My critique of a critique of MFA programs

My critique of a critique of MFA programs

CW Programs

There’s a long history of articles about the impact of MFA programs on contemporary literature. The latest addition to this oeuvre is “How Has the MFA Changed the Contemporary Novel?” just published by The Atlantic. What’s different about this one: the authors fed 200 novels into a computer–100 by writers with MFAs and 100 by writers without MFAs–and used computational text analysis to study the diction, style, theme, setting, and characters of these novels.

Here are my thoughts:

Creative writing has become a big business—it’s estimated that it currently contributes more than $200 million a year in revenue to universities in the U.S.

I’m not sure how to evaluate this figure since the authors have linked to a 51-page pdf of Mark McGurl’s book The Program Era, which I have read. I just spent about ten minutes of my life scrolling through that pdf to find that $200,000 figure, but gave up. Which makes me wonder why the authors couldn’t have simply said, “According to Mark McGurl…” Another thing I wonder is if this figure includes only tuition payments or if it also includes the savings to universities–who are able to pay MFA candidates a small salary and NOT offer them health insurance (compared to paying TT or contingent faculty) to teach first-year writing courses.

We collected a sample of 200 novels written by graduates of MFA programs from over 20 leading programs (including Columbia, University of Texas at Austin, Iowa, and others) that have been published in the last 15 years.

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Last Lecture: What matters more: Story or Sentence?

Last Lecture: What matters more: Story or Sentence?

Teaching Writing

Every time I teach novel writing, I end the semester with a “Last Lecture” on a topic that’s been on my mind all semester long. Last spring, I wrote about learning to self-identify as a writer; this post, “Am I Writer?” has been viewed about 1,500 times. And Google Analytics tells me that people spend an average of eight minutes on this post–which is not that surprising when you consider how urgently people need an answer to that question. This semester, I’ve decided to write about whether a novelist should focus more on The Story or The Sentence.

Kameron and Kayla won my “Most Words Drafted Contest”? Why? What set them apart? 

Both wrote scene-driven fiction with lots of dialogue. They took my advice and “sketched” their novels, temporarily suspending concern for “good writing” at the sentence level and focused on “getting the story down.” Continue reading

“I can’t do this anymore.”

“I can’t do this anymore.”


I’m having a real crisis.

I’m starting to wonder if teaching a novel-writing class with 15 students can really be done.

Let me explain.

This semester, I taught Advanced Fiction, a 400-level course at Ball State which I teach as a novel writing class. The course is capped at 15, and so, because I was assigned two sections, I had 30 students writing novels for me this semester.

Let’s do the math.

  • Each student wrote 2,250 words a week (about 9 pages of any quality) for 12 weeks.

Multiply that by 30 students, which means my students produced:

  • 67,500 words (270 pages) a week
  • 810,000 words (3,240 pages) over 12 weeks

They turned in their Weekly Words via email. I created a special gmail account to receive these messagess so that they would not get lost amid the 50-100 other emails I get every day.

  • 30 emails a week over 12 weeks = 360 emails to open, digest, file away.

To make this process easier on me, I asked them to include the following information every single week:

  1. their logline (a one-sentence description of the plot)
  2. the context of the words (“finishing chapter 2 this week,” or “This week, I banged out a lot of plot points,” or “random scenes,” or “I journaled some questions and concerns for awhile, then moved into some scenes from what I think will be the prologue.”)
  3. Then they attached the document that contained their Weekly Words.

I’ve already written about how I “read” these email attachments, which is to say that I look them over but don’t respond.

  • Logging in their Weekly Words takes about 2 hours a week.
  • Meanwhile, I read and grade other things they write. Their quizzes (I give really long in-class reading quizzes), their reverse storyboard projects (where they take a book apart and write about what they learned), short response papers, etc.

This will not surprise you: it’s really hard (but not impossible) to absorb this many stories coming at you at once. But within a few weeks, I do get to a point where I remember what each of them is writing about.

For twelve weeks, they send me the fragile stirrings of their novels. It’s weird feeling to receive those 30 emails every week, something strangely intimate and kind of a privilege. I treat their words very carefully. I acknowledge the receipt of their Weekly Words by sending a brief reply. I don’t say much other than “Thank you,” or “Keep going!” or maybe “I liked the scene at the party.”

