Take My Survey about Novels in MFA Programs

Take My Survey about Novels in MFA Programs

“Of all the ambient commonplaces about MFA programs, perhaps the only accurate one is that the programs are organized around the story form.” Chad Harbach said this in his n+1/Slate essay, “MFA or NYC?” Do you think he’s right? I want to know. I’ve created two Survey Monkey surveys, one for faculty, one for students (past and present).

Survey for Graduate Faculty

Survey for MFA Students (Past and Present)

Remember: this is about graduate creative writing programs, not undergraduate.

Because your response will be anonymous, I hope you will provide honest answers. 

Survey Sample 

  • True or False: It is unreasonable to expect an MFA student to complete a publishable novel during an MFA program.
  • True or False: The best way to learn how to write fiction is develop some level of mastery over the short story before moving on to novels.
  • True or False: It is the responsibility of MFA programs to “professionalize” students about the business of fiction writing.
  • True or False: Mentoring a novelist takes more of a faculty’s limited time than mentoring students in other genres and forms.

Each survey asks 10 questions requiring a simple True or False answer. Each survey asks the same questions. And I’ll be honest here: one of the things I’m curious about is whether there’s a disconnect between what MFA faculty believe they are doing and what students perceive.  

Should take just a minute or two. Please consider the questions carefully, answer, and then (this is important) please share this post widely via social media so that I can gather a range of responses.

I’m doing this in preparation for my AWP panel, “A Novel Problem: Moving from “Story” to “Book” in the MFA Program,” which is scheduled for Thursday, March 1 from 12:00-1:15 PM in the Lake Michigan Room at the Hilton Chicago. I’m moderating, and the panelists are, David Haynes, Patricia Henley, Sheila O’Connor, and Elizabeth Stuckey-French. I will share the results of the survey at the panel in Chicago.

So: help me out here. Take the survey. Share it with your friends and colleagues. And let the discussion begin.

Description of the Panel

Short stories are often our main pedagogical tools, but the book is the primary unit of literary production. When are apprentice writers “ready” to write novels, and how do we review them in a workshop setting? How can we create courses that encourage students to move toward and complete book projects? This panel will explore the challenges of accommodating the novel or the novel-in-stories within the structure of an MFA program and in the classroom.

Statement of Merit

A recent essay on this topic by the panel’s organizer prompted a good deal of response. Some claim that MFA programs are subtly (or deliberately) “anti-novel.” That theory is disproved by the faculty panelists, who have experience mentoring in MFA program settings. They will share their best practices with the audience. 

Resources

Here’s a brief list of other articles that have come out in the last year or so related to the topic of our panel: 

Brian Joseph Davis,  “Why MFA Programs Matter.” Huffington Post.

Anelise Chen. “On Blowing My Load: Thoughts from Inside the MFA Ponzi Scheme.” The Rumpus.

John Stazinski, “A Novel Approach: Learning to Write More than Stories.” Poets & Writers, the January/February 2012 issue, print only. 

CW Programs Teaching Writing

16 comments

  1. Lydia says:

    I guess when you consider preparing students for a profession, the question is which profession? Commercial writer or academic writer? If the latter, it’s possible mastering the short story might actually be more useful… or at least as useful.

    • Cathy Day says:

      That question/statement was difficult to phrase. My sense is that most MFA and PhD programs have some mechanism in place to professionalize students about how to “enter the profession,” how to create a CV, how to apply for a job. Sometimes these forums are more geared to PhD students, but MFA’s can still learn the “academic” side of the profession. But I think there is a real hesitancy in MFA programs to talk about the writing side of the profession: What do I do when I finish this book I’m writing? How do I build a career as a writer? A lot of times, these conversations happen privately, between mentor and ment-ee, but sometimes not. There are good reasons to NOT allow such conversations. In fact, when I answer that question (and this will surprise some people) I say TRUE, although I have been incorporating some “business” lectures into my classes regarding how to prepare and submit a manuscript, how to start a blog, etc. I don’t know if an MFA program can necessarily teach you everything, but I also know that more and more MFA students want (and expect) this kind of information. I wanted to see how faculty felt about that. I think this short story vs. novel issue has a lot to do with the anxiety our students have about their writing futures and what’s happening in the publishing world. I can’t say I blame them.

