Of what good is a formal education to the writer?
I will respond, but am the wrong person to do so! I was trained as an actress, in an acting conservatory - that's the only training I've had. I think the way I work as a writer is influenced by the sensory recall training that I had DRILLED into to - having acted from ages 8 - 24 - as far as writing goes, I always read a ton, Carver, Wolff, Richard Ford, and poets like Sharon Olds, I'd drag the books with me everywhere, but had no idea i wanted to write until i was in my thirties. I can't say very much about the formal education aspect in writing, but this is what I learned in theater: acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.
I studied creative writing at Ohio Wesleyan Univ in the early 90's. I'd planned to only graduate with a Journalism degree but then took Intro to Fiction with Bob Flanagan and added English as second major. I got so much horrific writing out of my system there. I took for all sorts of fiction and screenwriting courses. It was a very exciting time for me.
After college, I debated going to get an MFA but went to law school. I'm not too sad about that. I have enough enthusiasm and discipline (PSYCHOSIS/OCD) to keep writing. I'm also far too malleable sometimes and think a tough professor would slit me open and leave entrails hanging.
I pretty much stick with flash these days and think someone at a school would convince me to write a novel. I've tried that enough to know I don't have it in me (like Vince Vaughn in "Return to Paradise", who says he doesn't have it in him to save rare orangutans to the wild). Joaquin P was wrong to say Vince did have it in him, and I suspect people are wrong to say I have novels in me.
So, I want to keep writing flash and learning so much every day reading JMWW subs, reading Fictionaut stories and the hundreds of new ones popping up in great journals every week.
Maybe when I can retired in 2032 I'll enter an MFA. I'll be 59, not too late at all.
it can be overcome
smiling, here, at Gary's response
Funny, I was just talking about this in a recent interview. When I decided I wanted to be a writer I was fairly young--18--and impressionable. Also, while when younger I read constantly, and sometimes put pen to paper to write a "story", when this 18th year rolled around, I read Kerouac's On the Road. So, as you can imagine, I had some pretty ridiculous romantic notions when it came to being a writer. For some time I held odd jobs and did a lot of drugs and alcohol with friends of varying education levels and criminal records. I took a few road trips across the country in multiple directions. At the same time, I was continually enrolled in college. So I was in writing workshops, and read as many contemporary and canonical writers as I could.
This all eventually led me to my MA and PhD. While I learned a LOT in earning these degrees, much of the subject matter in my writing draws on the less academic parts of my past. I wouldn't know, necessarily, what a story's doing (especially when reading stuff like Robert Coover's) without my PhD in creative writing, but I wouldn't be able to meet Henry James's edict that a story be interesting if I hadn't once smoked crack. I don't recommend that everyone go out and smoke crack. But I remember thinking, before putting pipe to lips, "Someday, it might be worth it to actually have experienced this; you might write about it. So why not?"
If I lived near Edward and he had a salon, I'd be there. Dude is the P Diddy of Fictionaut.
(Bet no one has ever said that about you, eh, Edward? I can't say that I'm even sure what it means, but I'm going to trust my subconscious on this one.)
I've spent a fair amount of time in workshops, and in the CW world. The result: ambivalence.
(some) time to write
getting taken seriously as a writer—being called a writer
meeting fellow travelers
(one hopes; not so in my case) finding a mentor or mentors who can be of real value in your professional writing life
good, useful criticism and, as the wise lawyer, Erlewine said, getting a load of shit out of your system (but of course not in those words)
(I know I'm leaving things out)
not enough time to write
bad and sometimes malicious criticism
a sort of butt-polished trajectory toward teaching as the only way to make a living as a writer
I tend to think that Malcolm Gladwell's contention that the best way to get good at something is to spend about 10 thousand hours doing it is pretty much right on. A writing program is one way to get a start on that, but then I also think about my old, late friend Larry Brown and how he just did it and did it and did it, and his amazing autodidactic mind. He was at Bread Loaf as a teacher, perhaps also as a fellow, at first. But dude was a fireman, a man who had more than enough experience, and then more than enough practice to be an awe-inspiring writer.
