The Mis-Education (Perhaps) of Louis Menand – When to Get Your MFA or Not, part 3

[This is the conclusion, part 3 of a series, When to Get Your MFA. Or Not]

Ford Madox Ford and James Conrad wrote novels together, shared work and talked theories of fiction writing.

There are skeptics as to the value of a MFA in writing, much less the teaching of writing, and some are not where you might think. I remember a few years ago standing in the parking lot outside of the Wesleyan English department one night, in conversation with a colleague who was also a former mentor, from when I was an undergraduate there (Wesleyan is my alma mater), when he said “You can really do this.” He looked shocked.

“Do what?” I asked.

“Teach writing,” he said.

When I pressed him, he admitted to having been skeptical to the idea it could be taught.

One reason for this distrust is partly that as writers, our palette is language, which belongs to us all. And so everyone feels, and this includes English professors, that if they were to really concentrate, just sit down and really try, they could do what we do. And they certainly believe, in those moments, they can do it without the benefit of a teacher.

I thought of this last spring, reading Louis Menand’s assault on MFA programs in a review of Mark McGurl’s book The Program Era in the New Yorker. Menand begins the review with a blistering first paragraph full of mistaken information mixed to create a hypothetical straw-man of a workshop that doesn’t exist anywhere, if it ever did (I have not read The Program Era, to be clear, just the excerpt available at the publisher’s site). My background: 9 classes in creative writing as an undergrad and then a graduate student, and 13 years of teaching, inform me when I tell you, this class, to my knowledge, has never existed as he describes it, at the graduate level (and that is what he implies).

Creative-writing programs are designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem. The fruit of the theory is the writing workshop, a combination of ritual scarring and twelve-on-one group therapy where aspiring writers offer their views of the efforts of other aspiring writers. People who take creative-writing workshops get course credit and can, ultimately, receive an academic degree in the subject; but a workshop is not a course in the normal sense—a scene of instruction in which some body of knowledge is transmitted by means of a curricular script. The workshop is a process, an unscripted performance space, a regime for forcing people to do two things that are fundamentally contrary to human nature: actually write stuff (as opposed to planning to write stuff very, very soon) and then sit there while strangers tear it apart. There is one person in the room, the instructor, who has (usually) published a poem. But workshop protocol requires the instructor to shepherd the discussion, not to lead it, and in any case the instructor is either a product of the same process—a person with an academic degree in creative writing—or a successful writer who has had no training as a teacher of anything, and who is probably grimly or jovially skeptical of the premise on which the whole enterprise is based: that creative writing is something that can be taught.

By the last paragraph, he contradicts his lead, certainly–we are initially told the teacher is an unpublished one–but by the end, we are given either-or scenarios. We are told of a theory that is at the core of all writing workshops, and yet there is no history of the theory mentioned, no name as to whose theory this is. This is the method of a political slander, and it is also bad journalism. Menand is better than this, for sure. 

In all of my time as a student I was never in a class led by an unpublished writer. All of my workshop teachers were published authors, and half had MFAs. As an undergraduate at Wesleyan, Kit Reed and Annie Dillard. At Bennington’s summer program, Toby Olson and Mary Robison. At Iowa, Denis Johnson, Clark Blaise, Elizabeth Benedict, Deborah Eisenberg, Marilynne Robinson, and for seminars, Margot Livesey and James Alan McPherson. These are not the hapless fraudulent unpublished types he would have you believe populate the classroom, but some of the country’s very best writers, and the essay’s beginning is insulting to all of them.

To be clear, you can find classes taught by the unpublished, but they are taught by graduate students to undergraduate students, and this is a way of of teaching these students to teach creative writing. None of their students are graduate students. What’s more, each program, and in many cases each class, has its own protocols—there is no single protocol for the handling of a critique, and he even says this later in the essay. But for his beginning straw man workshop to be horrific enough to get the reader’s attention, he must suggest the teacher has no power in the classroom. When, after a few more mistaken and error-filled paragraphs later he says, “this may seem like a formula for debunking,” you can only agree, even as he says it is not. He gives off the appearance of having been so terribly scarred by either his experiences or what he’s heard of the programs that it is impossible to believe his review’s ending. It is clear to see Menand is practicing a rhetorical flourish of a classical kind: build an argument against something, typically by using its truths, though, and not by lying about it– and then end by arguing the opposite— here, with what is nearly a palinode:

For, in spite of all the reasons that they shouldn’t, workshops work. I wrote poetry in college, and I was in a lot of workshops. I was a pretty untalented poet, but I was in a class with some very talented ones, including Garrett Hongo, who later directed the creative-writing program at the University of Oregon, and Brenda Hillman, who teaches in the M.F.A. program at St. Mary’s College, in California. Our teacher was a kind of Southern California Beat named Dick Barnes, a sly and wonderful poet who also taught medieval and Renaissance literature, and who could present well the great stone face of the hard-to-please. I’m sure that our undergraduate exchanges were callow enough, but my friends and I lived for poetry. We read the little magazines—Kayak and Big Table and Lillabulero—and we thought that discovering a new poet or a new poem was the most exciting thing in the world. When you are nineteen years old, it can be.