  2. Katy says:

    I’m interested in this survey as someone with an MFA in creative nonfiction. I felt there were very parallel problems concerning the full-length manuscript vs essay-length pieces of nonfiction. Some of the faculty in my program spent a LOT of time preparing us for the business of writing, of publishing, even of working as a freelance writer (for magazines, corporate communications, etc.), which I found invaluable since that’s how I now make the bulk of my income. Should I take your survey?

  3. Cris Mazza says:

    I took this survey, but need to point out: I teach in a PhD program. Those students are with us for 6 years, sometimes more. This better facilitates working on a novel, especially a first novel (which might mean several false-starts). What this offers the master’s students (who are in the same workshops) is the atmosphere that fosters long-term projects, as well as peers who are experienced in “workshopping” longer works-in-progress. The questions on the survey did seem geared *only* toward MFA programs, which *are* (and are *necessarily*) different from PhD programs. We are preparing students for the academy, there’s no *other* reason to spend 6 years getting a PhD, so CV building, developing teaching-areas, learning to do a comprehensive job-talk, these are all part of the experience. My students’ work is so diverse, talking about “what sells” is not useful; most don’t view themselves as commercial fiction writers, most view independent literary presses as the lifeblood of the kind of literature they read and write. I handle the publishing asked of their education on an individual basis, except that in workshop we may discuss trends, fads, drastic changes and anomalies in the publishing world (as subjects come up naturally). Regarding students learning to write novels: It is sometimes true that students who have focused on the short story form frequently have difficulty shifting to the novel. But building an effective collection (book) of stories is also an art. Attempting the “novel in stories” is sometimes their tactic to move to novel-writing, and I believe this makes the transition *more* difficult, and I believe writing an effective novel-in-stories is far more difficult than people believe; not usually a good choice to “learn to write a novel.”

    • Cathy Day says:

      Cris, I’m a long-time fan of your work, and I’m honored that you responded here. Thank you. Yes, I didn’t include the PhD in CW, only b/c right now, there aren’t as many of them as MFA programs, but I expect that WILL change. And I agree with you that the novel in stories is much more difficult than it seems. Thank you.

  4. Sarshi says:

    I haven’t taken your survey – nor will I. Because I’m not a student in an MFA, even if I am writing. I might answer a few questions, though…

    I’m actually a student in a cultural studies MA far, far away in Romania, a country where there’s only one Creative Writing Master’s that I know of. I’ve never actually had any connection with it and it’s been put on standby anyway due to some sort of conundrum with the Law of Education. Which makes me, I suppose, pretty much self-taught in the art of writing, with a very helpful friend, who is also an editor, mentoring me for a short while a few years back.

    Nowadays when it comes to writing there’s just me and the keyboard and a bunch of people on the sidelines seeing what I do and cheering me on. And now there’s your blog which I ran into when I was trying to find out what it is that you do when you enter a creative writing program. I keep reading because it gives me an inkling of the outside writing world. I feel encouraged to know that problems like “short story” vs. “novel” are not mine alone.

    I won’t answer your survey in the form since I’m really not the target for them. But a few of them I feel I can answer.

    “The best way to learn how to write fiction is develop some level of mastery over the short story before moving on to novels.”

    False and true. It depends on where you are, what you’re trying to write and what ‘some level of mastery’ means.

    If you’re where I was a few years back and are absolutely terrible with style, I think short stories are the best way to go. They’re easier to throw into the rubbish bin when you realize they’re rubbish and you never want to see them again. With novels the despair you feel when you throw them away is much greater. Even if you just want to rewrite, not entirely abandon, with novels things can get messy and painful.

    On the other hand, if you’re at the point right after that, if style is not your biggest issue and you feel daring, doing something like NaNoWriMo can help because you realize what writing a novel means and you learn a lot when you look back and think, “Oh, if only I’d [insert something sensible here]“. Although I think NaNo has its drawbacks as well…

    But I don’t think achieving perfection in short stories is necessary to become a perfect novel writer. The forms are too different. You might never be able to bottle essences or, conversely, to hold too many plots and details together. You might even be, horror of horrors, too average for anybody to ever remembr a single thing you wrote in one of those forms. It doesn’t mean you fail at both.

    “It is unreasonable to expect an MFA student to complete a publishable novel during an MFA program.”

