Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

How Do You Feel About Creative Writing Schools?

Thanks to everyone who posted comments about my stilted-fantasy-dialogue and weighed in one way or the other. Survey says: majority of the readers are turned off by stilted dialogue unless it's done right. There you have it. Just be thankful I didn't post my re-imagining of life as seen through a romance novel. Or a The Hills episode.

Moving on, whereas authors of yore graduated from the school of hard knocks and Jack Daniel's University (I'm looking at you, Hemingway), many authors these days are getting their MFAs and MAs in creative writing, honing their craft in institutions of higher learning. Authors such as Michael Chabon, Anthony Swofford, Daniel Alarcon and ZZ Packer, to name but a few of many, got their chops in graduate writing programs. Judging from the lists of distinguished alumni of these programs, not to mention the lists of distinguished faculty at these programs, these schools seem to be performing a valuable service for American letters (and books too!). I heard a great quote (I don't remember who said it) along the lines of "Creative writing schools can't teach you how to write, but they can teach you how not to write." And that's pretty valuable.

However. Some people feel that if you can write you can write, and creative writing programs tend to stress short fiction writing even as magazines such as The Atlantic are dropping short stories, and short fiction collections have a reputation as being difficult to sell. If creative writing schools are going to prepare a new generation of writers for the current publishing landscape, should they be teaching novel and book length nonfiction writing? Also, a lot of creative writing schools are very expensive, and in a world where writing is not usually the most lucrative pursuit, should people be spending the money?

So you tell me - how do you feel about creative writing schools?

I'd like to clarify that I have clients who have graduated from writing schools and clients who have not graduated from writing schools and I love them all, so I'm as neutral on this issue as an ambidextrous Swiss Unitarian.



Kim Stagliano said...

A bisexual, ambidextrous, registered Independent, Swiss Unitarian? No writing degree here. School of Mom's knocks. Autism is the professor in my world. I'm sure the degree is worthwhile though. I think any form of higher education helps you learn how to LEARN - that to me is the key more so than the degree. I have a BA in Economics. Big whoop! Love the blog, Nathan.

eric said...

I don't see how it could hurt your craft. Your wallet, yes. Your ego, most certainly. But any real time spent honing in whatever enviroment (creative writing program, reading group, here on Nathan's blog) will offer some degree of benefit. And isn't that worth it, however trivial or substantial, if you're really serious? So I say, if you have the time and means, by all means.

Niteowl said...

One downside -- depending on what you're going to write, of course -- is that MFA programs tend to stress Literary Writing. That is, no spaceships, dragons, or busting bodices.

Or am I wrong in that assessment?

Roxan said...

A writer with true talent might benefit, but I'm not so sure about those who couldn't write a decent scene if they copied it from someone else's work.
One could learn how to write a business letter or a decent resume.
Not everyone that wants to write can even with years of creative writing school.

Katie said...

Considering how few writers achieve superstardom right out of college, I think it might serve people better to major in something else -- giving them not only the opportunity to experience things worth writing about, but also the chance to earn an income to support that nasty writing habit.

Don said...

The big problem is that very very few MFA grads go on to make a living writing. Not per program. Total. Hell less than half of MFA grads go on to make a living doing something even half-way writing-related (e.g., teaching). Many MFA programs exist as a way to get cheap labor to teach lower-level undergrad classes. That can be said, in fact, about many graduate programs in general.

Marti said...

My 2¢

I think it is possible for a writer to learn “craft” such as proper punctuation, grammar, ditching excess adjectives and even plot and character development, but I don’t think you can teach a person to be creative. I think that springs from imagination. It is a spark or a natural gift that people just have (or don’t - lol).

Liz said...

Guess I'm too practical to consider creative writing school. I did the double major (Journalism and English) thing at Indiana U and ended up working in banking. Go figure. Made a whole lot more money out of college opening checking accounts than I would've writing for the Tribune.

