Thursday, June 19, 2014

Master and Commander of Fine Arts! (Now what?)

As some of you know, I've just completed my MFA program in creative writing at National University. Many – actually, pretty much all – of my friends who are professional writers tried to talk me out of going for my degree. For the most part their arguments were variations on the same theme: I was tying up a lot of my writing time and creative energy for two years – not to mention going some $40,000 in debt – earning a piece of paper that wouldn't help my writing career at all. Everything they said was true.

However, in addition to being a writer, I want to teach creative writing at the university level. And to do that I need a terminal degree – a master of fine arts degree – in creative writing. I've been a teacher since the 1980s – first in public schools, then in community support services. It's what I was doing while writing part-time to establish my career as a writer; it's the career I left to become a full-time freelance writer three years ago this month. Teaching is in my nature. This is not to say professional writers are opposed to learning about writing. Far from it.

A writer's education is a continuous, lifelong process. However, workshops for professional writers differ substantially from creative writing classes. Many workshops for working writers focus on mastering specific skills, often in the context of applying those skills to a particular genre. In some of the better ones the student writers read everyone else's work, then listen as a professional editor – or writer proficient enough in the target skill to conduct the workshop – explains what is and/or is not effective in each story. In way too many academic settings each student submits a short work, then "sits in the bubble" – forbidden to respond to anything her classmates say – while her peers talk about what they think of the piece. Among professionals, peer review has many benefits; when the peers are equally inexperienced newcomers to the craft, the utility of the exercise is questionable. (In Reading Like a Writer, which I highly recommend, Francine Prose imagines Franz Kafka being required to sit helplessly and listen to writing students opine they don't really 'get' the whole turning-into-a-giant-bug thing in Metamorphosis and suggest he spend more time exploring Gregor's childhood and relationship with his family before he became a bug so he'd be more accessible to the reader.) I'll talk more about the structure of an effective peer-based class and/or workshop in a future column.

The difference between a Creative Writing program's approach and the English Department's approach to studying the written word is completely different. As a broad generality, I'd suggest that if your goal is to be a professional writer, avoid taking any English courses on writing. (And I think it was the English Department approach my friends were warning me against.) An example to illustrate why I feel that way: In MCW-635, Young Adult Lit, the class read, discussed and analyzed Anne of Green Gables, The Outsiders, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Hunger Games, Speak, and American-Born Chinese. We looked at the writer's purpose, both as evident in the text and in the writer's statements about the work, her techniques and choices, why what worked worked, and how we as writers might employ those techniques in our own work.

In ENG-600, Literary Theory, we didn't read a thing in the original. We read what scholars of literary criticism had written about different works, which may or may not include quotes of the work in question. A dissenting opinion by a scholar of a different school of criticism was always provided. The class then discussed whether the arguments presented fit the letter of the critical theory each represented. If anyone had the temerity – as I did – to point out that theories were completely irrelevant and often directly contradicted what the writer had said about her work, it would be explained from on high that nothing the writer had to say about the work was relevant because the writer was by definition too close to the work – and almost certainly untrained in literary theory – and therefore unqualified to comment. (Fearing I'd fallen into a bad class, I reached out to a friend of mine who has a doctorate in English. He confirmed my experience was fairly typical and gave me pointers on the art of searching the internet for scholarly citations that support your opinion.)

 Did I as a writer learn anything about writing from the creative writing classes? Yes, of course. I'd have to be pretty dense not to. I worked with some very talented writers and instructors. Did I learn $40,000 worth? Depends on what I do with what I learned. Would I recommend earning an MFA in creative writing? Only if you intend, as I do, to teach. Colleges and universities require the academic qualifications of even their adjunct instructors to be documented by a regionally accredited institution of higher education. If your intention, however, is to broaden and deepen your skill set as a writer there are many professional workshops and programs that will teach you as much or more at less cost.


Charles Gramlich said...

I've considered doing an MFA for much the same reasons, to teach it at the college level. But I already have more to teach in my current department than I can comfortably do so. And I teach a nonfiction course in writing for psych majors and actually find it my least enjoyable class.

Neil Waring said...

Congratulations on you MFA. Another degree never hurts + you can now put, MFA behind your name. I never got a chance to teach creative writing but hope you find a place. I taught American western history and American Literature at the high school and community college level for many years - always wanted to teach a writing class.

Liane Spicer said...

Congratulations, Kevin! Go forth and teach. I might follow in your footsteps next year.

I've experienced "the bubble" critique in a class situation and although it wasn't much help to me, I understand why the lecturer/editor/facilitator would want to go that way. It's good training in taking criticism for one's work, whether the criticism is valid or not--something we all have to face once our work is published. My experience was in an undergrad setting, though, and the lecturer did a great job of defending my story against ludicrous criticisms like, "she used big words".

Literary theory has taken over the English programme and it's wearisome, especially in a postcolonial society like the one where I belong. Everything must be examined through the lens of PC theory. (If I read one more article on a Caribbean novel that references Caliban I'll scream.) Theory is wonderful for literary critics and aspiring literary critics, irrelevant for anyone else, as you said.

Marissa Monteilh said...

Congratulations - you've motivated me to further my education. Bravo. my friend!!

daytonward said...

Congratulations, Kevin!

KeVin K. said...

Charles - "Creative Nonfiction" was the most disappointing class for me. I was disturbed to discover just how creative the nonfiction could be and still be considered "non". It's caused me to keep about a pound of sodium chloride handy whenever I read nonfiction account of events.

Neil - I'm shopping myself around as an online adjunct. I'll update here when I find a position.

Go for it, Marissa!

Liane, Dayton: Thanks.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Congrats Kevin! There's a lot more to that piece of paper than just a qualification for a job. It's an accomplishment to be proud of.