    I think it depends on the writer and the novel. Sometimes you get a Susanna Clarke who needs 10 years to write a complex alternate universe tome-sized novel, at other times you get a speed-writer who can do things fast and well and is going for something decently easy. Those two are not the same thing and you can’t expect the first kind of writer to complete a publishable novel, while I think you really can and maybe should demand it of the second kind.

    “In the program I attend or attended, workshops prepared me for thesis work. ”

    I’m not going to answer this. But I’ll comment on it. I really wish people who wanted to write any sort of thing intended for publication, fiction or non-fiction, casual or academic, would take at least a semester-long creative writing class. Creative writing by default makes you pay attention to what words you use, what your sentences look like, how readable what you write is. Those things transfer over into anything you write and sometimes you need them.

    Those were my two cents. I’m sorry for the length of my reply and even sorrier if you didn’t want my opinion at all :)

    Sarshi.

  5. Sarah says:

    For #7, “It is unreasonable to expect an MFA student to complete a publishable novel during an MFA program,” I marked false, but with footnotes: program duration, novel length, students’ teaching load/available time, the level of their writing when they begin the program (and their writing speed, as Sarshi noted), all would lead to different outcomes in different combinations. Three year programs make novels much more generally feasible, allowing crucial time to try things out, develop one’s voice and sense of structure, and mentoring relationships with faculty—even if the novel itself takes 2 years or less.

  6. Aaron Hamburger says:

    This survey is a great idea! I took the survey, but I just wanted to mention that one of the questions confused me a bit because of the wording: “I do not discourage students from workshopping novel chapters, true or false.” A lot of negatives to jump through there–I had to put my high school math thinking cap back on to make sure I was answering it correctly. Just in case, what I meant was that yes, students can workshop whatever they want in my classes, even a romance novel, as long as they abide by the page limits, and even then, they can go over them by a page or two…

  7. Chris Daly says:

    I want to comment on the same question Sarah did above (“7. It is unreasonable to expect an MFA student to complete a publishable novel during an MFA program.”)
    While I answered “True” to this, I also feel that this is program-dependent. I earned my MFA through the Stonecoast low-residency program back in ’05. When I entered, my plan was to do a novel. But the constraints of a low-res program – not to mention that one continues to live a full-time life outside of the program – caused me to abandon that plan during the very first residency. Some students pulled it off, and I tip my figurative hat to them, but it’s incredibly difficult. It’s a much more reasonable expectation in a full-time MFA program, or a PhD program. Not in a low-res MFA.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Chris,

      See Jon’s comment above.

      I don’t know a lot about low-res programs, but my sense has always been that they might be MORE conducive to novel-writing than residential programs: because there aren’t weekly workshops, because a novel probably needs to be drafted in solitude, then brought to the table for discussion. But your observation about available writing time is also quite relevant!

  8. Jon Sealy says:

    Sounds like an interesting panel, Cathy. In my MFA program I workshopped almost nothing but stories while lugging around a secret novel that I pulled out for my thesis year. Purdue has a third year where you just teach and work on your thesis; I don’t think I could have worked on a novel-thesis while workshopping stories.

    To me, the key difference between the forms, which I think is implicit in Harbach’s piece, has to do with community. When you sit down to write, you’re on your own. But if you’re working on stories, you can write a story in a week and turn it in for a workshop and get something out of the workshop. You can build a community of regular reading and discussion around stories, which can be manufactured and read relatively quickly. (Not to say they always are, just that it’s possible.) That community doesn’t have to be an MFA program or a literary journal or an English department, but it often is.

    Whereas with a novel you’re on your own for much longer — maybe not 10 years, as in Harbach’s case, but long enough. I don’t see how you could get something out of workshopping a first chapter that you wrote in a week. Without a draft, or at least significant time to assemble a coherent vision, it seems like communal input does more harm than good. At least, that’s my experience; everyone I know who ever workshopped a chapter of an unfinished book eventually abandoned said book — and usually not long after the workshop.

    I was really intrigued by your analysis of Downton Abbey’s opening, the reason being that the opening is so staged. There seems to be a fair amount of staging to do in a novel, but you can’t stage anything unless the material is there to begin with.

  9. Cathy Day says:

    Chris,

    See Jon’s comment above.

    I don’t know a lot about low-res programs, but my sense has always been that they might be MORE conducive to novel-writing than residential programs: because there aren’t weekly workshops, because a novel probably needs to be drafted in solitude, then brought to the table for discussion. But your observation about available writing time is also quite relevant!

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