Thanks, Jamie, for explaining to me why, that one time, I smoked crack. More seriously, I also tend to agree with John Gardner who, in I think On Becoming a Novelist, said that the best job for a writer is a rural delivery postal route (or something like that). But Eudora Welty has shown all of us—if we really needed to be shown—that stories can be had anywhere. But that sort of depends on who you are, too.
I do have a masters (not an mfa), but I'm seriously hoping that when the library at that particular school burned, my thesis was either burned or so damaged by water that it no longer exists.
I was talking to a Ph.D. scientist friend the other day and she was talking about how the Ph.D. mindset is to sort of marvel at a problem, but not necessarily take any concrete action that results in some sort of useful outcome. I know a lot of people with Ph.D.s in CW, and while it might work for them—again, with teaching as the outcome—I personally wouldn't want one, and (personally) refuse to call anyone doctor unless they can cure something. (Inferiority complex? Maybe. I'm not going to dwell on that. You can, if you want.)
Seems to me that the best education for a writer is 1) experience and 2) practice. Some people seem to jump right out of the gate with the ability to write fully formed and sensible narratives. Others seem to be later bloomers (I include myself in this number) who really need the time and the practice to find the narrative strategies that work for them, and have to really work to discover the depths of whatever narrative they happen to be working on.
David's right that it takes a kind of OCD mind (or narcissism or arrogance or something) to sit by yourself for 10,000 hours—and then way more—with the belief that you are doing something that other people will want to read. Which may in part explain why in any given creative writing class you could look around the room and pretty much assume that none of the people in it will go onto any sort of serious career as a writer. I think of the people that I graduated with, who won prizes that I didn't. and to the best of my knowledge, none of them went on to do much if any serious publishing.
So maybe to add to experience and practice a 3), bullheaded fucuitiveness that makes you certain—despite, often, lots of available objective evidence to the contrary—that this is who you are, a writer.
Maybe fuckuitive should have a k.
I think the level of discourse is exciting at the PhD level. I was lucky enough to have been able to take some graduate courses with PhD candidates (joint MA/PhD program), and I always, always, always took away more from their criticism and praise and discussions overall. I'm thinking, perhaps, more specifically about poets than fiction writers. I don't know, maybe I'm wrong about that. I'm thinking of a poet Kristi Maxwell, whose critical and theoretical mind was an inspiration. Often, while two of the only creative writers in a lit seminar, I looked up to her as a model of what I could possibly be one day: published, accomplished, and able to talk the talk come time for the ever-elusive campus visits.
I'm looking forward to (hopefully) having some time to polish up a few smaller projects while in an MFA program (will next year be my year? will I finally get paid more money, as a grad assistant, to teach one course than I currently make teaching three as an adjunct?). After that, I hope to move on to a PhD program to get back to being a scholar, where I hope to engage on a more criti-theoretical level (I'm thinking I'd like to focus on ecocriticism and/or transnational adoption diaspora), and, perhaps, use the diss year to begin a long novel reflecting these interests.
Of course, these are not all writers' concerns. But for me, and for the kind of writing I hope to go on to produce, an academic education is (perhaps not necessary but) desired.
exposure to stuff you might not have been exposed to. like my degree in english, i already read a lot, but would i have taken a whole class on yeats and read him in such depth? would i have read mort d'arthur? regarding the mediocracy thing. i don't think it makes people mediocre to go to mfa for writing but i think it gives writers w/o a lot of passion or vision the tools to make very competent stories. so, it can be hard to distinguish between really well-written mediocre things and rougher stuff that might be a lot better under the burrs.
To, I hope, clarify a couple of things. First, re: Joseph and mediocrity. What I was thinking of had more to do with the workshop (particularly the undergrad workshop) as being like a focus group. Not a problem in a high caliber workshop of serious writers. But dangerous sometimes in the undergrad scenario when you've got people who are in the class because they thought it would be an easy elective to get their whatever degree.
The other thing about workshops is their chemistry. I've taught and been in workshops that have had the most incredible chemistry—like it was preordained that these people should come together in mystical wonderment. On the other hand, I've had really satanic workshops where it seemed foreordained that nothing good could come out of the class. Of course, that was after the semester had ended, and you look back and say, Wow, that was awesome, or, Wow, that totally sucked.
The other thing, re: Ph.D.s.
