Yet Another Think Piece About MFA Writing Programs

or,”Weighing the Validity of The School of Hard Knocks

When I was in high school, I walked the hallways between classes and observed many students with whom I didn’t interact within the classroom. We were in different grades, or in the same grade but different classes. Life was crazy in the hallways: a world of different energies colliding and bouncing off one another—sometimes literally—the teachers yelling their authority as they attempted to corral us to our next period. I remember a lot about those hallway excursions. About girls, mostly, with whom I was mostly afraid to talk to, our respective worlds traveling in separate orbits. A lot of high school felt like it was related to this theme of access, about not feeling satisfied with the lot that I had been given, about trying to be a part of something I wasn’t, about being able to balance an acceptance of who I was while also maintaining the ambition to strive for the best version of that self.

One memory of those hallway experiences has to do with a particular t-shirt that was popular at the time. I don’t remember a lot about t-shirt except for its bold lettering that simply read “The School of Hard Knocks.” I remember liking the shirt while silently criticizing those who wore it: if they were really from the School of Hard Knocks, then what were they doing here? The memory of the t-shirt remained as I moved on from high school, to the United States Naval Academy, to the Navy, and now as a first-year MFA student of fiction at Colorado State University. And over time, I have come to greater understanding of what the t-shirt represents. It wasn’t simply a display of solidarity to the life of the streets. It was a reminder to themselves and to the world that there is a semblance of self that is true, that the learning that takes place inside the classroom must be balanced by the learning that must take place outside of it, outside the walls that have been constructed by the denizens of knowledge that have been assigned to teach us. Information is the job of the school, but knowledge is the job of the individual.

It’s with this understanding and in the throes of academia that I read yet another think piece regarding the validity of MFA Writing programs. These articles are nothing new, as can be seen here, here, here, here, here, and here, (just to name a few) each one questioning whether MFA writing programs are valid, whether writing can be taught, should be taught, and whether the way in which writing is taught at MFA programs is technically sound while creatively flat. The latest, “How Has the MFA Changed the Contemporary Novel?” published The Atlantic, compares 200 novels written by graduates of MFA programs that have been published in the last 15 years with a similar sized sample of novels published over the same time by authors who haven’t graduated from MFA programs. Using “computational text analysis,” they studied how the different books compared “across a range of literary aspects, including diction, style, theme, setting, and even how writers use characters.”

The results? Or, more accurately, the differences? None, really. “No real distinctions at the level of language, themes, or even syntax” were found. And no difference in the ways “writers constructed their characters,” either. “It was extremely difficult to separate the MFA and non-MFA writing groups in any meaningful way,” the article goes on to say. This isn’t very surprising. The claim that MFA programs produce one particular kind of writer always seemed a little too fantastic to be true. It’s a claim of “9/11 truther” proportions, one that would suggest collusion on a phenomenal, impractical level or that the writers who apply to MFA programs are a very particular kind of writer, different than the writers who undertake the craft on their own, one who is hack, or who writes wack, and who will always remain that way, even if they publish, who will never be an artist, because they weren’t an artist to begin with, and because real artists can’t or shouldn’t be taught.

This easy dismissal of writing programs has always smacked of condescension and hypocrisy: it’s not non-MFA writers who write these articles about MFA programs. When’s the last time Donna Tartt or Jennifer Egan another writer from the “School of Hard Knocks” has written a screed against MFA writing programs? Perhaps there’s a reason they don’t, because they realize that the path to writing well comes from writing frequently, whether or not that is through graduate school or outside of it. The credentials of the author who wrote this latest Atlantic article: “Richard Jean So is an assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago. He is the author of the forthcoming book Transpacific Community: American, China, and the Rise and Fall of a Culture Network.” Not only is Mr. Jean So not a novelist, he is a professor, a profession dependent upon the system of higher institutional learning not only for his education but also for this current employment. But again, not surprising. Haters gonna hate.

