Welcome to the second-half of the first session of Six Degrees Left, a series of online debates that pulls the plug on consensus and delivers oxygen through heated exchange. Yesterday we kicked off the series by inviting writers Matt Bell, Colin Fleming, Roxane Gay, Tara Laskowski, Matt Mullins, and J M Tohline to discuss the relevance—and practical use—of the advanced degree in creative writing, whether an MFA or a Ph.D.
Today’s topic: The Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in Creative Writing and its impact on literary culture
In your opinion, does an MFA lead to better writing by encouraging the latent or underdeveloped skills within a writer? Or does it result in a uniformity of voice?
Matt Bell: I can’t speak for all MFA programs. In mine, no one was encouraged to write any particular way, or to follow an aesthetic they weren’t already leaning toward–not once, in my experience. My classmates were incredibly varied and interesting writers, and within our limitations as workshoppers I genuinely feel we did the best we could to help each other achieve our goals. So in my experience, there wasn’t an “MFA voice” that we all suddenly switched into writing as soon as we got into schools. I think if you look at the writers who have come from Bowling Green State University, where I went, you see a wide spectrum of voices. For example: Anthony Doerr, Michael Czyzniejewski, Alan Heathcock, Joanna Howard, and Tina May Hall all graduated in a couple year period from BGSU, and they all have wildly different aesthetics and subjects. What norming could you suggest happened to them as writers?
Roxane Gay: The notion that MFA programs try to inculcate writers into a uniform aesthetic is nonsense. People who say this are, perhaps, not reading enough or they’re trotting out the same weak argument that has been lodged time and time again. Certainly, there are some writers who seem to bend their style to a certain MFA-like aesthetic but that comes more from newer writers who have not yet found their voice and as such are relying on imitation until they are better equipped to develop that voice.
The notion that MFA programs try to inculcate writers into a uniform aesthetic is nonsense. People who say this are, perhaps, not reading enough or they’re trotting out the same weak argument that has been lodged time and time again. – Roxane Gay
Tara Laskowski: I actually did feel that “a certain kind of story” was both taught and encouraged during my MFA time. I felt like many of my classes were pushing people toward a very traditional type of storytelling. My professors were wonderful, but they definitely came, for the most part, from a very classical and conservative writing and teaching aesthetic. Perhaps this was just my particular program, but even when guest authors came to teach classes, I often felt like experimental pieces were discouraged.
I am probably a pretty traditional narrative kind of gal (or at least was then) but I remember one instance where I was in a visiting writer’s class and I turned in a story that had multiple first person points of view, and the professor actually told me I should not be writing that type of story “at this point.” Now, perhaps the story was horrible (although a piece of it actually did go on years later to win an award) but the emphasis did not seem to be on, “Oh you are not doing this very well and here’s how you can fix it” but more like, “This is not a traditional story so you shouldn’t be messing with this kind of thing right now.”
All that said, I do believe strongly that in order to write experimentally, you first have to know how to tell a traditional story. Can’t build a house without the foundation, right? So I understand where this type of teaching is needed. And to be fair, I graduated from the MFA program more than five years ago, and since then there have been new, younger and international faculty added to the program, so it could be a completely different experience now than it was for me.
I also feel that genre stories—mystery or science fiction—do not have a place in MFA programs, and most people [are] striving for literary fiction. (Although there are now some interesting MFA programs popping up that focus on genre fiction, which I think is cool.) Though I think it is important to learn the foundations of how to write a story before moving on to experimental things, I think too much emphasis on that can hamper a writer trying to find his or her voice. It’s a delicate balance, and I do hope that professors in these programs recognize that and try to encourage writers to find their creativity.
Matt Mullins: Writers who teach have their aesthetic inclinations as do creative writing departments. Certainly, the argument that there is a uniform aesthetic to MFA programs is nonsense, but there are (or at least there used to be) professors/departments who try to angle students toward a particular aesthetic, especially in terms of short fiction. No writing teacher is absolutely neutral in their approach. We all have our own opinions of what “good” and “bad” literature is. However, the best teachers acknowledge this and promote objectivity in their students by being objective themselves, even as they offer constructive criticism about what may or may not be working in a story, in their own opinion. Teaching writing involves balancing your subjective aesthetics with the acknowledgement that the same goal (i.e. compelling work) can be reached through all kinds of channels. Regardless of the instructor’s personal tastes, they’ll hopefully avoid being proscriptive: It doesn’t matter what kind of car it is or if I’d drive it myself or not. My goal in teaching is to open up the hood and take a look at how the engine works as a way of getting students to start thinking about how writers approach their craft.
