On Blowing My Load: Thoughts From Inside the MFA Ponzi Scheme

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“Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”
–Flannery O’Connor

FIRST, ON WHAT WE KNOW

We MFA writing students are having a grand time. We appear nonchalant, cheerful, full of promise; we eat pizza and drink beers and speak up in class, saying things like–but has this story got, well, too much rising action a la George Saunders? Is this pattern perhaps a bit exhaustive? Do you think you’ve earned this? We seem so critical and astute, like we know what the hell we are doing.

Still from "Reprise," a film about writers by Joachim Trier

For example, here’s what to do: decide if you are a lower-middle-class realist or technomodernist or, god forbid, a high cultural pluralist. Be a fan of Lorrie Moore but object to her depiction of men. Ask: Why are they always either dyslexic or in chronic state of stultification? Likewise, revere Updike’s prose style but despise those “two scoops of vanilla ice cream.” Bring a flask to class and drink from it in semi-surreptitious manner while discussing above issues with appropriate fervor. Attribute your red face to shyness, anger, the heat of close bodies. Go to readings and “make connections.” And if you’re really ambitious, participate in slush-pile readings of your so-so respectable literary journal and ridicule the cover letters of those who have obviously never been through The Program.

What not to do: cry while your story is being workshopped. Use predictable phrases like “easy grace.” Remember to start with the blow job. But please, don’t blow your load too quickly.

ANXIETY

Even with all this know-how, a seeping suspicion begins to enter the minds of final-year MFA students. As we get closer to graduating, we might start to think that perhaps we have not actually learned that much. That maybe we were better writers before we entered The Program, and that we’ve actually just had a vacation with our student-aid money. It will have to be repaid! In our worst moments, we begin to wonder whether we’ve destroyed our genius by subscribing to this institutional mind-meld.

Or maybe contaminated genius isn’t the problem. Maybe it’s any one of these:

1.  These ten pages of writing–does this count as a novel…? (No.)

2. Aren’t I supposed to have like a fucking masterpiece by now? (No, but you do have two or three stories that are maybe worth publishing in semi-popular online website.)

2. Am I going to get a job after this? (Probably not.) Will I have to go back to food service? (Probably yes.)

3. Has my writing gotten better? Have I become good enough to get an agent? (Shrugs.)

4. Have I made “connections”? (Do classmates count?)

5. Should I just give in and apply for a PhD or something? (Yes.)

These doubts keep me up at night, I don’t deny it. I will be $20,000 less poor! Sometimes I cross busy streets without thinking; pull subconscious kamikazes. Abort mission? Abort now?

Balzac's "Lost Illusions"

INSECURITY AND POSITIVE THINKING

My therapist says: break down a moment of insecurity and replace it with positive thinking. I’ll admit I was a snob on the first day of school. When we were asked to go around in a circle and recommend a book or share our favorite writer, someone said “Faulkner” and I shuddered. (Obviously hadn’t read anything outside college.) Another person said “I don’t have any favorite writers.” The instructor, David Lipsky, pried further. “Fine. What was the last thing you read?” The person blushed. “I don’t remember what it was called.” I was, like most first-year students, horrified because I was compensating for my own insecurity. When it was my turn I “recommended” the most obscure writer I could think of: Raymond Radiguet. (He wrote two books and died at the age of 19.) I wasn’t too confident about The Program then.

But right now, as I am typing this in my luxurious student-loan funded apartment in New York City, I am feeling pretty positive. I feel like I want to reaffirm the experience I’ve had in my Program, (currently ranked #11 in the country according to Seth Abramson), because I want to make sure there’s a voice in defense of this thing I’m in. “Please, don’t write another negative article,” a friend pleaded. “Write a positive one. Make us feel legitimate.”

DOUBT

Because maybe you’ve heard: there’s been a lot of talk about how American Fiction is doomed as we know it. Several provocative books have recently come out to spur this conversation along. One is The Program Era: Postwar Fiction And the Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl. The second is Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields. The third one is Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.