Did I engage in self-observation and other acts of modernist reflexivity? Not much. Was I concerned about belonging to an outside contained on the inside? I don’t think it ever occurred to me. I just thought that this stuff mattered more than anything else, and being around other people who felt the same way, in a setting where all we were required to do was to talk about each other’s poems, seemed like a great place to be. I don’t think the workshops taught me too much about craft, but they did teach me about the importance of making things, not just reading things. You care about things that you make, and that makes it easier to care about things that other people make.

And if students, however inexperienced and ignorant they may be, care about the same things, they do learn from each other. I stopped writing poetry after I graduated, and I never published a poem—which places me with the majority of people who have taken a creative-writing class. But I’m sure that the experience of being caught up in this small and fragile enterprise, contemporary poetry, among other people who were caught up in it, too, affected choices I made in life long after I left college. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

If I were Dick Barnes, I would not be feeling so sly and wonderful. In any case, I didn’t want to give any more advice on the MFA without first addressing this review. The place I went to, Iowa, where I lived inside a constant conversation about writing for the two years I was there, with some of my writing heroes, present and future, and was supported as I worked to become the writer I am now, is not anything like what Menand describes. And neither is even one other American program.

*                                              *                                          *

MFA programs are designed to prevent everything Menand accuses them of practicing, and it’s worth noting that the novel many of the French read last year to anger President Sarkozy (after he insulted its importance), La Princesse de Clèves, was the product of what many of us would recognize as a 17th century writing workshop. People have been helping other people with their writing for quite some time. What’s more, the un-credentialed skeptical writer teaching classes that he describes does exist still here and there, but he or she rarely gets by a hiring committee anymore, if ever, for teaching at the undergraduate level much less the graduate, though this sort of writer once did, often leaving long scars and many suspicious faculty for having no training in teaching, and often taking the responsibilities lightly.

Nowadays, to land a teaching job, you need to come to your interview with syllabi in hand. And at the least, a MFA.

Despite this, I do not believe the MFA is the only route for the serious writer. I believe it is the only route for the serious writer who would like to pass muster with a provost or dean’s office for a program looking to hire a writer. The MFA program is a formal community based on the pursuit of a literary standard in writing and the teaching of that standard, and if you believe you would be helped by participating in the process and standards of that community’s life, you should consider applying. Or, as I like to say, “Spend two years finding out whether or not your writing is any good rather than 20 years wondering.”

When a student tells me he or she is interested in pursuing a MFA, this is what I look for before I agree to recommend them:

  • You write on a regular basis, even sneaking off to do so from whatever your job is, perhaps even becoming a bad employee.
  • You frequently attend reading series at your local bookstore, college or university, you buy books to the point you have personal relationships with booksellers and you typically wander off to used bookstores at the drop of a hat.
  • You talk about writing with friends and are friends with other aspiring or established writers.
  • You have sent work out to magazines and journals, and have had work published or at least rejected with a personal note, or have placed as a finalist or winner in a competition.
  • You have taken a writing workshop and found the criticisms helped your writing.
  • You feel you’ve reached the limit of what the community around you can offer, or worse, that community is unsupportive or even hostile to the idea you want to be a writer.
  • You seek a credential that would allow you to teach creative writing at a college or university level.

The publication part of this list is arguable. To explain, yes, students are regularly admitted without having published–it is not a pre-requisite for admissions committees, though it does prove you are serious. But the reason I put it there is that I have seen many unpublished writers—and by this I mean, unpublished in journals, magazines and anthologies—stymied by the critiques they receive. Students who are published typically take such criticism in stride–they know they can “do this” in a way an unpublished student does not, and a single hostile critique does not make them question whether they should even be writing.