Colin Fleming: I once dated—very briefly—a poet from Yale—well, someone who wanted to be a poet—who would ask me, after I filed something, or mailed something, how I was able to do so given that no one had told me it was done. I thought she was joking. No dice though. I said, “it was all done. There was nothing more to do.” “But no one told you.” “I told me.” It was like I had started speaking in tongues.
I once dated—very briefly—a poet from Yale—well, someone who wanted to be a poet—who would ask me, after I filed something, or mailed something, how I was able to do so given that no one had told me it was done… I said, “it was all done. There was nothing more to do.” “But no one told you.” “I told me.” It was like I had started speaking in tongues. – Colin Fleming
The big scary thing for many writers is that they know, somewhere in their brain, that they can’t reach people at the level people want to be reached. The MFA provides the smokescreen, the stall tactic, the device/system that keeps that truth at bay. […] There’s nothing harder on this earth than creating something that thousands, or millions, of people can relate to. Who can do that? How many writers in MFA programs or [coming] out of them can do that? Ever? But I would suggest that if you were someone who could do this, and knew the importance of doing so, or trying to do so—and knew that this was really all that mattered—you probably wouldn’t care too much about rankings. You’d be off working on something that you hoped and/or believed would mean something now, later, and ever after. You think anyone’s gonna care about those rankings in 100 years? Fifty years? Five years? Two years? A year? Six months from now? Do your work.
JM Tohline: I think it’s all about how you take an MFA program. For some people, an MFA is just the kick they need to help them uncover that passion and bulk up their talent. But others can find the exact results through different approaches. On the flip side, the rigidity of an MFA saps some writers of the budding passion they entered with, effectively burying their talent. And the same goes for some writers when it comes to writing groups, or even when it comes to the solo approach.
I think the makeup of the individual has a lot to do with what they will get out of an MFA. For example: me. I do not have an MFA. I have never attended a writer’s group (not once!). In fact, I have intentionally guarded myself against any form of groupthink (if I were to dress up as the scariest thing I could think of for Halloween, I would dress up as groupthink). This approach has worked for me–but I also realize that this approach would not work for most people.
The way my mind flows is conducive to self-learning. I do better obsessively studying various writers and writing techniques and writing theories on my own than I would do if I were in a classroom and the professor was telling me (and 20 other students at the same time) to study these same things. Even if the professor told us to study the exact things I would otherwise be studying on my own, I would have a much harder time applying myself and focusing and taking anything the professor assigned seriously. That’s just the way my mind works–my fear of groupthink, my desire toward (passion for, obsession with) uniqueness and originality and the creation of new things. By studying things on my own, I might arrive at the exact same place others arrive at as they study amongst their peers–but to my mind, this would be okay. I at least would have arrived there (at those thoughts, at those techniques, at those ideas and approaches and whatever-else-have-you) on my own. And that’s just me. And others are completely different, which is why I feel an MFA program can be beneficial for some. But [it] is not necessarily the right way for all.
Can a writer receive the same type of feedback in a workshop-style classroom setting with an organization like Boston’s Grub Street or Minneapolis’ The Loft without having to incur mountains of debt? Does the MFA classroom really offer something so different from these non-academic institutions?
Matt Bell: Obviously, you could get great writing instruction at a place like Grub Street—many do—but I’m not sure I even see the distinction you’re making. Aren’t most of their instructors MFA graduates? How is that different than getting an MFA education? Other than that an MFA confers a degree, and often funds the students? After three years of equivalent education at someplace like Grub Street (which again, I’m a fan of), a student will have spent thousands of dollars, not advanced toward a degree, and presumably not received a guarantee of better education. I guess I don’t see the distinction you’re trying to draw? They’re going to incur more debt at Grub Street, not less.