Last semester, I took a brilliant course–(and I’m being earnest, I might copy some of his syllabus for my undergraduates)–designed by one of my favorite writers, Jonathan Lethem. The theme of the course–though he may disagree with my appellation–was CRAFT 101: FAILED WRITERS.

In this class about Failed Writers and their Failed Writing, we read several important texts. Lost Illusions, by Balzac. New Grub Street, George Gissing. Lost in the Funhouse, John Barth. “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way,” David Foster Wallace. (Notice the pattern yet?) Old School, Tobias Wolff. Sixty Stories, Donald Barthelme. Lorrie Moore, People Like That Are The Only People Here.” In these texts, writers are disillusioned not only with life but with the act of writing, narrative, language, even the idea of art itself.

My Paintbrush recreation of McGurl's flowchart

The moral of Lethem’s class seemed to be: “This job–writing–is a dangerous one. Proceed with caution.” Fair warning. Self-identify as a weakling? Best find another occupation, son.

Of all these terrifying and perplexing books, perhaps the most perplexing was McGurl’s The Program Era. As an MFA student on “Planet MFA” reading McGurl’s book from “Planet PhD,” the experience felt not unlike being a monkey in a research lab who has just come across the research notes. What is it saying, we hoot in panic! We don’t really understand it! But is it saying that this is actually a bad experiment? That the “creative” in “creative writing” is being hand-wrung of all its funky juices?

Louis Menand writes in his review that the book depicts entertainingly “the world of creative writing as an ant farm, in which writer-ants go about busily executing the tasks they have been programmed for. Writing is a technology, after all, and there is a sense in which human beings who write can be thought of as machines.” There’s nothing wrong with this project; McGurl simply wants to analyze the systems through which writing is now produced to see if he can find some patterns.

But if  Program Products can be boiled down into so many generalizations, which McGurl does successfully, it seems strange that anyone who self-identifies as “creative” would willingly subject herself to such an experiment. To go to school is to be schooled; that seems obvious. It’s the idea of attempting to school art that makes us uncomfortable. David Shields might argue that this schooling is what causes literature to be behind the times, inclining writers toward old-timey third-person omniscient fiction when we should be embracing new forms! Hybrid works! The personal essay! (He’s an Iowa grad, I see where he’s coming from.)

Elif Batuman reignites the debate in her new article “Get a Real Degree,” by paying special attention to McGurl’s argument that one of the faults of MFA Programs is that it has helped teach technique so well and made so many good writers that we simply can’t read them all. It’s not that the Program has made us worst writers, it’s that it’s made us so good it’s impossible to tell who is bad anymore. Higher education is the great equalizer; but apparently this isn’t the the goal with art.

arleton Auditorium, University of Florida, Gainesville. ca. 1980, Photo courtesy of Harry Crews

THE MFA PONZI SCHEME

MFA graduates who have left the nest and are now teaching “Creative Writing” at obscure colleges experience another unexpected disillusionment, that perhaps they’re participating in an “MFA Ponzi Scheme” of sorts. There’s no way some of these students are going to “make it,” they think. Hack writers teaching more hack writers ad infinitum will lead to more accredited hack writers than the world can sustain. I’ve noticed that the people who like to use this phrase are writers who are very smart but antisocial and harbor grim, post-apocalyptic visions of the future.

TO MFA OR NOT MFA

The essential question, TO MFA OR NOT MFA, is one that obsesses every burgeoning writer. Entire blogs and youtube channels have been made to talk about this very question. Go there if you find this discussion really gripping. For now, here is some loose data:

New York Times Hardcover Fiction Top Five

  1. SAFE HAVEN, Nicholas Sparks — No MFA
  2. FREEDOM, Jonathan Franzen — No MFA
  3. WICKED APPETITE, by Janet Evanovich — No MFA
  4. THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST, by Stieg Larsson — Swedish, therefore, No MFA
  5. THE HELP, by Kathryn Stockett — No MFA