I work in a very scientific company with lots of Ph.D.-type folks. (My brother has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, and I am not very likely to call him Dr. Stark. I will, however, call him up and ask him to help my kids with math homework that's way beyond me.) The real issues that I have with Ph.D. programs for creative writing is that this is incredibly expensive, and wouldn't you be better off, if writing is what you're about, not teaching, just taking that $50k in student loans and living off it a couple of years in an unheated cabin and writing? Second, universities are sort of forcing this (or did a long time ago) so they wouldn't have useless MFAs lolling around campus who could only teach CW. Why would they want that if they could have someone who was a multiple threat who could teach literature and creative writing?
I respect and indeed really admire what Molly says about being a scholar. I'd never do that, perhaps to my own detriment, because I'm not wired that way. I'd like to have the high level of discourse, but that's about the only part of it I'd like to have. I can think of a million classes I'd like to take, had I the time, but not with any eye to a degree. But then, I'm twice Molly's age, likely.
And I think Joseph is right about the literature classes. Nothing like having something like a grade hanging over your head to set your ass on fire and finally get through [insert name of Great Book here]. I can think of a few of those I'd like to take.
One of the most sensible young writers I've met within the last few years wanted to be sort of the female Jon Krakauer, and before we met, she'd spent a year or two teaching on some tiny island in the pacific. Then she went off to Bangkok and the last time I Googled her, I read some of the best (and most harrowing) reporting on female human trafficking I could imagine. So she's doing really great things as a reporter. I don't know if she will ever write a novel, but I don't know that that's what she ever wanted to do.
To Stephen: May I join you at Edward's hypothetical salon?
To Gary: :)
To the question: Boy-oh-boy, this is a tough one. My simple answer is that an education in writing is only as good as the professors and students in the program. That leads to quite a bit of variance.
I'm finishing up my MA in English (with a concentration in writing), and I've had some incredible workshops. What made them incredible is that I connected with at least a few people in the group, which meant that I truly loved reading their stuff, and they loved reading mine, and we also had valuable advice for each other about how to make our writing better. There was trust there. Other workshops did not foster that kind of trust, or those kinds of relationships. They were uncomfortable, but I did learn how a workshop should *not* work.
My husband and I teach writing workshops in our home, and we are conscientious about creating a fun atmosphere of trust so that the group can thrive. I did not believe that workshopping truly "worked" until I saw progress in action enough that I couldn't completely discount the process.
I have recently come to this conclusion: It's more about a transformation in the writer rather than a transformation in the writing. If a workshop serves that purpose, then great.
Katrina!!!! Damn, that's good, and soooooo true. It's more about transformation in the writer.
And I suppose we are, here, in Edward's salon.
Implied in the question is a reaction to the negative perception of writing programs. Some of this comes from the directors of writing programs themselves, famous writers who have publicly questioned the value of their own programs. Some of it comes from industry professionals, agents et al. who have forwarded the notion that 'literary' = without plot. The New Yorker helped spread that notion, and the current online focus on flash may also encourage it (there are conversations elsewhere about flash and plot, so maybe that's a question for another day, but generally, flash doesn't have the time and space for a sequence of events to be dramatized, with causality, and gradual character development). The industry pros are working under a different set of criteria, the market, and for a different readership. I tend to think readers are smart, and if literary writing were marketed, it would sell. But that's another question too. And it's possible that your average readers, the folks who read one book per day, were scared off of literary writing by teachers who made them feel like they weren't smart enough to get it. And so maybe Dan Brown, Vampires, and Harry Potter feel safe.
A very wise writer once told a group of us: You (plural) are your own best resource. He meant the connections we made with each other could serve us in the future, as an inspiration, as first readers for smart constructive feedback, as recommendors of good reads, and as connections for publication.
It's worth noting Fictionaut wouldn't exist without the programs and most of the writers whose names we toss around also came out of programs.
While in programs, I learned specific technical approaches I probably wouldn't have come to on my own. I learned the pursuit of writing was something nearly religious and that there were other weirdos out there just as serious as I was. I learned to frame what I was doing within traditions I didn't know existed. And so I got better, and the work got better, and when I completed my MFA I knew I was just getting started.
