My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Mailbox: What Is My Problem With.... (Part 1)

What is your problem with MFA's/ Literary Events/ Not Writing Every Day/ NaNoWriMo/ Camps Classes? 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I can't promise not to mock you if your obviously trolling question asks about things I've already explained.]  

Our Blogust Hate-Mail-a-Thon continues with a bunch of people who apparently lack the reading comprehension skills to answer their own questions. Even though all of these questions usually have answers in the exact articles the people are reacting to, I will be answering them. Because hate mail.

Matt asks:

Okay have you ever actually been through an MFA writing program. You are awfully judgey about something you haven't experienced. So what if it's not the most useful degree or I'm not published yet?

My reply:

Jesus Matt, I'd be okay if it were the hundredth most useful degree. This isn't about some close-but-no-cigar rank of awesomeness. I literally know people in charge of hiring who would rather have simple post-grads than MFA's because at least "they'll be less pretentious." The creative writing MFA is so well known for having almost no utility (beyond opening the door to teaching other creative writing MFA's) that it is regularly compared to a ponzi scheme.

Most MFA graduates will never make $50,000 from creative writing. (In fact, most will never make 5% of that amount.) Of course the pedagogy of the MFA is pretty solidly in the "we're not about the money" camp.

Think about that for a second.

How many advanced degrees out there do you know of that are almost proud of the fact that they will never pay for themselves with the skill set they teach?

This is the very reason at most rigorous schools the MFA has been replaced with a lit-heavy MA program in writing. At least then the student walks out with a Masters in English.

I haven't been through a masters level writing program, but I did sit next to masters students in my undergrad creative writing program. They were sitting next to me. They had more work, but we were taking the same classes. I know they got some more intense craft classes, though they often shared that the lack of formal structure in their workshops made them arguably worse than the undergrads'.

More to the point, I don't need to experience everything to trust the feedback of thousands. I also haven't been eviscerated, smelled Naples in the blistering summer after the mafia took a few months off, or had my testicles crushed by a bowling ball, but I'm pretty sure I don't have to experience them to know they wouldn't be pleasant.

Especially that bowling ball thing. That hurt just to write.

Here's the thing that maybe you forgot, Matt. When MFA's in Creative Writing finish up, they have this skill called writing creatively. Combine that with my ability to read, and whole worlds open up of empathetic experience. So I read what dozens, perhaps hundreds of MFA graduates think of their experience. They write about how much time they wasted in vivid, sensual detail. They write with concrete language about how useless the whole experience was. With beautiful turns of phrase and brilliantly rendered emotions, they make me feel as if I were right there with them going fifty grand into debt.

You can even play the home version of my game. Google "Creative Writing MFA's" and spend an afternoon reading (the same way I did). Or, if you don't want to shlep through the losers, go straight to published authors. At any point in time the New York Times bestseller list is about 1/3 to 1/2 MFA's (which means over half of the best selling published writers never got one). Further, if you ask those writers about their MFA's most of them have some pretty disparaging things to say about the role their MFA played in their success.

It's not that MFA's are useless or won't help people learn to write. They're not and they will. It's just that they're expensive and they have a risk vs. reward that should be considered carefully instead of casually as the "I don't know what else to do next" step.

For those who have $50,000 dollars burning a hole in their pocket or are just fine with 15 years of student loans, who aren't doing anything for the next three years, and who appreciate the "high art"/no genre aesthetic that most MFA's will enforce, it is a personal decision. I have a friend who says it's the best thing she ever did and writes gorgeously every time in part thanks to her MFA. I have another friend who cursed the fact that she got the same job she would have without it, and she could have been four years further along in her career, debt free, and looking at houses with her husband by now. Finding yourself, growing as a writer and a person, having close critical examination of your work, and discovering your inner voice is great (I mean that; it really is), but 50k is an awfully big price tag.

For people without the financial advantage to be so cavalier, it's tough to justify a degree whose most ostensibly useful moments could be reproduced by attending authors' readings, finding a sincere and dedicated writing group, spending a few grand on a professional editor, spending about 48 hours all told doing research online, and then just doing it.

My problem with MFA's isn't people who like them or who know what they're getting into. As I've said again and again, my problem with MFA's is that for most writers who just want to be published novelists it is not as useful as applying butt to chair and just doing it. People who are too timid to just do it or don't know that their career trajectory is probably going to be ten years to a decent paycheck think of an MFA as "the next logical step." And for a lot of people in a lot of situations, it isn't logical at all.

"Dan" says: 

I go to literary events all the time[,] loser. You should stop being such an elitist cocksucker and mingle with the plebs. You don't even know what you're missing! They're a great place to hook up with lit sluts. 

My reply:

Where do I even begin? At least you used the right "they're."

The sum and substance of my negativity towards literary events is as follows. A) They're not my scene. B) They usually cost writers money. C) No writer (that I'm aware of) ever said it was the literary events that made them.

It's not as if I've never been. We often had to go to them or got extra credit for it when I was in my creative writing program, and a good 20% of my friends are writers, so if we're all getting together on a Friday, I pretty much know where we're going to end up.

So I've been. It's not some big unknown mystery. I know that there's a lot of people, a lot of drinking, and a lot of talking into a microphone. I'm a visual processor with A.D.D. I have a very hard time if I can't see the words I'm hearing. I always had to take copious notes in college when I had professors who just liked to talk. I don't really drink. I don't like crowds.

Can you see where this is going?

If they're your thing, that's great. You should lit-event it up. Some of the people I went through my creative writing program with love literary events, and to them I would say "You should go. It'll be a hoot that might inspire you." I even have one colleague who helps coordinate a local series. They're just not my thing. (Neither is using homophobic slurs as pejoratives, for the record.)

If you are on your way out to have a couple of drinks anyway, literary events are a lot of fun. But look around, Dan. The people in that room have spent $15-20 on drinks, maybe a $5-10 cover charge for the event. Maybe the speakers get a drink comped or sell a copy of their book, but chances are the event probably costs them money. It certainly costs money to every writer in the audience.

(And just so you know, it is considered very VERY uncouth to only go to literary events when you are performing unless you have been solicited as the keynote reader. That's a major no no. You have to go as a viewer more often than not. So you will end up in the audience, spending money, most of the time.)

The venue owner probably has a big smile on their face, and maybe someone in charge of a coordinating and promoting regular events is scraping out a paycheck, but all the writers are probably spending money.

Even the free events that happen in bookstores are usually about getting a bunch of bibliophiles into a bookstore. It's usually pretty good for the bookstore.

If this were a vital step on the way to being a recognized writer, I'd be the first to let you know. I've read hundreds of books on writing and thousands of quotes, and here's something you just don't see big time writers say: "Go to literary events. They will help launch your career."

It's just not something they say.

Instead most of them talk about how literary events can be one of the distractions that writers face instead of just writing. Some writers get wrapped up in their "networking" and "connections" and end up in bars listening to people read more than they actually write. That's no good.

So you should go get your drink on if you want to go get your drink on, but don't act like it's clearly the next step in your catapult to fame and fortune.

But now I can add one more reason not to want to go to literary events. I might see you there.

Part 2--Nano, Classes and Camps, and Writing Every Day

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