Matt Mullins: Again, the MFA offers a chance to think deeply about writing while you focus on your craft. This dynamic applies to MFA programs as well as Grub Street, and as Matt Bell points out, if you’re going to be paying for feedback, why not get a degree out of it? Likewise, those who have no interest in the MFA might want to take on that old “salon” mentality and create a community of writers who critique each other’s work for free (easier than ever now with the Internet). In the end […] your own voice will emerge, regardless of if you are pursuing the MFA or not.
Roxane Gay: An MFA provides time, and generally, great instruction on how to read like a writer, what it means to be part of the literary community, how to improve, and how to develop your voice. These skills can be learned in an MFA program, in a community-based workshop, in a library, via the Internet, etc. In general, MFA programs offer funding and that’s what differentiates them from these non-academic institutions. I know this is not the case, across the board, but it is very possible to get a graduate education without paying. My general rule is if you have to pay for graduate school (outside of law and medicine), don’t go.
Colin Fleming: Ultimately, you are the workshop, you are the peer group, you are the one that needs to know. People can have their input, and you should always listen to it. You can find a few people you trust. Let them read your work. If you have someone in your life who is especially negative and likes to pile on, great, have them read it. Maybe they’re keeping a sharper lookout and hoping to find something you cocked up. That can be useful. But in the end, you need to know. That is, if your story is commended by fifty people, or it’s bashed by fifty people, that should have no impact on what you know about it, in the end. About its quality. The rejection doesn’t mean anything if you know the quality of the work; just like the acceptance doesn’t mean anything, either, as to a work’s merit.
I’ve never had something that wasn’t turned down 100 times. Didn’t matter, doesn’t matter. The final result matters. That one final result. It always goes in the end, and it becomes a case, for me, of whether I want to try and write for a large audience, or tailor my work to the MFA crowd. And I don’t want to do the latter, and I find that I’ve not had to. But you need to reach that point where you know the work and its value. If everyone tells you something is great, you need to be honest with yourself if you have your doubts, and redress what maybe isn’t so great at all. Can you teach that kind of humility, that kind of self-awareness, a lack of ego? Do you think Keats needed to go down to his version of Grub Street—where, interestingly, I am ineligible to serve as an instructor, because I don’t have an MFA or MA—and learn from his buddies that he was done with a poem, or not done?
In her provocative essay last year in The London Review of Books, Elif Batuman stated that writing is inherently elitist. Do you agree? Batuman also criticizes writers for believing that writing will change the world. For you, what’s the purpose of writing? Does good writing have to have a message or can it exist as art for art’s sake?
Language that attempts to understand the human condition by way of an imaginary telling is elitist? No, it’s human. Innately so. – Matt Mullins
We write to tell stories–we write to tell good stories. Writing is there to reflect on and try to understand humanity. That’s why writing exists. – Tara Laskowski
Colin Fleming: To say that there is art for art’s sake is to suggest you can have true art that has no function other than to be a thing on a shelf. I wouldn’t consider that art, I’d consider that a thing on a shelf. Art uses truth and beauty—both of which can be quite ugly, even as that ugliness is transcended—to foster change, growth, love, perception, friendship. Something that doesn’t do that can be great. But I wouldn’t call it art […]
I don’t think there’s a less elitist thing on earth to do than to try and reach out and connect with another human being. (Curiously, it seems many people flock to academia because this is not something they want to do, or can do.) And that’s what the best writing does, that’s what art does. It looks a reader in the eye, and it proceeds honestly with that reader, and nakedly. There is a compact there, a bond, a relationship, a union, a symbiosis. But yeah, if you write like a div and you have a ten-year-old narrator using a nine syllable word that has no context, just to show that you know the word—although, you probably don’t, actually—it sure as hell is elitist. But that’s the author’s insecurity, his or her need to show how he or she is more intelligent than the workaday reader. No one cares. It’s not about you. Whether you’re a genius or an idiot savant. It’s about the work. The work is more important than you. So it’s not about back-claps and plaudits and “isn’t that author smart.” It’s about, “this book really connected with me. And even though you, my friend, are very different from me, I’m lending it to you, because I think it will connect with you as well.” Community. Across the eras. Between people who have never met, who will never meet, who are nonetheless bound in something together, in different ways. That’s elitist?