Now that I have the time to consider a Masters...I have three kids who eat up any extra cash, not to mention their college funds need funding.

Maybe one of them will go to creative writing school and come home to tell me what I've been doing right and wrong all these years.

Anonymous said...

You can learn, but you can't be taught.
When I am writting I am not allowed to read anything in English, I find myself stealing words and come to someone else's conclusions. It is a creative process.
They plug you in, the whole idea is to plug out of that car.

1-800-like butter

Brian said...

I think MFA workshops come straight from Satan's bottom. Students who are learning a craft have zero business critiquing the work of their classmates. Doctors don't consult me on a patient's diagnosis, why should I submit my work to another beginner who only wants to wow the prof with their command of terminology from the writing textbook rather than identify strengths (hey, there's a novel idea: how about a workshop where we talk about a manuscript's STRENGTHS as well as it's weaknesses) and weaknesses of my work.

That said, I've found my MFA program to be invaluable in exposing me to ideas and literature I may not have found on my own. I've also worked with some brilliant professors (writers) who've helped me see my strengths and hone in on weaknesses.

But workshops bite the big one.

I'm not bitter.

Laurel Amberdine said...

I don't know much about MFAs. It seems like some people do well after getting one, and some don't, and the MFA itself doesn't have much to do with it.

I think certain workshops are valuable, though. If you can get a professional editor to tell you what, exactly, you're doing right or wrong -- that can cut years off the learning curve.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Niteowl, I stuck out like a sore thumb because I didn't write literary. I'm thick-skinned enough that I didn't care.

As for MFA programs, well, it was the best two years of my ice hockey career.

Don't get me wrong. I loooooooved the time to write. I wrote a ton. I landed my first agent with one of the novels I wrote while there.

That was the strength of the program, for me. Having the time to sit and write. That -- and ice hockey -- was the biggest benefit of grad school.

Steve Axelrod said...

It all depends on the program. If you find a great one, as I did, the rewards are only limited by your ability to absorb information. Niteowl: my program did not stress literary fiction. Just the opposite. I was working with an agent during my studies. The critiques were eerily similar. The professor wasn't saying "Go deeper, where's the image patterning?" He was saying, "Cut the stupid exposition and get the story moving." excellent advice, from any quarter. If you can write,a good program can help you do it better. As to the workshops ... it's hit or miss. Some are lame and vindictive; some are bland and over-praising. But a good surgical, ruthless workshop led by smart brutal funny professors can be a revelation. I highly reccomend the experience.

Nate said...

I'm in a funded program now, and frankly, wouldn't be in a program at all if I had to pay any tuition. The great boon, of course, is the time it grants me to write. As for the degree itself, and the workshop experience, it's important for me to keep my expectations in check. I've had some great, eye-opening workshop experiences, and some really terrible ones as well.

By and large, though, this has been a wonderful gift of time/stipend, and I'd recommend a program for those who feel that they need some time and a sounding-board in order to get their novel or collection off the ground.

dan said...

I'm suspicious of writing schools, MFAs, all that. I have a BS in Electrical Engineering and that hasn't stopped me from getting a story published (well, to-be published, soon, by a bona-fide lit journal), and it hasn't stopped me from writing a novel that at least my friends and one of their mothers seem to like (it's not done yet--when it is I hope to branch out to more distant relations and, eventually, to paying strangers).

I actually have a suspicion that going to writing school would make my writing worse. Every time I read How To articles I find it ruins my prose, like all those rules just get in the way of what I hope is a natural ear for how my own prose ought to sound.

On the other hand, I have participated in a handful of group sessions, workshops I guess you'd call them, and I quite liked those. I love getting criticism. But I also found that people shied away from giving serious, hard, or 'mean' criticism, which probably is the most helpful.

