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Creative Writing Programs Are Not a Complete Waste of Time

Inspired after reading Dan Green’s post

I’ve thought long and hard about this issue, after having attended a fairly well-known master’s creative writing program. For me personally, it worked out tremendously well, though not for the reasons one might suspect.

It didn’t help me at all for publication (though that might partially be my fault). Most of my fellow graduate students went on to other fields; there have been two or three books published; one student was nominated for an Oscar(!).

It didn’t really open doors for me in academia, although ironically it opened doors for international teaching. I think one of my fellow grad students is teaching at a university (a fairly good one, btw). It didn’t really happen as a result of her literary success but her savvy networking skills. Having a master’s degree did have some marketability for technical writing (although having a master’s is quickly becoming the norm now).

I was lucky because I went to grad school straight after undergrad. Much less personal disruption. At 21 my writing style was weak and flabby. My imagination (and literary experiments) were original, though my experience base was limited. Going through the workshop improved my editing skills and taught the value of taking your time when revising. None of the stories I wrote during my stay were particularly remarkable, though the stories I wrote immediately afterwards (IMHO!) were.

A writing degree gave me more realistic expectations about what constituted literary success. It also exposed me to the fact that writer/artist types have titan egos, and guess what–so do I. Writing workshops gave good experience about dealing with such types (and helped me to realize why others sometimes find ME annoying and stubborn). It also made me see how widely literary types differ. Your own personal background might strike you as prosaic, but it’s actually quite different from people your age. What you view as ordinary others might regard as quirky. People sometimes complain about the cookie-cutter nature of workshop fiction, but that is a lie; once you are around other writers with similar talent, you see how distinctive (and messy) each person’s rough drafts can be.

I assume by now MFA programs are emphasizing videogames, videos, and other web projects, while the dinosaurs who still read Flaubert and Ford Maddox Ford are probably viewed with polite tolerance. The dirty little secret of MFA programs is that you really don’t NEED to be around tremendously gifted writers to grow your voice. You could easily find excellent feedback from community writer’s groups, community college courses or (heaven forbid!) online forums. One reason in favor of using local resources instead of grad school is that you are more likely to come across a wider swath of writers (in terms of age, ethnicity and talent). In grad school, a certain amount of groupthink and oneupsmanship occurs, which is not particularly bad, but makes you a narrow-minded and boring person.

One other thing. A lot of people sign up for MFA programs for the contacts, especially the literary agents and publishers. At one time that might have made sense (especially in New York programs or in programs with a strong literary magazine). But quite frankly, publishing is changing so much and so quickly that I’m not sure an MFA program helps you with introductions or agents anymore. Ironically, the two most helpful learning experiences for me has been technical conferences aimed specifically at independent content producers. First, South by Southwest Interactive, (in Austin) provides lots of contacts and cross-fertilization in the New Media world. Lots of panels not directly related to literature, but with huge consequences upon it. The annual ACM Hypertext conference (held alternately in the US and Europe) has also been quite wonderful. I’m sure others can chime in with names of other conferences; the main draw of South by Southwest Interactive is that it’s ridiculously cheap ($150 for early registration) and lasts 4 days. I met a lot of people with creative writing degrees at both conferences. I am a biased person, of course, but people with creative writing degrees are always interesting to talk to. Just don’t marry them (joking, of course).

There is value in taking time off to do something like an MFA, but you have to consider opportunity costs. Your time and money might be better spent building up a savings account for that time when you can quit that job. Ironically, the academic environment of creative writing programs tends to stifle reading for pleasure or the “big projects.” The main thing I learned from a creative writing degree is that I no longer needed an academic structure to force me to write. I could do it on my own. That’s why many apply to creative writing programs; they believe external pressure is necessary to be productive. But for me the urge to write is a psychological motivator, not a social motivator. Yes, attending a writing program affords you extra time to write, but how much extra time? (and how much extra cost?) Couldn’t you accomplish the same thing with a leave-of-absence or a job with flexible hours?

Although not a poet, I would imagine that poets have a totally different perspective on the subject. Poetry involves more formal training and feedback; you write poems weekly, and apparently youth works as an advantage. Poets are such rare lonely creatures that I guess they need excuses to be around one another. Also, poetry programs have different myths. In fiction, we have the myth of the great American novelist who lives happily ever after (the rest of us belong to the unwashed masses of the mediocre and unpublished). Poets have three myths: retreating into nature or retreating into addictive activities or retreating into suicidal despair. Ok, I’m simplifying, but poets never dream of being rich or famous (not in the conventional sense anyway). Novels still entertain the notion of such lavish rewards. Our ambition is what dooms us.

See also: my very long rambling thoughts about the benefits of going to graduate school.

Dec 2010 Update. See Alexander Chee’s essay about whether to go for the MFA. (That’s part 3; see also part 1 and part 2).

{ 14 comments… add one }
  • Jacob Israel 3/29/2008, 9:58 am

    Are you kidding me? Having attended one of these things for a year, if anything, it made my writing “flabbier”. The professors don’t have any contacts. (Why do you think they’re in academia rather than writing professionally?)

