Are All MFA Grads the Same?

This is a follow-up post to my last one about what a Creative Writing MFA should do for you. In the wake of describing some of the goals for MUW’s new low-residency MFA, I’ve been thinking about that old saw that MFA programs have ruined literature. The idea, which has been around almost as long as there’ve been MFAs, usually gets stated something like this: ‘Because workshop classes act as peer pressure groups and the strongest voices (most dominant personalities, not necessarily the best writers) usually win, the writing coming out of MFA programs is all alike. Professors teach students how to write one way, stronger students bully the others, and the one way becomes the norm. What writers need to do instead is to read copiously and to develop their own individual style outside the influence of group-think.’

These prophets of doom usually seem to privilege a Romantic idea of literature, where the writer is conceived as an individual genius who distinguishes himself (and I use the masculine pronoun intentionally because often this argument has sexist overtones) by his unique style. Some of the best critiques of this argument remind us that the idea of individuality in literature or any art form is a Romantic trope that bears little resemblance to reality and that has a relatively short history. Any writer owes much, not only to the other ‘great writers’ of her tradition, but also to the many writers around her or him, who often go ignored in a concept of literature that only privileges the ‘greats.’ Maybe being unique is not what makes one great, in other words, but recognizing and acknowledging the multiplicity of voices in literature is a better model for understanding its means of production.

That’s not to say that most writers don’t want to stand out from the pack and be acknowledged at some level for the excellence of their craft. But we still might acknowledge the role the pack has had in our formation. In this case, one pack might well be the MFA program or MFA culture, and ‘making it’ as part of that culture is no less valuable than ‘making it on your own,’ which often seems to be the implied argument.

Nonetheless, whether we see the creation of great literature as the product of individual genius or of a communal effort, I’m still left wondering about the role the MFA program, as I’ve tried to describe it, might play. If the goals of an MFA are to provide breadth and depth to the writer’s experience, then it seems to me that the idea, summarized above, that the workshop will somehow homogenize American writing, is essentially flawed. The goal to the workshop should not be to make everyone sound alike, but rather to cultivate respect and understanding of difference. I learn more from working with writers whose writing is radically different than my own than I would by working with writers who write like me. I test my ideas against writers who are different — no one has to win, but each will change as a result. Perhaps my writing will move in the opposite direction of my colleague’s as I become more assured that my way of writing is right for me (and the other writer may have the same experience in her direction). Perhaps we will both learn from each other and adapt some qualities of the other writer’s style to our own, but it should always be an adaptation, not a pure appropriation. Rather than homogenizing American literature, the MFA experience ought to enrich it.

One need only look around at current writing to see that it is far from homogenous. If MFA programs have attempted to act as cookie cutter assembly lines stamping out perfect copies of their teachers, then they have been a miserable failure. But I seriously doubt that has ever been the overarching design of the MFA. To those who fear that their individual style might be stamped out by the MFA workshop, I would say that your writing will change (why would you pay for a degree if you didn’t want your education to have an effect on you?) and you should embrace that change, but not because it will make you just like everyone else, rather as an opportunity to explore common ground at the same time that you stake your claim to difference. Let the views of other writers challenge you to delve the depths of your own writing habits and styles. Make the difficult choices required to make your writing the best you can make it, but with the confidence that it will still be your writing. Only your writing will be tempered from the experience in the sense of making it purer and stronger by passing it through fire.

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