You should not go if a single hostile reception for a story, from either a class or the professor, will make you question whether you should be a writer. I recall a novel I began at Iowa that Marilynne Robinson found unimpressive, and I had chosen Iowa in large part because I wanted to study with her. She was one of my idols then. I didn’t question whether I should be a writer, though, for all of that—I just thought, what is my hero teacher missing of what I’m trying to get the reader to find in this, and how do I get it in there so she can see it?

My students who succeed without MFAs–one just finished his novel– have most of the following in common:

  • They have formed a writing group on their own that supplies regular helpful criticism, thought-provoking conversation and emotional support.
  • They are unable to show work to anyone until it is finished, as otherwise the criticism is too powerful and they routinely destroy whatever they are working on in an attempt to please the last person who read it, making them fear showing anyone anything until it is done to their satisfaction.
  • They work best in a kind of secrecy.
  • They achieve at a high level, getting published.
  • They have found mentors in the community around them who are available to read their work.
  • They prefer a tutorial to a seminar, and do better one on one.
  • They have an excellent job, or a job that allows them time to write, or a job that allows them time to write and also establishes a reputation for them as a writer or fosters connections to a network within writing and publishing.

If you find the idea of listening to a group of strangers talking about your work terrifying, you may be constitutionally unsuited to this process. This is something to view without judgment. It does not mean anything about you as a person, you are not ‘weak’ for being this way. It is just how you are. The process of becoming a writer involves listening to yourself to understand who you are as a writer.

Some Basics to Keep in Mind

  • Your cohort, as it is called, the people you study alongside while you are there, will be your peers for decades, and you, in attending, become part of the school’s future legacy culturally. When you choose a program and they choose you, each chooses a community of considerable durability.
  • MFA programs look for students who display talent, stamina, intellectual ability, teaching ability and emotional maturity. Each program has its own formula for figuring this out from examining the applications. When you apply, if you apply, ask yourself if your application really represents this to a stranger.

Common Myths and Mistakes

  • One mistake I see often concerns what graduate school even is. To be clear, graduate school is a place where an aspirant is tested, in general, as to the sincerity and quality of their aspirations—whether a Masters program, a MFA, or a PhD. Part of this involves a winnowing–thus the application process. Any mentoring that occurs happens after an initial harrowing, to see if you are worthy of meeting a high standard. Why? Because if you can’t handle this, you can’t handle what’s next, which is the world. In particular, publishing and academia.
  • I have heard people tell me they believe MFA programs are a place to learn to write. This is a not true. You should not apply without experience. Successful applicants typically will already be writing at a high level before applying. If you have never finished a short story, sent it out and gotten it published, or even rejected with a note, you are applying before your time.
  • MFA programs will not force you to write. The only thing that forces you to write is your responding to an idea that will not let you go.
  • Last but not least, there is the idea that the MFA forces all of you to write the same. This is a mistaken idea. All I can tell you in that I write nothing like Brady Udall, Benjamin Anastas, Whitney Terrell or Tom Piazza. I do not write like Kirsten Bakis, Emily Barton or Chris Adrian. And what’s more, they do not write like each other. Brady and I did not like each other’s work at the time, but this is, I think, one of the values of a workshop: you are exposed to the views of people who do not agree with you. And this, in the US, is nearly absent as an experience in the classroom, much less anywhere else.

Good luck.

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31 thoughts on “The Mis-Education (Perhaps) of Louis Menand – When to Get Your MFA or Not, part 3

  1. Charlie says:

    I hope, too, that the MFA will be soon seen not just as the necessary vehicle for doing what you do (teaching), but also for doing what I do (leading an arts nonprofit). I’ve found MFA provides immediate legitimacy among the workshop leaders and constituents of our organization. I was fortunate enough to attend a program that supported community involvement by artists, so I felt like this was always a viable career option for me, even if I didn’t get specific training/experience in the field until after I had graduated….

  2. Reese says:

    These posts are great. I’ve always wondered why no one seems to question the idea that, say, cellists can learn something from being taught. It would be romantic if it weren’t so strange–as if writers all sprang, Athena-like, into immediate existence.

  3. apcb says:

    This is all quite sharp – but I’m puzzling over the suggestion that if you haven’t published yet, you’re not ready for an MFA.

    It’s not so much that I disagree; it’s that I don’t see/understand the reasoning at all. Everything else you said seemed exactly right / quite convincing, so I’m more than willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and ask: why?

      1. apcb says:

        Ah: I think that makes sense. I guess my objection was motivated by a reflexive sense that there are a fair amount of other ways for one to acquire a sense that she can “do this”.

        But I recognize that my experiences might have given me a skewed sense of this.

        Anyway, thanks for the careful consideration. I now dub you a “good blogger”.

