What Are the Pros of an MFA Program?

I came to writing late, or perhaps, to state it more accurately, writing came late to me. I had finished all my formal schooling by then and was teaching college English. I learned to write stories piecemeal, taking classes here and there, traveling to literary conferences, trying out writing groups and hungrily reading, reading, reading. When I was writing my first book, Arranged Marriage, I was desperate for quality instruction and advice, both of which were hard to come by. So I’m very aware, now that I’m a published author—and an instructor fortunate enough to teach at University of Houston’s nationally ranked creative writing program—of the benefits of being in such a program.

I must start off by saying that a creative writing program is not for everybody. It requires a great deal of willpower and, beyond that, staying power. It asks individuals to dedicate several years of their lives to learning their art and honing their craft. Like the monks of old, many will have to take a vow of poverty as they do this. Obedience, the second monkish vow, is also important. If students are not willing to listen to the teacher’s suggestions with an open mind, or to trust that the teacher’s experienced eye has caught things they don’t yet know to see, then we can’t help them effectively. (The third monkish vow isn’t required, at least not by us in Houston, though we do recommend that our students give up TV, which might actually be harder.)

What can a good creative writing program do for emerging writers? First, it speeds up their learning process exponentially. Things that it took me 10 years of hit-and-miss to absorb, students can learn in a year or so, because they have ongoing guidance and informed feedback of various kinds. They have the careful, considered critiques of their classmates in small workshops where discussion isn’t rushed, and then they have the opportunity of discussing their writing one-on-one with professors, who can point out which parts are working and which are not, and why. Judging one’s writing on one’s own is one of the most difficult things about being a writer. We’re just too close to our work, especially in the early stages. In a creative writing program, many people help you with this exercise until you’re able to develop an intuition, until you learn to recognize your strengths and weaknesses.

In addition to workshops, a creative writing program offers independent study classes where students can choose an area of interest based on what they think their writing project will be and explore it in detail. With the professor’s help, they can come up with reading lists, exposing themselves to writers they don’t know about who could prove relevant or influential to their work. One of my students, for example, was interested in how culture is portrayed through fiction, so we decided she should read several books about India—some written from an insider’s point of view, some from an outsider’s. She analyzed E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust, and then went on to Rabindranath Tagore’s The Home and the World,  Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and an anthology of translated stories, Truth Tales. These were books she might not have picked up on her own. But once she understood the different ways in which they conveyed an understanding of culture, what kinds of assumptions the writers began with, and which of the portrayals she preferred and why, she found them extremely helpful in constructing her own project: a novel about an Asian-American family living in Los Angeles, narrated by two characters, one Asian, the other Caucasian. This is an additional benefit of a creative writing program: It opens up brave new worlds of literature to a “young” writer.

My favorite class to teach in our program, the Master Fiction class, illustrates this in a slightly different way. This is a course our Master of Fine Arts and Ph.D. students take in their final year, and to it they bring their entire manuscript, which may be a collection of stories or a novel. It’s a small class—usually six or seven students, and we give each manuscript loving (but stern) attention. Some of the aspects of craft we examine before we even begin looking at individual manuscripts are: the structure of a successful novel or collection of stories; how to develop complex and dynamic characters; and how to weave themes into a work without becoming heavy-handed about it.

After I’ve read the students’ work, I discuss with them what exactly they want to achieve, and then I pair each student’s work with a successful novel or short-story collection that has a similar aim or feel. For instance, I had a student who was writing a psychological novel in which he wanted to blur the line between truth and illusion. I assigned him John Fowles’ The Magus. The entire class read the novel, along with his manuscript. Then, before we discussed his novel, he did a presentation analyzing The Magus, looking at the techniques Fowles employed to make it work so well, and discussing how he might use similar techniques in his own manuscript.

Toward the end of this course, students create revision plans in which they address the weaknesses they’ve discovered in their manuscripts. (I’m greatly in favor of detailed revision plans. They prevent writers from feeling overwhelmed and allow them to keep the overall structure and purpose in mind even as they deal with making improvements to individual scenes or paragraphs.) This revision plan is then evaluated in class, with the class helping to strengthen the plan with additional ideas.

What do I consider most valuable in a writing program? You may have heard this one before: the supportive world that it offers the writer.

Many people might take this for granted, but I can’t. When I began writing, it was in a literary void. I was surrounded by people who couldn’t understand what writing meant to me, why I would want to spend hour upon hour sitting in front of a computer doing something that often frustrated me, that was of no use (as far as they could see) and that might never bring me money or fame. At best, they thought it was a “nice hobby.” At worst, they thought it was stupid. Many times, faced over and over with these attitudes, I came close to quitting. I longed for someone to validate not only my work but the entire enterprise of writing.

In a good creative writing program, students are surrounded by people who value what they do and understand its challenges. They have role models who demonstrate how the writing life is lived—and that it’s a good life. They have friends who encourage them when writer’s block enshrouds them or when a story is rejected, because these friends have been through the same things. Sometimes they forge lifelong connections with their peers and their teachers so that even after they leave the program, they carry a virtual forcefield of support around them.

And this is what, for me, is the greatest benefit of a writing program: the continuing conviction that it provides all of us—teachers and students—that writing is as natural as breathing, and as necessary. 

Don’t have the time or money to enroll in an MFA program but still want the benefits? Consider:
The Portable MFA In Creative Writing

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