You mentioned Chabon. Yeah, he went to school (if I recall he got an MA in Creative Writing, not an MFA, if it matters), but I can't imagine him needing that degree. I have a feeling he'd still be writing, and well, without the learning. You can't teach people phrases like "the tenebrous benthos of the human unconscious", y'know?

As for whether the schools do harm or not -- probably they don't do harm but god (God?) forbid the industry gets to a point where having a degree means one has an easier time getting noticed by agents/publishers in the first place.

Merry Jelinek said...

I think any type of education is beneficial, so long as you're there for the education and not solely for the piece of paper at the end of the road - so many people concentrate on what the degree can get them rather than on the benefit of the experience and knowledge they can garner in the coursework...

The difference between a creative writing focus and an English or Journalism major is that the English major will invariably learn about academic writing, which will help in almost any area of life, but does not teach you how to write fiction - academic writing can be brilliant but it's not fast paced or fun. A creative writing focus will concentrate on fiction.

What I'm going to say here is probably not going to be a popular opinion, but I'll put it out there anyway - anyone can learn to write. I know, we writers like to believe it's a God given thing that we few can accomplish. The truth is that whatever innate talent is involved in forming compelling prose isn't worth much at all without the hard work it takes to learn the craft and polish the story. Anyone can learn to write. That innate talent only comes in handy because it makes the work fun and invigorating - and why the hell would you want to enter such a hard profession if it wasn't for the heart to keep muddling through the process?

Mary Paddock said...

I've sometimes wished I had the resources and the time to go to school, but I don't think there's any substitute for the day-to-day experience of writing, editing and subbing.

Kathy said...

I am writing and hope to be the big time successful writer so that I CAN AFFORD to go and get my MFA, because my life's dream is to be a full time student forever and ever and ever and ever and ever....:-)

yes, I'm serious.

Twill said...

I've heard people say that getting a lesson in golf throws them off, too. They spend time trying to analyze their swing, and apply what they were shown, rather than just doing what they always did. It's disorienting. Their game suffers temporarily.

But adults still pay for lessons, because, when you get to the other side of assimilating the lesson, you actually get better.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Students who are learning a craft have zero business critiquing the work of their classmates.

Studying others' work is an integral part of learning a craft.
I learn as much or more from critiquing in workshops and editing my zine as I do from putting pen to page.

I am, quite simply, not the same writer I was a year ago, and it's largely due to the time I put in on others' work. You learn from what they do wrong and you learn from what they do right, and you also learn to make judgements on comments and develop a thick skin. I might get a twinge, but I no longer pout if anyone says something negative. I've gotten quite business-like about my writing--a quality I hope will endure me to an agent.

And you'd be surprised, some of the worst writers can really make great critiquers. For some reason they can see the mistakes on someone else's page easier than on their own.

Every time I read How To articles I find it ruins my prose, like all those rules just get in the way of what I hope is a natural ear for how my own prose ought to sound.

What Twill said. This is a common experience with early-stage writers, and I think it's more emotional than anything. A solid grasp of craft never destroys creativity, only enhances it. Trust me, it shows in the work from people who have made the leap of integrating craft into their art.

I have a certain ease and comfort and confidence now, knowing tha I've developed good habits. My thought process during drafting is entirely different--think a happy marriage over a hot first date. That comes from studying craft.

I don't think there's any substitute for the day-to-day experience of writing, editing and subbing.

Couldn't agree more.

I don't have an MFA, but I've got an BS Ed and a degree in English. I took a ton of creative writing classes. I've been in grad school. I thought I could write.

I didn't really start making progress until I realized I couldn't. I figured it would take me a couple of years to get a good grasp of my craft, and after nearly a million words, I'm nearly there. It takes time and more time and more time... But I'm lucky. I have a great critique group, some relationships with editors, and my own zine to help train me.

Also I highly reccommend We're doing an interesting query experiment right now--come play if you dare!

Simon Haynes said...