      2. koreanish says:

        Yes, that makes sense. And thanks. I’m honored.

        For so many students of writing who enter unpublished, the admission to the MFA can be that moment when they tell themselves, “Oh, I might really be able to do this.” And the problem with that, psychologically, is that if the reception she gets once there is less than, say, applause—if it is criticism instead of validation—the student is too vulnerable to making work to try and appease the teacher and class, and will then become discouraged as that rarely works. By then she’s lost her connection to what she was doing in the first place.

        An excerpt from a novel start of mine, for example, won me a typewriter in a Story Magazine contest, and an honorable mention. But an excerpt of that same novel was roundly criticized by many, including the professor, in workshop, and what kept me from just chucking it was that it had succeeded “in the outside world”. And so I was able to keep working on it despite being confounded by the reception, and see the critique with some perspective—as a critique, and not as the end of my identity as a valid member of the group. And that is why I do think it is better if a student has published work before applying.

  4. Carolyn Willis says:

    Thanks for doing this series, it’s really helped me make some decisions that have been hanging in limbo for some time.

  5. Andrea Lawlor says:

    Hey Alex,
    Great final post. Thanks for such a clear articulation of the problems with Menand’s review. I just got sputtering mad, so I’m happy to have a handy reference of the argument I’d like to make. Also, thank you for the word palinode.
    xoxo
    Andrea

    1. koreanish says:

      Thanks, Andrea. Yes, it was puzzling, why he decided to do something so outrageously wrong-minded. It’s one thing to legitimately build up an opposition to something to then refute it—quite another to slander it in the process.

  6. Elizabeth Stark says:

    So far, I have both loved and learned from everything I’ve read by you (including your novel), and this post is no exception. But I have to say that I was hoping for more of the autobiographical journey you’d taken us on as you applied and were accepted and had to choose, departing from the current boyfriend and so forth. This didn’t quite seem the end of the story but rather a related, and important, essay.

    Curiously, I was in S.F. in the 1990s, attended ADL’s queer writers conference that you mentioned working on (or was it OutWrite in Boston–I was there, too), was wait-listed at Iowa and thus ended up in New York. In other words, we’ve criss-crossed paths a bit. Maybe this is part of my enduring interest in the personal tale behind the advice.

    Anyway, thanks for all of it.

    Elizabeth

    1. koreanish says:

      Elizabeth, thanks. And that’s interesting. I definitely had the idea of building to this critique of the Menand review, which so many of us were enraged by. But with you saying this, I can think of something else I might describe. Either here, or in an essay.

  7. Victoria says:

    Great point on why you should receive some positive feedback on your work before considering MFA programs. Initially, I thought you meant that if you hadn’t gotten a somewhat positive response from anyone your work won’t be good enough for a program, but I agree that it’s dangerous to feel like you’re writing to appease a teacher or any kind of audience…. As you mention, this rarely works and it can defeat the purpose of your writing! Look out for #1! Unleash the freak, the crazies, and the experiments! As a mentor once told me: You’re not a writer just because someone doesn’t like your work; you’re only not a writer if you don’t write.

    1. koreanish says:

      Ironically, while it is a possible indicator, I know many talented writers who have won entrance into programs before being published.

  8. eli says:

    a nice, thorough debunking of menand’s piece, but you entirely miss the deeper point: the mfa in american creative writing is part of the institutionalization of a solitary expressive art, and as such, has had profound consequences on the way in which experimental work or work not consonant with the leading cultural arbiters is represented. the archipelago of little magazines, mfa programs and american art colonies has produced an enormous ‘herd of independent minds’ to quote harold rosenberg, each of whom lives in the tiny delusional bubble of their uniqueness while in fact being entrained in a larger system of cultural manufacture of which they’re for the most part ignorant. american literary production, in distinction to, for example, european, was always made by isolates–james, melville, whitman, dickinson. to this day, the mfa program in its influence and quantities is uniquely american, and its result–and here’s exactly where the blogger’s equivalency between learning the cello and how to write is proven false–is a huge profusion of writers who are technically skilled and sound the same. that’s the true fruit of the mfa program, and a sad fruit it is!

    1. koreanish says:

      Thanks. But I can’t agree with you less about this idea of the isolates. If there’s a myth as destructive as the idea that everyone needs an MFA to be a writer, it’s the idea that writers can grow themselves alone in the wild. Many of the names you drop there came from communities of writers. Whitman, for example, an isolationist? No. He was an ecstatic and was resolutely in this world, and had many friends and admirers—his and Wilde’s love affair even inspired the writing of Dracula by Bram Stoker. Many of the best of the literary experimentalists—Gertrude Stein, for example, was famously Hemingway’s teacher, or Jean Rhys who studied with Ford Madox Ford—either taught or studied with others.