Matt Mullins: Isn’t the simple fact that humanity constantly strives to create art for art’s sake (in the face of all else) proof that writing has and will continue to change the world? Language that attempts to understand the human condition by way of an imaginary telling is elitist? No, it’s human. Innately so. All of recorded history proves that stories are our equipment for living.
JM Tohline: Eh, she’s probably right about the “elitist” part. I think all good (at least all great) authors are elitists, to an extent, as I feel the terms “cocky” or “baseless confidence” or even “arrogance” could be substituted for “elitist” in this conversation.
Look at the greatest musicians throughout history. The greatest artists. The greatest athletes. Very few of them, if any, ever felt “surprised” when they accomplished the things they accomplished. All of them knew (long before anyone else knew it!) that they would achieve the things they eventually achieved.
And anyway, in order for an author to be great, their mind needs to work in a particular manner–a manner that allows them to understand people and the world in a certain way, a manner that allows them to turn into concrete thought certain observations or ideas that most people identify with but cannot necessarily verbalize on their own. Authors–really great authors–give form to the formerly-formless thoughts their readers had already.
Does writing need a message? Not at all. Writing does not even need to be art. Writing can simply be entertainment. But great writing is all these things together, without any effort to make it so. It has a message, it is art, and it is entertaining–all without “trying” to be any of these things. All by simply opening up thoughts to the reader they did not even realize they had. All by exploring naked truth.
Tara Laskowski: I think the purpose of writing overall is to entertain. We write to tell stories–we write to tell good stories. Who doesn’t love a good story? Isn’t that something about us that has always been true? I think writing is also there to reflect on and try to understand humanity. I think it’s one of the coolest things ever that we can sit down and read words, words, words, and a whole freaking world opens up in our heads that will make us mad, make us cry, make us scared off our pants, etc. That’s why writing exists, at least to me.
Matt Bell: It’s interesting to me that after a discussion about the possibility of MFA programs creating a monoculture of “MFA stories,” we’re left with Batuman trying to describe the entire spectrum of MFA programs–and it is a spectrum, as Brown is no more like Iowa than Alabama is like Michigan, all of which clearly have different structures, students, and results. Writing isn’t any one thing, and good writing is no easier to describe.
The great thing about contemporary literature is that there’s a pretty good chance there’s a style of fiction or poetry or whatever that can move every kind of person. And if there’s not, then the barriers to someone stepping in and just making that needed thing themselves are lower than ever. And whether people like Batuman believe it or not, part of the reason is MFA programs, which have probably provided a place for many more interested people to further explore the literary arts than at any other time in American culture. These programs are not the only path to the literary life—clearly not, and thankfully so!—but I’m suspicious of anyone who wants to dismiss their good works completely.
Roxane Gay: Having the luxury of the time to write is generally something that falls within the purview of the elite but to suggest, unilaterally, that writing is inherently elitist suggests a certain privilege on the part of someone who would lodge such a criticism. It is rather cynical to believe writing does not change the world. There is ample evidence to the contrary. That remark probably requires qualification. Most of us won’t change the world with our writing and it’s good to understand that. That said, writing has changed my world. Writing continues to change my world, to expand it, to improve it, and I am not alone in this.
Where is contemporary fiction headed? With the introduction of electronic readers, the addition of e-books to The New York Times bestseller lists, and Amazon’s decision to step into publishing (physical books, no less), the publishing world has undergone some dramatic shifts in the past few years. Where do you see this trend, as it pertains to readers of books and the writers who write them, taking us?
Colin Fleming: Stuff needs to change. I beg God for it to change, and for people to step forward and change it. Amazon—that’s good stuff, a good sign. Enough of the fossils and the wankery. Books are for readers. For people. For people at large. For people who aren’t in publishing, for people who have no idea—as I once blissfully had—what an MFA is.