Consider volunteering as a slush reader for a small press zine, or maybe join a free online critique group. Reading a lot of not-quite-there (or nowhere-near-there) fiction was a real eye-opener for me, and it was more valuable education-wise than my three years studying creative writing at uni.

If you come across fiction that doesn't work, ask yourself WHY not. (Writing not up to scratch, no plot, no ending, rehashed TV plot, etc).

Learning to pinpoint the problems will only make your own work stronger, and in the meantime you're helping others with their writing too.

Simon Haynes said...

Starbucks - Snap!

Mary Paddock (hiya!) - you're right, there isn't any substitute for hands-on experience. My creative writing courses involved a lot of analysis of the classics, which was wonderful for those intending to write modern classics but less useful for fantasy or SF authors. And a lot of it was discussion about 'what the author REALLY meant by ...' and whether a yellow scarf was a metaphor for despair or hope. Yeesh. Maybe it was just cold out, you know?

Michele Lee said...

I have had a horrible time with writing groups. They either are just ego boosters, ego rippers (you know, trying to discourage you so you're not competition), looking for things to hold over you, borrow from you, don't read certain things (oh sure your last 3 books are romances and we helped with those, but we just can't stand fantasy and we refuse to even try), use personal disagreements and political views as fuel to rip your story instead of critiquing it, or worst of all, occasionally drop in old highly praised stories as a means to "test" wether you are what they want in a reader or not.
So, with my incredible bad luck in letting people read my stories before they are published... why the heck would I PAY for it??

Michele Lee said...

Oh, and I have always had a problem with form... in that I like to deviate from it. I love writing, I could never enjoy writing something in a certain form/style/method.

Gerri said...

I want an MFA in Creative Writing, not because it's gonna make me a better writer, but because I'd be learning with other people. I'm an academic at heart and training. Exposure to other ideas is almost always a good thing.

BTW, Stonecoast offers a low-residency MFA in popular fiction, in case anyone is interested.

Yes, that includes SF&F. *grin

Lisa said...

I have always noted the background of authors I especially like. I've found a pretty big mix of pedigreed and non-pedigreed writers so for me, determining whether or not the MFA or MA makes a difference to the end product is impossible to say.

The question I have for you Nathan, is how much does the pedigree influence your mindset? Does the degree or lack of one have varying levels of importance to each agent? I'm guessing yes (that it matters to some and not others). My husband is a fine artist and I believe there is a similar dynamic in the art world. There are very successful artists who have attended prestigious schools as well as those who are self-taught. For artists just starting out, the lack of an art degree will close the doors to some galleries, but not others.

Maya Reynolds said...

I think learning to tell a good story from beginning to end--no matter what the length--is an important milestone for a professional writer.

When I started to write my first novel, my experience included non-fiction articles and short stories sold to the "true" magazines. My three biggest challenges were: (1) finding the time to concentrate on writing; (2) developing the stamina to write longer length fiction; and (3) learning how the publishing industry worked.

A MFA wouldn't have helped with any of my needs. But that was me. I think there are lots of ways to arrive at a destination. You can opt to fly, to drive, to take a train or bus or even walk. How you arrive is not as important as making sure you arrive.

As far as story length goes, electronic publishers are much more forgiving of word count than print publishers. Short stories and novellas are common in e-books and are priced accordingly. My guess is that shorter length fiction (or non-fiction) will become even more attractive in a world in which everyone multi-tasks and parses time in small chunks.

Len said...

Nathan, you said it yourself: "[C]reative writing programs tend to stress short fiction writing even as magazines such as The Atlantic are dropping short stories, and short fiction collections have a reputation as being difficult to sell."

The short story was killed by overeducated typists in a generation. Since novels are longer, its death would probably be slower. That's all.

BeeBee said...

I think MFAs and MAs are great if you have the time and money to spare.

However, if a writer lives in a world of the day job and kids, it would be a tad difficult.

In the end, good writing is good writing is good writing. Either you have it, or you don't.

