Debate is Not Hate

Let me be perfectly clear: I am not against MFA programs.

My essay in the Millions was originally titled The Big Thing: 10 Thoughts on Moving from “Story” to “Book.” Wisely, the editors re-titled my piece “The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis.” Their provocative title prompted many people to read and share and discuss the essay-which is good. But perhaps it also raised the hackles of creative writing faculty-which is not good.

(BTW: Here’s a short history of the recent spate of MFA Program Critiques that have come out in the last year or so.)

Today I discovered this article by Elise Blackwell published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The real subject of this essay is the importance of geographic diversity in one’s literary upbringing. I support this idea wholeheartedly. As a native Midwesterner who earned her MFA in the South, I’m living proof that a writing apprenticeship doesn’t have to take place in an East Coast urban center as some might believe-and I tell my students this, year after year after year.

But for some reason, her wonderful argument was prefaced by pointing to “anti-MFA online hate,” and my essay was included as an example of said hate, a “dismissal” and a “strike to the heart” of writing programs.

This distresses and angers me. And I want to respond, because it’s important to my students-past, present, and future-that I not be unfairly categorized as some sort of zealot.

And this is why:

There’s a file on my computer called “Recommendations.” Right now, there are about 100 letters in that file written over the last 15 years. A lot of those letters were written in support of my students’ efforts to get jobs, scholarships, internships, to get into law school, into writers’ conferences and colonies, into all kinds of graduate programs.

But most importantly, I write a lot of letters on behalf of students trying for a dwindling number of open slots in two very competitive applicant pools: the academic teaching-position pool, and the MFA admissions pool. The letters I write for those students are read by creative writing faculty, and I need those folks in particular to hear me say this: I am not Anis Shivani.

My essay was not an attempt to tar and feather an entire discipline or those devoted to teaching within that discipline. I merely wanted to start a conversation among my fellow teachers of creative writing. I’m not someone on the outside of the ivory tower looking in, throwing stones. I’ve been inside this system for twenty years.

And in the last few years, I’d started noticing something:

  • A lot of young writers I knew (online and f2f) were graduating with MFA theses comprised of short stories and were having a tough time finding a publisher for those books. They were frustrated with their literary apprenticeship, with the realities of the publishing market, but also with themselves.
  • A lot of young writers I knew were trying to move from the writing of disparate stories and essays to the writing of books, but were struggling to do so. Some were motivated by the aforementioned frustrations, but in most cases, they were making this move because writing a novel or novel-in-stories was their lifelong dream.
  • A lot of young writers I knew said they felt discouraged from bringing novels and “big things” to workshop. Some of those young writers were my own students. Yes, my own undergraduate and graduate students said they regularly submitted short stories to fulfill my workshop requirements while writing longer works on their own, outside the workshop environment. Note: if I was blaming anyone in my Millions essay, I blamed myself. Front and center. Number 1 of my 10 thoughts.

Such a series of circumstances represented to me a puzzle worth solving. Why was this happening? Granted, not everyone agrees that these circumstances even exist, which is fine. But personally, I thought it was something worth investigating. And because I am a writer, I wrote about that investigation. I also started this blog as a way to share this investigation with others.

I’m not sure what (besides the headline of my essay, which was not written by me) would cause anyone to lump my inquiry into any category that includes “hate.”

Granted, Blackwell is careful to differentiate between me and Shivani. “The most extreme arguments” she says, “are akin to scenarios like Palin’s “death panels” in which groups of well-credentialed whitebread writers plot the exclusion of the interesting and talented.”

Yeah, wow, that’s not referring to me.

Instead, mine is the “softer imagination” that “blames a vaguer villain: workshop process among tables of people-pleasers.”

Well, my goodness, I’m certainly not the first person to assert that the workshop process has a downside. Mark McGurl in The Program Era calls it a form of retraction or “shame management.” Chad Harbach calls it the MFA vs. NYC divide. Even veteran creative writing teacher Madison Smartt Bell, in his introduction to Narrative Design, maintains that “there [are] enormous, crushing pressures to conform” in fiction workshops, but the pressure comes not “from any teacher but from the students themselves. It [is] a largely unconscious exercise in groupthink and in many aspects it really was quite frightening.”

None of these arguments represent “hatred” of MFA programs. They represent sound reflection and critical inquiry. The Creative Writing Program system keeps growing. Do we (and by “we,” I mean the thousands of people employed to teach creative writing in this country) do we really expect that such a boom will go unremarked upon? And does remarking on it constructively and rationally constitute a condemnation of said system?

I hope not.

For the last few days, I’ve been working on an AWP panel proposal on the topics I raised in my Millions essay, and I’m really excited about it. Three writer/teachers have committed to participate, most of them MFA program directors, and they are intrigued (not exasperated) by the perfectly healthy conversation that’s arisen out of my Millions essay. I hope that the panel is accepted so the conversation can continue.

CW Programs Writing

11 comments

  1. Ian Long says:

    Glad you mentioned the McGurl book–thought that was a pretty provocative look at the state of creative writing programs (and what we take as crystallized being quite fluid–unless, of course, you want to radically change).

    Does an east coast bias really exist for MFA programs? I always thought the ultimate destinations for any creative writer were Iowa or Stanford or Buffalo…didn’t think the East really had much in the way of established creative writing tracks. A friend of mine who graduated from NYU with an English degree bemoans her $100,000 debt for what she called “the privilege of saying I went to NYU.” Hmm.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Ian, I think “going to school out East” has always carried a certain status. When I taught in NJ and PA, many of my students would only consider programs in the East. I remember recommending a program in Idaho to one student who was deciding between law school and an MFA. A week later, he told me he’d decided to go to law school. When I asked him why, he said, “Well, you recommended I go to Idaho, which must mean that you don’t think I’m a very good writer, so I guess I’ll go to law school.” 🙂

  2. Cathy Day says:

    Ian, I think “going to school out East” has always carried a certain status. When I taught in NJ and PA, many of my students would only consider programs in the East. I remember recommending a program in Idaho to one student who was deciding between law school and an MFA. A week later, he told me he’d decided to go to law school. When I asked him why, he said, “Well, you recommended I go to Idaho, which must mean that you don’t think I’m a very good writer, so I guess I’ll go to law school.” 🙂

  3. Lowry Pei says:

    A field that is incapable of critical reflection on its own practice is decadent and incapable of self-renewal. You’re doing the right thing whether people appreciate that or not.

  4. Lowry Pei says:

    A field that is incapable of critical reflection on its own practice is decadent and incapable of self-renewal. You’re doing the right thing whether people appreciate that or not.

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