote a number of pieces of short fiction, including the short-short that was published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. And I read and read and read.

There are two related things I don’t think people mention enough in the eternal “are MFA programs worth it?” discussion:

1. I see people talk a lot about writing programs giving students “structure,” but what attending an MFA program really gives you — or gave me, at least — is time. Time to write, time to talk to other writers about writing, time to read. A decent MFA program is like a two (or three, depending on your program) year writers’ retreat. Structure is a bonus. Yes, you will have assignments and you will have to workshop your writing, and the level of helpfulness of your specific workshops may vary a great deal. They may turn out to be the best thing that’s ever happened to your writing, or not. But you will have the time to write. (If you’re lucky, you’ll also have great professors and great fellow students helping you to improve what you write. I did.)

2. I noticed at least one comment on Scalzi’s post about “predatory” MFA programs; I assume the commenter was referring to programs that do not fund all, or maybe any, of their students. Unless you’re flush with disposable income, do not attend an MFA program that you have to pay to attend. The program should pay you. In fact, I’d generalize this further: unless you’re flush with disposable income or are attending a specialized professional program that will allow you to get a job that pays off students loans quickly, do not attend ANY graduate program that you have to pay to attend. Also, do as much as you can to learn what kind of employment you can actually expect to acquire when you’re done. If you want to get a degree for the intellectual pleasure of it and are in a position to do so, that’s great, too — but if you’re expecting to find a job waiting for you once you’re done, try to be sure your understanding of the field you’re entering is accurate. (This is true for many advanced degrees in the humanities at the moment, and I’m sure it’s true in other fields, too.) And if you’re entering a program that will require you to complete a big project — a thesis or dissertation, whether creative or critical or scientific — think about projects you might want to undertake. Some people might even suggest that you wait to go to grad school until you have a project you’re itching to work on. I think it depends on your field; you may need to go through coursework before you even know how to develop a good project. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think seriously about what tackling a project of that type will mean for you. (… can you tell I’m in the middle of writing a dissertation? Yes?)

There are lots of other reasons that creative programs are worthwhile, and lots of reasons to teach (or study) creative writing outside the context of creative writing programs, too; I hope to write more about them in the future. But to answer Nadia’s question: yes, I think my creative writing courses were extremely valuable, and I think an individual creative writing course or a week-long seminar can be valuable for the same reasons, on a smaller scale. For what it’s worth, I also agree that Lionel Shriver needn’t angst over the fact that many of her students are unlikely to become working writers. If she’s teaching them about writing in good faith, as it sounds like she is, then she’s doing her best for them, and they’ll make of it what they will, or can.

4 Comments

  1. Thank you, Katherine. I wasn’t seeing too many positive responses and glad to see your response. “A decent MFA program is like a writer’s retreat.” I think the ‘writing’ aspect got lost in the rhetoric. Your post is full of good positive advice as well. Appreciate it.

  2. I went to school for music in a uni environment that was not quite a conservatory, so I’ve always thought the effect of a prolonged writing environment like that would be very similar: complete immersion in the way of life you need to develop as a writer, and time to develop the discipline you need to succeed, which i think is probably even more helpful than the skill set you learn in the process. and since you completed a fantastic novel in that environment, i think the results speak for themselves.

  3. Robin, you’re very welcome!

    Aja, yes, I think the conservatory comparison is totally apt. One of the best pre-grad-school experiences I’ve had in terms of writing instruction was at a summer arts program in high school: there were 200 kids studying visual arts, music, theatre, dance, and writing, and the commonality was exactly that, the immersion in an arts-oriented way of life. (Also, thank you!)

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