  • Melissa 4/20/2008, 5:05 pm

    I loved your piece “Creative Writing Programs Are Not a Complete Waste of Time”. Over the years I’ve often wondered about some of the things you wrote about. I enjoy your witty style.

    I just turned 40 and I’m just now going to be starting college. My youngest one is graduating from high school (home schooled) this year. Going to college is something that I’ve desperately wanted to do all my adult life but married right out of high school and immediately had 3 kids in short order…so that got put on hold. I have a disability so the state is going to pay for me to go to college, which I’m ecstatic about, but in doing so, they get a say in what my major will be. I would LOVE to get a degree in Fine Arts or Creative Writing but I don’t think they would go for it. So I’ve chosen a Political Science/Administrative Studies BA. which will hopefully get me into a good career with a non-profit organization or maybe a managerial position with a government agency…and I’ll get to help people too. I hope to be able to “sneak” in as many literary or writing classes as I can. Or, if at all possible, perhaps I’d have the time and money to continue on to graduate studies after…but that’s along time in the future and I’m already old. 🙂

    I wrote my first novel several years ago, and then did a million rewrites and editing that took another couple of years, but still have been unable to find an agent. I am painfully shy and my self confidence actually scores in the minus category. I’m hoping that going to college and getting an education, even if only a political science degree, will give me the added self confidence that I need to make contacts and to lean how to network. I have never gone to a writer’s conference because I would never want to go alone, and being a housewife I don’t know any other writers, (or very many people at all, now that I think about it). I’ve always wanted to attend one though.

    I know you mentioned going to technical writing conferences, but have you ever attend any fiction writer’s conferences? Do you think attending these would be helpful and what have you found is the best way to network or meet agents/editors? Being a young, highly educated professional your world is the complete opposite of mine, but if you have any advice for a “fellow writer” I’d sure appreciate it. 🙂

  • Comparator 7/10/2008, 7:22 pm

    Just because something isn’t a complete waste of time doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t the largest waste of time among a given subset(Such as master’s programs) or among the largest.

  • JM 3/18/2009, 1:34 am

    One could spend two years working temp jobs and writing (as I’ve done), but at the end of two years in an MFA, at least you have an MFA. No? I don’t know. I’ve been accepted to one program, but am facing a LOT of negative opinions about the decision to go.

  • Khan 5/1/2009, 3:54 pm

    Can you tell me how do I get good temp jobs? I have a degree in public administration and over 4 yrs of experience in development and non-profit. thanks

  • Jake 10/17/2009, 2:29 pm

    To me, this New Yorker letter to the editor: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/letters/2009/07/20/090720mama_mail1 is worth reading on the subject.

    @ Jacob Israel #1: “The professors don’t have any contacts. (Why do you think they’re in academia rather than writing professionally?)”

    Then you went to a lousy school or didn’t take classes from the right professors. At the University of Arizona, where I’m _not_ in the MFA program, virtually all the professors either were actively publishing at one time or still are. To be sure, however, not all of them are being published by Knopf; many go with smaller and more innovative but less commercial presses, which they can pull off in part because they’re financially supported by academic appointments. Maybe those little presses are where some of the more innovative work is happening.

  • Prathmesh 5/12/2010, 6:41 am

    I was confused over the decision making of enrolling for a creative writing course, or not! But after reading your take on how the actuality of the thing, I am convinced that I should right away go ahead and enroll myself.

    “Thanks ya!”

  • Ryan 5/3/2011, 9:41 pm

    I just signed up for a creative writing program with a top university, and your post somewhat made me think twice about going forward…haha. Anyway, I’m still going forward with it. Because like you said, there are people who feel the need for external factors to help them feel motivated. I wholeheartedly agree to be one of those people.

    It’s not so much that I want to be a rich and famous writer. I just love the freedom and independence that writing provides, even though it can be a tough nut to break into most of the time.

  • writer 7/15/2011, 6:28 pm

    I want to be a English Teacher and am going to university in Sep, I’m so confused about what degree is best to do before my PGCE

    English Lit with Creative Writing or
    Creative writing

    I’m getting loads of people telling doing a creative writing degree will lower my job opportunities i don’t know what to do..?

    i love writing and the creative writing degree but whats best to get me a job 3 years down the line.

    help please…? 🙂 🙁

  • Anonymous 8/27/2011, 3:32 pm

    Hi
    I’m a girl at high school who are not going to be attending university for a while.
    However, I’m really considering taking a creative writing degree, as I’ve always loved writing and I believe I have a talent for it.
    Basically, I was wondering if any of you know a university that offers creative writing degrees, that are not very expensive?
    Prefferably in Europe, as that would cost me less, but other places are okay too.

  • Robert Nagle 8/28/2011, 10:57 pm

    Hi, there, Anonymous, I wrote you an email to the email you provided the blog, but it was returned as invalid: (You can email me idiotprogrammer at gmail.com if you want). Below is what I wrote:

    **************
    Thanks for writing. Studying creative writing at college is different from studying it at graduate school. At college it is perfectly good to do although you don’t need to major in it.