It’s way too early to say anything critical.

And pedagogically speaking, it is relatively easy to read through words and pages I don’t need to respond to critically. Yet.

The Consequences

Still, it’s a lot of words coming at me. Even if I’m not commenting, I’m still making room in my head for all those words and stories. There are definitely consequences.

  1. I watched a lot of TV and movies this semester.
  2. When friends and former students asked me to read drafts of their novels and memoirs (this happened about once or twice a month), I had to say “No. I don’t have any more room in my head.”
  3. I worked on my own book project until about Week 8, and then I had to stop. This happens most semesters, though, even when I’m not teaching novel writing.
  4. Eventually, I *do* have to read and respond to them all. (More on this later.)


Now, if this were a different class, a “normal” fiction workshop, I wouldn’t be quickly reading 270 pages a week. I’d be carefully reading maybe 50-150 pages of fiction due to be “up” in my workshop that week.

And so would all 30 of my students.

See, the students in my classes aren’t looking at 270 pages a week. Only me. There is no all-group workshop in my class. They’re expected to spend a lot more time writing their own stuff than they spend reading the work of their peers.

In fact, for many weeks, they really have no idea what anyone else is even writing about.

The Climax of the Semester, or Shit Gets Real

Then, in week 14, they have to turn in a partial, which I define as the first 25-50 pages of the book.

By this point, I’ve put them in small groups—the ones writing realism, the ones writing fantasy, etc.—and they read only those partials. I don’t even call these discussions “workhop.” I call it “beta reading.”

But—and you saw this coming, right?—I have to read them all. This is when things get really, really hard.

25-50 pages times 30 students = 750-1500 pages.

In Over His HeadThis is how I do it

  • I’ve been an MFA thesis advisor. This is nothing at all like that. No way. Thesis advising involves reading at both the micro and macro levels. This is macro only.
  • To keep myself from doing line edits, I send the documents to my Kindle. This keeps me from marking all over them. I try to “just read.” I make a few notes to myself.
  • I don’t type a critique. Each student makes a 30-minute appointment, so I give my feedback orally. They walk out with a rubric where I’ve marked the things they need to work on for the revision (due at the time of the final).
  • I spread these appointments out over 2 and 1/2 weeks, doing about four a day. Which means I read just four a day. That’s all I can hold in my head.

So Tuesday, for example, I had four appointments scheduled, plus a meeting and a class to teach. I read one partial Monday night before I went to bed, then got up about 6:30 to read the other three. Got dressed. Went to school. Taught. Conferenced. Came home. Had dinner.

As I write this now, I have five appointments scheduled for Wednesday which means five partials or about 200+ pages to read, and I’ve only read one of them. And my morning reading time is gone because I’m teaching from 9-12 in the morning.

So every word I’m writing here is cutting into the time it’s going to take me to read those 200 pages.

But I needed to do the math.


  • There’s a good reason why very few people teach novel-writing classes comprised of 15-20 students. BECAUSE IT’S REALLY REALLY HARD.
  • Even spread out over 2 and 1/2 weeks, I couldn’t handle that many pages coming at me and that many conferences in an otherwise already full life. My physical therapist and my yoga teacher/masseuse and my husband tell me all the time, “If you don’t have time to take care of yourself, something’s wrong.”
  • The traditional workshop structure guarantees that you read works-in-progress at a reasonable rate, one at a time, a few a week. Not 30 at a time in dribs and drabs for 12 weeks and then boom, 30 manuscripts fall in your lap (or into your Kindle).
  • There must be a way to make this work. I think I’ve ALMOST got it figured out. 
  • I can’t ever teach two sections of this class again. Luckily next semester, I have just one section.
  • Rather than schedule individual conferences, I’ll be a part of the beta reading groups.
  • But how can I do that when they’re all discussing at the same time in small groups? Aha. I’ll put them in groups 3 groups of five. The week I spend discussing the mss. of Group 1, Groups 2 and 3 will get in-class writing “studio” time (which they already do anyway). So:   I only have to read five partials a week for three weeks, and I don’t have to schedule conferences because they will have gotten my feedback in class.
  • I’m also considering reducing the partial to 10-25 pages, which is actually more in line with the industry standard anyway.
I started writing this post because I was convinced I couldn’t teach this class anymore. You can only do what you have the resources to do. But of course by the end, I think I’ve figured out a way to make it work better.