There are loads of self-taught musicians and artists, and sure Picasso was a naturally talented guy who had to "unlearn" the conservatory lessons. But he had the luxury of time and he drew on influences, and there was no doubt he approached his work from the position of an intellectual, and there's power in that. Yes, the market can dismiss us. Yes, we may be toiling away in vain. But we know that what we do is important, to us as individuals, and as a reaction to our times. And that can't be discounted. When you devote yourself to this questionable endeavor with the tools of formal education, you write from power.
if you want to teach, you need the degrees. and grad school helps you get a sense of what language is spoken in Engl depts.
Education doesn't hurt you as a writer, I don't think, unless you really expect it to help you.
Oh...that was supposed to be who read one book per YEAR (not day).
I’ve been debating whether or not to return to school, so I’m enjoying the discussion.
My sister was a creative writing major, serious about being a writer, took classes with Saunders and Diaz and all kinds of cool people. Read all through childhood, filled up notebooks, took on writing mentors outside of school … Ultimately, never did anything with it, doesn’t write or read fiction anymore.
I watched TV all through childhood, skipped a lot of classes in high school, hated English, dropped out at seventeen. Got tired of TV, picked up a book to kill some time, picked up another.
I’ve been determined for the last few years to give myself a college-quality education at home, and I’m pretty happy with my progress. I don’t know the difference between me and my sister. Self-reliance has definitely helped me hone my instincts, but there are many times I wish I had peers or teachers to give me a kick in the ass -- or make sense of Ulysses for me.
Plus, it’s hard to make a living wage without an education.
Some random observations:
Education is invaluable to a writer. Whether that education is formal or informal it is important for a writer to know things, to employ critical thinking, and be open to a wide range of perspectives.
It is very easy to disparage formal education because it can be so problematic. Still. I for one am eternally grateful for my education from K through PhD. It is an overwhelming privilege and to my mind, a formal education is one of the single most important things someone can do for themselves. A great deal of my learning has taken place beyond the classroom, but when I'm talking to a friend about trying to understand our purpose in life and I can reference Heidegger's Being and Time in a way that's not pretentious or silly, I get pretty excited because it means that somehow, something important wedged its way into my brain. Now, this wedging didn't take place in my philosophy class two years ago, but two weeks ago, somehow, there the knowledge was. That's the great thing about education for me--its permanency.
I received my MA in Creative Writing (the program was run like an MFA but I knew I was going all the way so I took the MA option; loved everything about the program) and am this year, finishing my PhD in Technical Communication/RhetComp (because I like money). In late May, I will spend approx. one day referring to myself as Dr. Gay. That sounds great, doesn't it? Then, I'll get over the title and move on but I will still really have benefited from my course of study.
Don't pay for graduate school, particularly at the doctoral level. Find a program that will pay you. They won't pay you much, but you do not need to go broke getting a PhD.
I don't think writers need to be explicitly educated in writing but I understand the appeal of the MFA which offers writers the time to really focus on craft, to read great writing, to discuss writing, to learn how to be edited and critiqued and to learn how to stand up for your writing. If you can afford the cost or receive a fellowship for your MFA, it's a great option for writers.
At the same time, I think we're, as a community, often preoccupied with the MFA as the be all to end all of writerdom. I've always been fascinated by writers who mention where they received their MFA in their bio. I see it every day and it's curious. Why would I care where you received your MFA? I cannot think of a more irrelevant piece of information. Sometimes, I think writers equate their MFA with their identity or the quality of their writing and I want to shake them and tell them you are not your degree.
Reading John's post makes my head go up and down. And again reminds me of my admiration for his eloquence.
As a ghostwriter of at least one nonfiction book that's been a bestseller, despite the best efforts of its publisher (and the attendant industry professionals) not to do anything to help it, and, at times. actively try not to help it, I can only lament that foolishness. We can see where there prescience has got them.
Literary fiction can and does sell. The problem for the folks in the industry is that they have no idea how to sell anything.
What means 'technical composition'? Please know that I'm not being snarky or ironic. I know a lot of technical writers—something I could not do—and so I wonder if it has anything to do with that.
We're an online literary journal that publishes works of short, indeterminate prose and accompanying criticism. We feature one author every posting period (every two weeks). Every so often a question related to the form and function of fiction will be posted here for discussion.http://www.matchbooklitmag.com