    Creative writing classes are great — but you don’t need to take them at college. You could get feedback that’s almost as good or helpful just from a local writers’ group. What matters the most is getting feedback from people who are very different from you. It will help you realize how different everybody views the world. If you could take a writing class with 5 old ladies, a construction worker, an ex-con and a priest, I would sign up for it in a minute.

    Creative writing classes teach you tact and politeness most of all.. You’d be surprised at how useful that is. A classroom setting is good for starting out, but eventually you realize that you don’t need that structured setting.

    I studied creative writing at what at the time was one of the most prestigious writing programs in the country. I studied with a Nobel prize winner, a National Book Award winner and other distinguished writers. But that is not important. Your community college teacher can do a perfectly good job too…as long as your class has a variety of people from different backgrounds. The trick is being around people who care about good writing. Sometimes people just take a class because it’s required or because it sounds fun…but they really don’t care about writing.

    Now there are summmer workshops or conferences which you can attend. If it’s cheap, sure try it out — you could benefit from one. But don’t throw away too much money on those things.

    Obviously you can figure your best option at college, but I would encourage you to specialize/major in a subject matter –especially if it’s something you couldn’t learn outside of college. I studied no technical subjects in college — and now I am obsessed with certain things — films, foreign languages, computers, ecology — and I might have benefitted from majoring in those subjects at college instead of English. But I turned out ok 🙂

    About college: Classical scholar John Finley once said, “the only purpose of a college education is to reduce the time spent thinking about the opposite sex from 80% to 60%.”

  • Elaine 5/12/2012, 2:22 pm

    I’ve written novels since I was in the 6th grade (granted, that one was so horrendous it was trashed), but am too afraid to get published and actually have little idea how to get my foot in the door, so to speak. I have little money, and now nearing 30, would love to see my writing in real book form. I don’t expect or want riches and fame, although that might be nice for my kids (the money part, not having to worry about next meal or when we would lose heat, it was only a matter of when each year, we knew it was going to happen). I have no idea how to “sell myself” or my book…Is there anyone who can help me with that? I’ve had poetry published, but that’s easy…All I want to do is legitimately state “I’m an author”. So since it doesn’t appear a creative writing program could help, even if I had the money, does anyone know a way to get an agent to actually look at my work? I have three full-length books and one series in the works, all fantasy.

  • Robert Nagle 5/12/2012, 4:37 pm

    1)Everyone has a different strategy for trying to become a successful writer. Nobody is 100% right and nobody is 100% wrong. Some things that work for one person will not necessarily work for you. Dedication matters more than talent…and so does being able to “keep it real” while indulging your imagination and artistic impulses.

    2)Agents are no longer interested in new authors. They are interested in self-published writers who have demonstrated an ability to write and promote themselves. Agents will find you if they think you are successful or promising. You can still try to find agents, but my guess is that it will be wasted effort. (that formula worked 10-20 years ago, but not now).

    3)”Writing” means many things, and don’t be surprised if you find that a little side project on something nonfiction becomes your ticket to prominence. Be flexible about genre and form and resign yourself to the fact that close family and friends will never be very interested in the things you write — much as they like and care about you.

    4)If you haven’t taken creative writing classes, I would recommend taking a few. But don’t overdo it. No class will teach you how to write beautifully.

    5)Here are two books I recommend: 1)Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark, (a book about journalistic writing, but it is unbelievably practical for all kinds of writing), 2)A Worker’s Writebook by Jack Matthews (ebook — and guess what I publish it). http://www.ghostlypopulations.com/2011/08/a-workers-writebook-how-language-creates-stories-free-ebook/ 3)The Frugal Book Promoter, Second Edition! by Carolyn-Howard Johnson. This are many books about marketing books — this is the one I am most familiar with. It’s good for brainstorming.

    6)Self-promotion is important, but you shouldn’t overdo it.

    6)Don’t assume that being on Amazon will sell your books. The payoffs rarely come as fast as you’d like.

    7)Try to get involved in some book community or group blog where you can contribute and get people to learn about who you are. (By the way, I’m working on an online ezine for writers called Personville Press to do precisely that).

    8)I read somewhere that every literary niche can accommodate at most 2 writers. So you need to make sure your niche is unique.

    9)Be sure to exploit any secondary skills or experiences which distinguish yourself from other writers.

    10)In today’s ebook world, quantity of publications matter almost more than quality. Aim for shorter books.

  • sam 5/23/2012, 2:13 pm

    I do not know if I should be taught to achieve art, though I do know my family has expectations of me and they have contrived into my own. I have to go to college, seek an higher education- not at will, but at must. I like to learn, but the idea of career oriented learning scares me for I wish to be a writer, in the full fledged 1920s meaning of the word, I want to write novels. So, how can I be taught this when my idols never took a creative writing class in their life?
    I was going to major in psychology, however I feel that if I do that I will rely on it too much, go on and become a developmental psychologist or a teacher or something of the sort, instead of my hope to be a writer who eats, and wears clean clothing.
    I don’t want to be a failed writer.
    Should I major in creative writing? Do they criticize you much? Are there a lot of constraints placed upon your writing?
    Cheers

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