Becky Levine said...

I did not do any graduate writing programs, but years ago I was lucky enough to do my undergraduate years at UCI, when Oakley Hall was teaching writing there. What I did learn from his workshops was every critiquing skill I use today--and those skills have helped me improve my writing through my critique groups.

Brett said...

I think people can get different things out of an MFA program. Some people's writing improve, some people learn they don't ever want to write a sentence again, some people learn that they really want to go into banking.

I learned that I love writing, but that I don't want to be involved in academia or the "writing world" at all.

The program I went cost me nothing. I wouldn't have gone any other way. Also, the program where I went (Boston University) did have a novel course. It was about fifty times more useful to me than all the short story classes I had ever taken.

quietly writing said...

Waste of money, waste of time.

You don't need a "degree" to learn your craft. You don't need to spend thousands of dollars to pursue a career as a writer.

Mark me on the "nay" side.

Erin said...

I spent some time in a funded creative writing program, writing and teaching and left with no debt. I had a good time and I learned a few things, but now I write software and work on my fiction in my spare time. The program provided some contacts and the confidence to think of myself as a writer. I don't regret it, but I may not have needed it, either, to get to this same place.

Brenna said...

Ditto to everything Starbucks said.

I'm glad I went the MFA route for several reasons. It wasn't so much that the program gave me more time to write, because I was still working my day job and interning on top of my credit load, but the deadlines forced me to write all the time, even when I was exhausted and even when I didn't feel like it. It was a really good lesson in
resilience and stamina, and I've managed to maintain that same level of production even after graduation.

Also, going for the MFA gave me the opportunity to work as an editorial assistant at a good literary journal, which I loved. You develop a whole new perspective once you're sitting on the other side of the slush pile. I've always learned a lot from critiquing other people's work, but line-editing something for publication takes a new level of diligence. Knowing someone else's story on a line-by-line level really changed how I thought about my own writing.

I had a year-long novel workshop, which was more valuable than any of my other classes. It was small, dedicated, and we would hand out forty to sixty pages at a time, with a minimum requirement of 120 pages per semester. That particular professor let me write fantasy and never said anything disparaging about the genre, although some professors were less permissive

Now, two years later, I have an excellent critique group with two other girls who were also in the program. It's motivating and lots of fun. None of my classmates were ever cruel or flippant. They had good suggestions and put a lot of thought into their critiques. The thing about workshop is, if suggestions don't suit you, even after you've seriously considered them, you don't have to implement them.

An MFA is like anything else. You do well if you work hard and you try new things and you get excited. If you sit by passively, nothing happens.

Zen of Writing said...

I dropped out of grad school in writing, couldn't afford to finish, didn't see the point. It's obvious that writers don't necessarily need an MFA, but it's probably helpful these days when there's no money any more for editors to really do much editing. Am I alone in seeing the connection there? Someone has to do the editing. Even agents are doing some editing now.

Therese said...

Studying writing craft, whether in a program or independently, makes you a better writer.

I earned my MFA at no cost, on a Teaching Assistant fellowship. I had some talent, I had some drive (had one unpubbed novel written already) but I had no idea how much I didn't know until I immersed myself in craft.

Critiquing others' fiction was at least as valuable (if not more valuable) than writing extensively, for me.

Bottom line: I got an MFA; I got a terrific agent; I got a better-than-imagined book deal.

I'll never know if I would have gotten this far this fast--or at all--without the training, but I suspect not.

MaryAnnTheRest said...

My husband is a chef and he and his chef friends have this same open-ended debate about learning the craft in restaurants vs. going to chef's school. He's anti-CI grad: they don't teach people to work under pressure, it's all about making the palm tree out of peppers and carrots. But the pro-CI chefs strongly disagree. And how do professional musicians feel about Julliard? Pursuing art in any way is highly individual; so individual that everyone here has made a valid point, even when they've contradicted each other.

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