More Math.

These are the numbers that count.

Most Words Drafted Contest (top 7) 

ENG 407-2

  1. Kayla Weiss 85,007
  2. Scott Bugher 65,878
  3. Andy House 62, 353
  4. Sarah Hollowell 52, 025
  5. Amy Dobbs 38, 365
  6. Jackson Eflin 32, 971
  7. Samantha Zarhn 27, 393

Each of these students wrote more than the required 2,250 words a week.

I’m convinced that the real test of teaching is figuring out a way to make your students feel like they’re working and learning WHILE ALSO making sure you yourself are staying productive as a writer. Because how can I expect them to write if I’m not? I think I’ve almost got this class to a point where we’re all writing and nobody’s buried. 

I’ll report back next semester and let you know.

My Next Big Thing: Literary Citizenship

Literary Citizenship Teaching

For the last few years, I’ve ended my classes with a presentation/pep talk on Literary Citizenship (basically this post as a Power Point). But next semester, I’m going to teach a whole class on Literary Citizenship.

Course descriptions are due this week, so I just wrote this up:

A literary citizen is an aspiring writer who understands that you have to contribute to, not just expect things from, the publishing world. This course will teach you how to take advantage of the opportunities offered by your campus, regional and national literary communities and how you can contribute to those communities given your particular talents and interests. It will also help you begin to professionalize yourself as a writer. You will learn how to 1.) create your own professional blog or website, 2.) use social media to build your writing community, 3.) interview writers and publish those interviews, 4.) review books and publish those reviews, 5.) submit poems, stories, and essays to literary magazines, 6.) query agents and editors regarding book manuscripts, 7.) apply to graduate programs and write an effective statement of purpose, 8.) deliver an effective public reading of your work, 9.) pitch to an agent, 10.) craft a professional résumé. Students who complete the course in an exemplary fashion will be eligible to apply for internship positions as Social Media Tutors at the Midwest Writers Workshop in Muncie July 25-27, 2013. 

I really hope that the internship positions mentioned above will be PAID positions. See, one reason why I haven’t been posting here at the Big Thing lately is that I’ve spent the last month writing a grant that would provide fifteen paid internships to Ball State students so that they can participate in the Midwest Writers Workshop (MWW), an annual writers’ conference which takes place in Muncie. I’ve written more about it here. 

This past summer, I convinced four of my students to work as Social Media Tutors. Basically, the tutors taught the attendees how to start a blog, how to use Twitter and Facebook effectively, how to create a platform (or as I like to call it, how to connect meaningfully with people).

Me and the Tutors. From left: Maye Ralston, Ashley Ford, Spencer McNelly, and Tyler Fields. Photo provided by Maye Ralston.
Me and the Tutors. From left: Maye Ralston, Ashley Ford, Spencer McNelly, and Tyler Fields. Photo provided by Maye Ralston.

Really, it was just a matter of putting a bunch of people looking for new media skills into the same room with people who had those skills. I got the idea one day when I received an email from Writer’s Digest about an online class they were offering, “Social Media 101,” taught by Dan Blank. I read the course description (and saw the price tag) and thought about my friend Cynthia Closkey, who I paid to help me set up this blog and taught me how to use Twitter. I thought, Couldn’t my creative writing students get freelance work offering “author services” like website development, social media consulting, and developmental editing? Certainly, they don’t have as much experience as Cindy, or the credentials of Dan Blank, but hey, everyone has to start somewhere.

Similarly, Hope Mills talked about her job recently in The Millions. She works at a “creative agency” that offers advertising, publications, websites, branding, and communication strategies.

I chose these four students because they were already using social media in a professional way. I mean, check out their bios. They were already literary citizens. They already had a student group called The Writing Community. (Students at Ball State have been learning this from my colleague Sean Lovelace for years.)