What is surprising are the conclusions that Jean So draws from the text analysis. Rather than concluding that the results invalidated the reason for the analysis—the most logical conclusion one would make—he claims the conclusions are proof that there is no reason to go to an MFA program: “If a program isn’t going to train you or change you in any significant way…then why go?” Even more cynically, he says that MFA writing programs “seems to be helping people sound like everyone else”. But isn’t it just as logical to say that everyone else is writing like graduates of MFA programs? Not as exciting, but more nuanced would be to say that these writers happen to write like one another not because either group is trying to, but because people are people and writers are writers and sometimes people are just as different and the same regardless of the route they take to reach their desired destination, in this case, publication. Jean So further observes that perhaps what happens in MFA programs is “behavioral than artistic,” which he means as a criticism, but which I respond to by saying, “Yes! Exactly!” At a certain level, writing can’t be taught, but the practice and discipline of writing can be instilled at a writing program in the ways that it cannot outside of it.

The criticisms that Jean So makes about writing programs are the same criticisms to which I have been privy to about the United States Naval Academy. There is no discernible proof that a graduate of the Naval Academy makes a better military officer than someone who was a member of ROTC or a graduate of Officer Candidate School, the proof of which is anecdotal and numerical. The measure of an officer comes down to the person, not the institution they attended. Some people would use this claim as proof for the dissolution of the Naval Academy: if it doesn’t produce a better officer, than why should it exist at all? I have sometimes questioned why I attended the Naval Academy. I survived, but why not get a “real” college experience, one where I would have had to have dealt with the imperfections of dating and deciding what to wear, along with doing my own laundry. But that’s not the path I took, and I made it through more or less okay. The truth is that the there are many paths to becoming an officer, and the choice of which path to take is up to the individual making that decision. In the end, each path has the same destination.

The same holds true for writing. A writing program has been invaluable not only for support and feedback but also for the work ethic it has helped to instill in me. Getting a writing degree is not at all necessary to becoming a writer, but it does provide a space in which to work and put words on the page, which is the only way to truly improve as a writer. I would not have realized this about myself in the Navy or on my own after getting out. I was a writer in theory for many years, but not in practice, and this was to due to many factors, some within my control, and some not: I chose to be an engineering major in college, which did not entail a great deal of writing. I was busy after college, with flight school, and with watching TV, and with trying and failing and trying again to talk to women. I was lazy. I had time to write but didn’t. I read. I wrote a little, but it was shit. When I was coming to the end of my service obligation, I cycled through the options of what I could do—law school, journalism school, MBA—before finally applying for a degree in the one area that I could barely admit I wanted to undertake: to write. The first fiction stories I wrote were the ones that I submitted as my application. I applied to fifteen programs and was accepted to one: Colorado State University.

I cringe at some of the material I generated before coming here, including one fiction “story” I wrote about a mission on my airplane. I have since rewritten that thing three times and still haven’t figured it out. I’m sure I’ll cringe later at the material I’m writing now. Part of the writing process. Part of my writing process, which I decided to undertake at an MFA program. I agree with Jean So that my decision to attend an MFA writing program does not make me a better writer than someone who pursues a different path, and it also doesn’t make me a worse writer. It’s the decision that was right for me, given my background, given my writing experience, or lack thereof, as well as the way that life works out sometimes, whether because of our plans, or in spite of them.

People ask me what I’m going to do with my MFA degree, and the truth is, I don’t know. A lot of things factor into that, some of which I can control, some of which I can’t. For our thesis we have to write a novel excerpt or a short story collection, so the first goal is to would be to get my thesis published. If I don’t do that, I could find a job that relies upon my Naval experience and my engineering degree, or I could find a job that relates to the writing skills I am currently refining. I could seek another degree. No matter what path I take, one is not more “real” than the other. There are people willing to put in the work, and there are people who lack commitment. I have no idea what destination my current journey will take me to, but in the meantime, I’ll be writing.

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