Monday, July 16, 2007

Do You Have To Have Class?

I'm feeling the urge to explore new directions with my writing (and possibly other aspects of life). One option is to go back to school for an MFA in creative writing. I've been researching and asking questions over the past two months. What are the benefits? What are the downsides? It's too much topic for one post, but there's a "first issue" I need to resolve.

I've never taken a writing class. Not one. (I'm sure I am not alone in this category.) For me, this has always raised two not quite mutually exclusive questions:

1) What's the point of a writing class if you already can write novels that get published?

2) Would my books be better if I'd ever taken a class (or three or …)?

I'm not talking about a writers group - a peer-to-peer gathering where work is shared and critiqued. I very much appreciate the value of these groups. I'm talking about an honest to God writing class with an honest to God MFA holding, fellowship receiving, grant winning instructor lecturing about voice, point of view, character, plot, pace, dialogue, etc., along with the writing and group reading.

Of course, this brings up a topic that could take up blog after blog (and probably does somewhere): can writing be taught? As someone who has a degree in theater directing (another ephemeral academic pursuit) here's what I think: Anyone can benefit from a structured look at what artists they admire do and how they do it. Will that make you a writer? Depends on the student, I guess.

Having come to that conclusion, I figured I'd better check out one of these class situations as part of my research before I did something as drastic as uproot my life and go back to school. So last week, armed with a desire to learn what I could and explore something new, I crossed behind the literary fiction lines and enrolled in a 10 week session. I'm anxious about it. (I'm always anxious about writing. This blog haunts me for the 48 hours before I post.) I'm exhilarated. (Deadlines every week! I love a deadline.) I'm feeling a bit cautious about my position in this class as someone who has already published two novels and simultaneously feeling under qualified. (It's literary fiction. That's supposed to be something special, right?) And, part of me is thinking, "Christ, if one class does this to me, would I even survive a degree?"

I don't know what I'm going to learn in this class. Maybe I'll just end up with a couple of story ideas. That's OK by me. No matter what, I'll be one step closer to the decision about an MFA.


Mark Terry said...

I wouldn't want you not to do it if you really wanted to do it, but just for the hell of it, here's my 2 cents on the MFA in creative writing.

1. It primarily trains you to teach creative writing, not write.

2. Yes, writing can be taught, but only up to a point.

3. Are you more qualified to teach the class than the instructor?

4. Take everything said in the class with a grain of salt (but you probably know that). There's a lot of bullshit in academia, particularly when academics try to teach "real world" things. I'm reminded of a friend of mine who had worked successfully for the Leo Burnett Ad Agency in Chicago, then for General Motors in their market research departments (he now runs his own very successful market research company) getting his MBA and when he took the courses on market research, had to tentatively raise his hand and tell the professor that what he was teaching wasn't realistic in the real world, that the business cycle didn't allow all the freedom and time he was claiming it had. He told he that he did get some things from the class, but that much of it was simplistic or just plain wrong.

5. If you're busy writing other things, the deadlines might create a conflict.

6. On the other hand, if you're the kind of person that needs an excuse--like class assignments--to make sure you'll write, you'll probably enjoy this.

7. There's often a very big difference between "literary" writing that goes on in MFA programs (or any creative writing program) and the type of writing that actually gets published.

8. If your MFA classes are anything like my college creative writing class, your critiques are going to more closely resemble half-assed literary analysis rather than writing analysis that might make you a better writer.

That said, it might work for you just because it'll get you thinking about your writing in a different way.

Good luck!

Bill Cameron said...

Mark's points are all excellent, particularly his first.

That said, there can be some value to an MFA program.

I was in a creative writing program that mixed the MFA and BFA students in many classes. And my experience was that the MFA students were far more interested in showing up each other and stepping on the bared throats of the BFA students than in actual writing. Part of that was the fault of the instructors, because they failed to control the workshops and emphasize writing, rather than intellectual jousting.

You want a program that's going to challenge you, but also give you the freedom to explore fiction styles that interest you. You want strong workshopping, but it must be managed. None of this ivory-tower equivalent of locker room hazing that I think is all too common.

You'll want to learn theory, sure, but not at the expense of what people are actually reading.

So I'd say move cautiously, but I wouldn't say don't do. As with anything, due diligence is key.

Mark Combes said...


You know what my advice would be? "Sure," he says, moving up to the edge of his seat.

Take a couple literature courses. Analyze good writing - don't learn how to write "good writing." I learn more about writing by reading than by any other activity.

Two cents please....

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

No matter what kind of edukashun you get, no course can teach writing from the gut.

Learn everything you can, be a little sponge, but don't let them educate the heart out of you and your writing.