So, I tried to explain what I thought a social media tutor was. The students said, You want us to teach other people how to do what we basically do for fun?

I said, You don’t know how many people out there are desperate to understand the things about social media you guys just take for granted.

And it worked. The students felt like professionals, got a line on their resume, and the attendees were enormously grateful for their knowledge.

For the last few years now, I’ve been thinking about professionalization in creative writing programs, about whether we “should we make it our business to teach the business of being a writer.”

What brings most people to the creative writing classroom isn’t simply the desire to “be a writer,” but rather (or also) the desire to be a part of a literary community. Perhaps this is why so many undergraduates want to pursue an MFA, because “more school” is definitely something they know how to plug into. They want to be writers, and they think an MFA is what comes next. But I want to show my students that being a literary citizen can also provide that sense of community and connection they’re longing for.

So here I go again, trying to figure out how to teach yet another class I’ve never taught before.

Literary Citizenship is my next Big Thing.

I’ll keep you posted here. I also created a course blog here.

Why Do Writers Need Letters of Recommendation?

Why Do Writers Need Letters of Recommendation?

CW Programs Writing

Today, I got this question: “How do I go about getting Letters of Recommendation for places like Breadloaf and Yaddo? I didn’t get an MFA. I’m older than the average Bright Young Thing applicant. Might we question the very system that requires LORs in the first place?”

This is a really good question. (You can read the question verbatim here, in the comments section.)

I just checked my Google Analytics and discovered that “MFA FAQ: the LOR” is the #1, most-read blog post at The Big Thing. Viewed about 2000 times since I posted it in Oct. 2011, it was composed with a college-age student in mind, someone applying to MFA programs for the first time. But I realize that lots of people need LORs—even me!

So, here’s the advice I gave. 

I know what you’re talking about. It’s much harder to get letters when you’ve been out of school for awhile. Actually, the other day I was thinking about applying for a fellowship, but I had a hard time coming up with three writers familiar enough with my work to do a letter for me. Most of the writers I know are 25 years old. It’s also hard to find writers willing to blurb your book or write you a letter for academic positions.

Like you, I hate asking for letters and blurbs. Because I know how much time it takes to do them well.

A few years ago, I realized that I was going to have to start making it part of my “job” as a writer to know other writers, to be a part of a literary community, basically “to know people.” I don’t like to call it “networking,” but it is something I do more consciously now than I did 10 years ago.

If you’d like to go to Breadloaf, Yaddo, etc., let me suggest some possibilities for you that don’t involve dismantling the system:

–Ask the editors of the magazines where you publish work to vouch for you.

–Go to a writers conference like the Midwest Writers Workshop (I’m on the committee) or the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference or the Imagination conference, just to name a few. If you have the opportunity to have your work read by an author there, jump on it.

–Take a class (IRL or online) via a writers’ center, such as The Writers Center of Indiana or Grub Street or The Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Your instructors can then write letters for you.

–Or maybe through one of these experiences, you’ll develop a friendship with another writer with whom you can trade work. If that person has some credentials, maybe they can write a letter for you when you need one.

–After checking out your blog and the subject of the book you’re working on, I’d suggest proposing a WWII-themed or historical fiction/nonfiction panel for AWP. Write to people you admire who might potentially be able to blurb your book or write LORs for you and ask them to be on that panel.

–Also, it has never been easier to “know” writers via social media. Some of my students have formed mentor-like relationships with writers they’ve met on Twitter, Facebook, or blogs. You have a blog. Have you met people via your blog? Do you comment on other people’s blogs? Are you part of an online conversation, or do you feel like you’re posting into a vacuum?

–If you practice even some of these principles of Literary Citizenship, you will get to know people. I guarantee it.


Also, here’s this: I write a lot of letters for people trying to go to places like Yaddo and Breadloaf, know lots of people who try to get into those places, people who are young and sexy and/or well connected, and they often can’t get in either. We’re in a really competitive field, as you know.

But maybe what you’re really asking about is WHY DO WE NEED LETTERS AT ALL? Why can’t the work speak for itself?

Well, here are some reasons.

–Because LORs play an important role in the vetting process.