Matt Mullins: I create digital-literary interfaces (www.lit-digital.com), and I can say emphatically that literature has left the page (and arguably did so long ago). However, it remains on the page as well and hopefully always will. What’s beautiful about literature’s evolution is that those things we found compelling remain compelling; meanwhile, we chart new territories. The end result is that as technology and literature intertwine we get new forms, which in turn impact how people can approach the older forms, which in turn project forward onto how people approach the newer forms, which…. You get the point.
People can now choose multiple ways to interact with literature, not just in terms of the devices they use to read it, but in terms of actually being able to manipulate facets of their literary experience such as the text itself and its accompanying elements. Also, the fact that so much intellect is being focused on developing technologies that facilitate people’s ability to read words in the traditional sense says a great deal about how much people still value reading itself. Add to that technology’s ability to take literature into interactive realms and you’re looking at an exciting future that combines both the traditional and the technological.
Roxane Gay: I don’t believe contemporary fiction is on a radically different trajectory from our literary predecessors. How we read is evolving, not what we read. If anything, e-readers and e-books will allow us to think in more dimensions and bring more hypertextuality into our writing, if we so choose. I reckon this trend will take us wherever we want to go.
Matt Bell: I wish more writers spent half as much time thinking about where writing might go, instead of just publishing. As Roxane says, right now it’s only how we’re reading that’s changing, not what. And that’s a shame, because the true future of literature doesn’t belong to the person who can do the most with the e-book. Instead, as always, it belongs only to those who can make new and necessary magic with word and sentence and story. I can’t wait to read their books, regardless of what mediums they’re delivered by.
Tara Laskowski: I think it’s scary and exciting how publishing is changing. I still want quality control, though. I still want bookstores and pretty book covers, even though I liked reading “Macbeth” on my husband’s Kindle. I still want agents and independent publishers and those giant publishing houses that seem so intimidating and who we complain about. I still want someone or some process to say to me: this has been vetted and we think this is good. At the same time, I love all the small press publishers and I love all the online literary magazines and the opportunities that writers trying to break into the publishing world have now. I think there are a lot more opportunities to get noticed and get your work out there. But I’m a little afraid of change, so it takes me awhile to adjust to new ways.
JM Tohline: When you know the answer to this, go ahead and give me a call. Until then…all these things are out of my hands! And my job is to write. And that’s what I’ll keep doing.
ABOUT THE SERIES
Six Degrees Left dismantles the walls of literary elitism through open and frank dialogue between leading writers, critics, and thinkers on topics that matter. Six Degrees Left keeps its fingers on the pulse and beat of everyday culture by exploring old topics in new ways. Send in your questions, comments, and topic suggestions to laceyd [at] atticusbooks [dot] net.
Matt Bell is the author of How They Were Found (Keyhole Press, 2010) and Cataclysm Baby (Mud Luscious Press, 2012). His fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and American Short Fiction, among others. He is the editor at Dzanc Books and of the literary magazine The Collagist. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan and teaches writing at the University of Michigan.
Colin Fleming is a freelance writer and short fiction author whose work has appeared in Slate, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Tin House, and The New York Times Book Review. He has completed a short story collection, Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories, and is working on two novels and a memoir about listening to, and living with, the music of the Beatles.
Roxane Gay is the co-editor of PANK and publisher of Tiny Hardcore Press. Her work has appeared in New Stories From the Midwest 2011, Best Sex Writing 2012, NOON, Black Warrior Review, and Cream City Review, among others. She is the author of the collection Ayiti (Artistically Declined Press, October 2011) and an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University.
Tara Laskowski is senior editor of SmokeLong Quarterly. Her work has appeared in The Mid-American Review, The Los Angeles Review, Corium, and Monkeybicycle, among others, and she has completed a novel, Black Diamond City. She lives in Northern Virginia.
Matt Mullins writes fiction, screenplays, and poetry. He also makes experimental films and designs digital interfaces for his poems and stories. His written work has appeared in Pleiades, Mid-American Review, Hunger Mountain, and Descant, among others. He is the author of Three Ways of the Saw (Atticus Books, February 2012) and a professor at Ball State University.
JM Tohline is author of The Great Lenore (Atticus Books, June 2011) and is currently working on a manuscript called Blue the Person. He lives in a quiet house on the edge of the Great Plains with his cat, The Old Man And The Sea.