  9. Robert Nagle says:

    I finished a fairly well-known writing program (JHU) in 1989. I have mixed feelings about it, but here’s where I stand today:

    First, out of the 12 students in my workshop, about 3 have published books, 1 or 2 still actively write and 2 are film directors; only 1 teaches writing. I think out of them I’m the one who spends the most time on writing…although I’ve been the least successful (from a commercial point of view).

    Second, today, the biggest value in a degreed program is finding people to collaborate with you on literary projects (a journal, anthology, screenplay, etc). 4 or 5 motivated writers working together on the web can produce a lot.

    Third, writing programs taught me a lot about giving practical criticism — how not to overdo it, how to be diplomatic, how to appreciate a story for what it is. That is a valuable life skill.

    Fourth, being on campus offers a lot of ancillary benefits: access to computer facilities, short courses, campus events.

    Ironically, even though my I enjoyed contact with faculty, my greatest literary influence was someone published by JHU’s university press while I was attending. I’m writing a book of essays about this author. Regrettably, I never had heard of this writer until 20 years later.

    See also my thoughts about why creative writing programs are not a complete waste of time .

  10. Elizabeth Collins says:

    I do think MFAs are worthwhile. I got mine from Iowa, and while I have been disappointed in the no-go “This is a terminal degree” aspect of things (that hasn’t proven to be the case when it comes to professor positions–many public institutions do not recognize the MFA as a terminal degree), and I found the workshop experience to be a little bit uh, disheartening at certain points, it was absolutely worth the time and money. I finished a large body of work; I got to learn from amazing writers; and I got the competitive edge I needed (which I need to get back to). Great post, Alexander.

  11. Richard Beck says:

    Just to clarify, the first sentence of Menand’s piece talks about the theory that “students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem.” He’s not calling the instructors unpublished hacks. He’s saying that the conceit of the MFA seminar is that students teach each other under the benevolent gaze of the instructor, who doesn’t so much teach as encourage and herd. Menand’s piece actually isn’t hostile to MFA programs at all, but almost uncritically affectionate; by the end he’s going on about how much he loved taking writing classes in college. You are being defensive without anything to actually be defensive about.

    1. koreanish says:

      Just in case I was wrong, I went back. I’m not wrong. “Just to clarify”, he in fact does go on to say the instructors are either unpublished and educated, or published and uneducated. From that first paragraph: “There is one person in the room, the instructor, who has (usually) published a poem. But workshop protocol requires the instructor to shepherd the discussion, not to lead it, and in any case the instructor is either a product of the same process—a person with an academic degree in creative writing—or a successful writer who has had no training as a teacher of anything, and who is probably grimly or jovially skeptical of the premise on which the whole enterprise is based: that creative writing is something that can be taught.” There is no MFA program that uses unpublished faculty with MFA degrees to teach the MFA to students. The overwhelming majority of MFA workshops in this country are taught by credentialed, published professors, especially now, but even 20 years ago, when the degree was less popular—only one of my professors at Iowa in 1994 lacked a MFA, and it was Deborah Eisenberg. Advertisements for the jobs in professional journals don’t just ask for MFA or PhD, they require it, and it is in fact against the law to teach at the graduate level now without credentials in many states, like Washington, for example. Yes, he evinces said affection, but only at the end, and qualified in the ways I describe. I stand by my reading.

    1. koreanish says:

      It is. It’s also worth noting that the system has grown as federal and state funding for the arts was attacked and all but vanished and as other institutions of support have failed or cut back sharply, such as the publishing industry and print weeklies. More and more teachers appeared as space for stories shrank. South America does produce, for example, many writers without MFA programs, but culturally across those countries writing is considered inherently of value. Papers, publishers and journals produce a lively intellectual culture. Not so here. If this is how we keep writers and writing alive during a period of anti-intellectual mania in what was once the world’s richest country, then… fine.

  12. Sonja says:

    Thank you soooo much for this article! It saved my sanity when I just found out I didn’t get into Michigan’s MFA, despite (I believe) being a good candidate.

    1. koreanish says:

      Sonja, I’m really glad it was there for you, you’re welcome. Michigan is a fine, fine program. But it’s not the only answer. Be good to yourself, and best of luck with whatever you decide to do next, whether you never get a MFA or you try again next year.

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