–Because they help to weed out (but do not totally eliminate) candidates who might be crazy, dangerous, ill prepared, etc.

–Because when you’ve got 300 candidates for 10 spots, you really do need to weigh as many factors as possible, and taking into account the word of someone who knows candidate really does help.

–Because LORs are basically the same thing as the old-fashioned Letter of Introduction. When Hemingway was heading to Paris, he asked Sherwood Anderson to write him a letter of introduction so he could meet Gertrude Stein, and Anderson obliged–one of the reasons Hemingway’s criticism of Anderson in Torrents of Spring was (to me) a huge betrayal.

–Because if you’re Gertrude Stein, or Breadloaf, or Yaddo, and there are all these people who want to come into your house, how do you decide who to let in? You can’t just open the door. That’s probably not safe or practical. You have to figure out a way to screen, and it’s just human nature to ask someone, “So, you know X, right? What do you think?”

–Because this is how we apply for jobs, too, by offering up a list of names of people who can vouch for us.

I hope I don’t sound patronizing. I’m sure you understand all this. I know how frustrating it is when you feel like certain clubs are closed to you. Oh, do I know that feeling. But my advice is: don’t let yourself get angry and resentful. Think of it as a challenge, as part of the process of becoming the writer you want to be.


We can rail and rail about the adage, “It’s who you know,” or we can accept that it’s just a reality that’s never going to go away and prepare ourselves to start knowing people–not in a skeezy, opportunistic way, but rather in a professional, positive, way.

The more good people we have in our lives, the better, right?

Last Lecture: “Am I a writer?”

Last Lecture: “Am I a writer?”

CW Programs Teaching The Biggest Things Writing

At the end of the semester, I give presentations in my novel-writing classes about the publishing business. Many students are seniors getting ready to graduate. Hence, they are full of anxieties. The first thing they say is: Why didn’t anyone teach us about this sooner!

This is what I tell them.

Continue reading

Novels vs. Stories in MFA Programs Survey Results

Novels vs. Stories in MFA Programs Survey Results

CW Programs Teaching

My plan was to release the survey results one question at a time via ruminative blog posts like this one on whether MFA programs are “anti-novel” or not and this one on the “professionalization” question.

But I’ve changed my mind. Many people wrote to me privately and said, I want to see the results! I’m curious! 

Also, I’m going to be under the weather for the next few weeks.

So: here are the results of my Novel in MFA Programs survey.

The faculty results.

The student results.

Tell me what you find interesting, surprising in these results, and when I’m back to my desk, I’ll talk about it!

Should we make it our business to teach the business of being a writer?

Should we make it our business to teach the business of being a writer?

CW Programs Teaching

Writing as craft and writing as business

Here’s the question I asked both MFA faculty and students on the survey.

MFA programs should avoid “professionalization” and “business” issues related to the writing life, such as discussions of the market and what sells.

And here are the results:

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How I Answered the AWP Survey

How I Answered the AWP Survey

CW Programs Teaching

Take the survey! You have until March 22. It’s important. I filled it out the other day, and I found that I had so much to say in that little comment module I decided to cut and paste it into a document and share it with you. FYI: I also provided my email address on the survey, so I didn’t say all this stuff to them anonymously.

[Question 21. We welcome any additional comments, feedback, and suggestions you would like to share with us through this survey or at]

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Survey Results: 56% say MFA favors story over novel

CW Programs Teaching Writing

It is possible to teach novel writing in MFA programs, and many do. My panelists (David Haynes, Patricia Henley, Sheila O’Connor, and Elizabeth Stuckey-French) prove it here, by sharing their syllabi with you. You’ve got everything you need to design your own novel-writing course. You’re welcome!

Opening Remarks: “A Novel Problem: Moving from Story to Book in the MFA Program.”

About a year ago, I submitted an essay to The Millions titled, “The Big Thing: 10 Thoughts on Moving from Story to Book,” which the editors were kind enough to publish, but with a more provocative headline: “The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis.”

The essay touched a nerve. I got a lot of reactions, from faculty and from students in both residential and low-res programs, and from people who opted not to pursue an MFA because they felt programs were “anti-novel.”

They are not alone in this opinion. Continue reading