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I'm That Guy in Your MFA
You know the one! The shower curtain guy!
Initially, I was going to do an elaborate intro, ironizing my confession that I myself am That Guy in Your MFA. But then I remembered that I’ve already referenced my instructors and the life of an MFA student more than once in this space. If you’ve been reading this newsletter for a while, you’re aware that I am not only in an MFA program; I newsletter with the verbose snootiness of That Guy.
In real life, I’ve often been That Guy. I reference my reading in the canon—anyone here read Middlemarch?—too much. I sometimes tease or challenge my instructors more than they’d like. I talk too much in class. I get defensive and wounded about critiques of my work. I drink a lot of beers after workshop. I did the shower curtain thing.
Most MFA students do some of these things, some of the time, with the possible exception of my ingenious shower curtain solution. But I probably get closer to That Guy-dom than most grad students in creative writing. It’s just how I am. I was raised by a novelist and have spent my whole life around fiction writers, ensuring that I was always going to have opinions about How Writers Should Be. And basically the only way I have of concealing my opinion about something is to leave the room (or close Twitter), which can be hard when you have to soldier through a three-hour workshop. By the time I arrived at an MFA—in my case, at the University of Montana in Missoula—it was a done deal that I’d act overly knowing, and let everyone else know what thought I knew.
Today is the first day of classes at the dear ol’ U, and the start of my final year as an MFA student has me wistful. I figured I’d try outlining some of the thoughts I’ve had about the uses of MFAs for writers, by way of dispelling a few stale myths—and maybe cooking up some tasty new ones. I’ve picked out three shibboleths to address. If you think I’m arguing against a straw man, or that I’m just wrong and stupid, please say so in the comments. It’s good for engagement metrics.
(Also the points in this piece could in theory apply to any well-run, intensive community of critique. This isn’t so much an endorsement of the specific institution of the MFA as it is an endorsement of what it can do, which can be replicated elsewhere, if you want (or need) to reinvent the wheel.)
Myth #1: MFAs are a scam and no talented writer should get one
I hear this a lot out in the wilds of Twitter. I get it. Grad school can be a bad idea, in any field. It can create more problems for you even (or especially) when it feels like it should be solving them. If anyone is on the fence about doing an MFA in fiction writing, or just wants to chat about that decision generally, you can email me or hit the comments and I’ll try to respond as helpfully as I can.
The fact is that MFAs nonetheless are often invaluable to even the most gifted writers. That’s because a workshop-based MFA forces you to learn things about your own writing that you couldn’t learn sitting by yourself in the dark and brooding over your own brilliant prose. I don’t mean that you’ll learn discrete secrets that, if they indeed existed, could be put into a craft manual or a Twitter thread. I mean that you’ll learn what a Borgesian library of craft manuals couldn’t teach: How you’re actually being read.
What MFA workshops guarantee is that you’ll hear in detail how other literate people read your work. You’ll hear it over and over again, from different people and about different work, for years. You’ll hear it dutifully and at length, in a setting where your peers are goaded into unfurling their criticisms in a way that rarely happens elsewhere. You’ll hear it from people who are colleagues but also often friends, even as they’re your most incisive and exacting critics. This is all essentially impossible to find outside of an organized, intentionally built community of critique. It turns out to be transformative for perhaps the majority of writers who go through it.
These other literate people reading your work could all be dead wrong, I suppose. They haven’t been wrong in my case. I learned a staggering amount in one year of being workshopped, including getting the cues I needed to completely change course on my current novel. It became much better—truer to the characters, more insightful about its themes, and more fun to read—after I incorporated the critiques I heard when I workshopped a chunk of an early draft. I will always owe this program, and that workshop group specifically, for that.
You don’t know what readers think until you ask them, and it really matters what they think, if you plan to be read. Learn to ask, and learn to listen to the answer. Admitting that this question and answer is a worthwhile thing to seek is the first and probably most important step towards getting something out of an MFA or any other writing community.