NewYorker’s  20 Under 40 List with Age and MFA Breakdown

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 32 — Johns Hopkins
Chris Adrian, 39 — Iowa
Daniel Alarcón, 33 — Iowa
David Bezmozgis, 37 — No Writing MFA
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, 38 — Iowa
Joshua Ferris, 35 — UCI
Jonathan Safran Foer, 33  — No MFA
Nell Freudenberger, 35  — NYU
Rivka Galchen, 34 — Columbia
Nicole Krauss, 35 — No MFA
Yiyun Li, 37 — Iowa
Dinaw Mengestu, 31 — Columbia
Philipp Meyer, 36 — Michener Center
C. E. Morgan, 33  — No MFA
Téa Obreht, 24 — Cornell
Z Z Packer, 37 — Iowa
Karen Russell, 28 — Columbia
Salvatore Scibona, 35 — Iowa
Gary Shteyngart, 37 — Hunter
Wells Tower, 37 — Columbia
My own addition: Tao Lin, 27 — Disowned by NYU

A lot of these writers have MFAs. Are they writers because they have MFAs and were taught in that crafty MFA way? Or are they writers because they are writers?

Having had Jonathan Safran Foer (No MFA) as a workshop teacher I can testify that while he’s a talented writer, he wasn’t the most solid “craft” teacher. He seemed to lack (or resist) the vocabulary other teachers used to talk about structure, tone, voice. “You’re being lazy,” he would say. I wanted to know–how? I perked up. But maybe I was being lazy! It was just the feeling one got from reading my writing. The best advice I got from him was when he told me to “be more cruel” in my dialogue.

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t really know. Be more cutting.”

“Cutting?”

“Yeah. Maybe.”

I liked this advice, because it pointed to something good writing needed to have that wasn’t easy to locate or fix. In his class, instead of talking about sentence construction, we had conversations about magic and illusion; we told each other oral stories; we were visited by a rabbi and Liev Schreiber. Jonathan’s own practice was an intuitive one that couldn’t be shared; it was a practice learned from the gut. Was this non-crafty teaching any better?

CONCLUSION

As for me and a lot of the classmates and writers I queried, we find this debate about whether to MFA extremely dull. “How can free time and community support be a bad thing?” “If anything, I feel more free to experiment because I’m exposed to writing I wouldn’t otherwise have read.” For a person who really wants to become a writer, none of this matters. She will go to school if she feels it will help her become a better writer; she will not go if she feels it will harm her. She will teach in a Program if she needs the money, she will not teach if she is can find another way to make a living. Even if she decides the Program is nonsense, she can go her own way. Publishers for the most part (I still believe, having worked for a publisher) don’t really care if a writer has gotten an MFA. Unlike other fine arts, which perhaps have more stringent MFA policies, writers can still become insanely successful without any institutional hand holding. Writing, thankfully, is still a singles event–we choose our own music and sequined outfits and dance our hearts out, even if nobody is looking. The hope is that eventually, someone will.

Perhaps there is still come collective nostalgia for the kind of old-school extremism which I always associate with the image of an enormous Charles Olson clad in unwashed sarape raging on a tabletop at Black Mountain, or Gordon Lish publicly and ruthlessly ridiculing seemingly okay lines these poor students have labored over. Maybe that’s what it takes to convince people we are really trying our best to make work that is compelling and good and full of heart. Maybe Programs do baby us, as McGurl suggests, and what we need instead is to be torn down, discouraged, and see who survives in the end. But life is already like that: life is going to be the real test, the real art school. And none of us will be able to avoid that.

Right now I have a workshop with Zadie Smith, who is the most precise teacher I have ever had. She is also incredibly blunt and truthful in her comments. She reasons with us like we are committed adults and we take her advice seriously. She puts our writing on an overhead projector and line-edits each page. She pays attention. “Cliche?” She writes in the margin. “What’s new about this?” and then “Really?” For this specificity, we adore her–unanimously. Zadie doesn’t have an MFA.


Anelise Chen is an editor at Hydra Magazine. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gigantic, Thieves Jargon, No Dear and elsewhere. She is an MFA student at NYU. More from this author →