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.

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My Next Big Thing: Literary Citizenship

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. 

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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.

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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