Nevertheless, quite a few great writers, living and dead, would resist the communal glow of the MFA hearth. Sometimes you can be truly great at something without listening to literally anyone. Fiction writing is probably one of those things. But you can make it easier on yourself by accepting that fiction is meant to be read, and thus needs to care about its readers in some sense, even when it’s weird or difficult or trolly. Which brings me to…
Myth #2: MFAs encourage (or enforce) aesthetic uniformity
I can’t speak for anyone else, but the best-received stories I’ve turned in to workshop here have been science fiction. The most widely liked of them was a story narrated by a robot. It was the most purely genre writing I’ve ever done. This went over well even though Montana that has Kept the Old Gods. Our faculty and alumni have long been most commonly associated with the various strains of “realism” that are the traditional bread and butter of MFAs. So if I can get a warm reception for robot stories here, I mean, I figure you can get away with a lot Back East At NYU.
Instructors are only human, of course, as are your peers. There’s an eternal dialectic in any arts instruction between the fact that we all have something to offer by way of critique and wisdom, and the fact that our experience of the work in question is subjective and ephemeral. We end up talking about what a story does to us, and maybe only us. Sometimes this necessarily means pushing writers in one direction or another. Lynne Steger Strong strong puts it well:
It is not the workshop’s job to tell you what to do. It’s nearly impossible for readers, especially readers who are writers, not to be prescriptive. They think you need to kill Anya, but you love Anya. They think you need that scene in the coffee shop to go away, but that scene is the heart of your whole piece. They aren’t making these suggestions because they are absolutely the right choices; it’s because the way you’ve presented these parts of your story up until now hasn’t made those characters or moments feel inevitable and imperative. In other words, whenever someone tells you what to do, and you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to listen. At the same time, spend some time trying to imagine why they told you what they told you so that you might strengthen, and make that much more effective, all the aspects of the piece that you most want to keep.
You are guaranteed to hear strong, sweeping prescriptions at various points if you go to an MFA program. I give them to my peers all the time in workshop, often after saying, “I don’t want to be too prescriptive, but….” Learning to sift through the critiques you’ve received and not react strongly (or at all) to every one of them is one of the basic skills that makes being a writer—or a user of Twitter—less miserable.
Though it must be said, the misery should also get its due. What is an MFA for, if not to find peers with whom you can share the timeless burden of writerly unhappiness?
Myth #3: You can’t hang a shower curtain with clothes hangers and a piece of dental floss
It works fine. Sometimes the people criticizing your work really are dead wrong.
Calvin and Hobbes Corner
It’s that crucial time in a multi-strip Calvin and Hobbes arc: The Sunday strip interlude:
Watterson liked to cordon off the first two panels of the big Sunday strips. Sometimes they had little to do with what came after, though in this case they lead in almost seamlessly to the rest of the strip. Watterson was full of complaints about the space constraints he was working under, which will seem quaint to those of working with, say, Twitter. I imagine he liked to leave the title panel fairly free of story so it could be all the more visually sumptuous and detailed. The man loves to paint trees.
One way to describe what Calvin and Hobbes is about would be to say that a six-year-old is continually taught to be aware of and care about the desires and needs of others, and continually fails to take away the obvious lesson. I hate to say this as someone on the verge of 30, but I relate all too easily to Calvin asserting that “morale is high” without taking the time to ask anyone else how they’re feeling. When you’re constantly embroidering the story inside yourself, you can forget there are other characters.
Hobbes seems to always win physical fights with Calvin. Which makes sense—he’s a tiger. It’s a wonder he doesn’t turn to violence to get his way more often. Hobbes is chaotic good in that way. Fay-like, you can never quite predict what he’s going to do in a given situation, since he veers between wise moral guide and selfish jungle cat, and other roles besides. In this case, he’s unwittingly helping get the expedition where it really needs to go: Home.
Other fun things
— We’re reading this Carrie Vaughn story on my podcast this week and it’s well worth your time. I think it’s utopian, while my cohost disagrees, but either way it’s an interesting imagining of a sincere effort at egalitarian living
— Speaking of MFAs, here’s a nice deep dive into some craft questions by my workshop leader last semester, Justin Taylor
— If you want some useful data to help you cut through the noise about the worsening eviction crisis, Matthew Desmond’s lab has your back
Frank Stanford on prisons