Unicorn in the wild.

Some days, it feels like a new article is written every ten seconds about the “problem” with MFA programs and Creative Writing departments. These articles seem to blossom during internet lulls, along with those columns on women, can they be funny. These articles come in two forms.

The first amounts to a diatribe about MFA programs flooding the market with homogenized work. There are too many writers, getting ideas! That article refutes itself–it’s painful to watch the jockeying for authenticity, ignorant to the existence of bland work even before the first English department swam ashore.

The second form of article is typically written by some embittered graduate who’s decided that their program didn’t do enough for them. Workshops are terrible! Nobody prepared them! Nobody’s reminding them to do their taxes! One of them showed up in The Awl.

I read it because I have a sliver of masochism migrating back and forth behind my eyes.

The article bothered me, they all bother me, because I went through an MFA program without being scarred for life. Did I somehow catch a mythical beast?

I recognize that there are differences between American and Canadian programs, how the funding works, but my program did have flaws, and my cohort had its share of dramas–not everyone liked each other, some workshops were rougher than others, there was conflict with profs, there was romantic intrigue and gossip. There was jealousy and stress, but no more than I was expecting, going into a group of tempermental artists at the beginning of our careers.

There was also a strong sense of community; any one writer’s success reflected on the group, even if you happened to be having a rough week at the time and resented them for it. That sense of community persists, even after graduation, and it is a sense of community that will have an impact on our careers in the future, both creatively and as a way of opening doors for each other.

The article in The Awl complained about workshops and how destructive they are, which I find perplexing. Workshops require that you follow the two universal maxims: don’t be an idiot, don’t be an asshole. Remember that you are workshopping the piece of writing in front of you, not the person. Remember, if you are being workshopped, that you are not your own work, and if it is to improve, people need to get a bit rough with it at times.

If someone is too busy performing for the sake of the prof–their feedback probably isn’t going to do your any favours anyway. In a workshop of fifteen people, ultimately only four or five are going to be useful to you–there will always be a batch of people who won’t like your stuff on sight, and another batch that will love it so much that they won’t have much to say that you can really use beyond fluffing your ego.

There are solutions, when a workshop is imbalanced. Part of being in the community is finding people whose styles of writing and criticism work well with your own, people who are more engaged and incisive. Find those people, and form other workshops with them. If their criticism is productive for you, never let them go. It is always, always essential that you have other people who know what they’re talking about to look at your work, because you are always going to be blind to its faults and strengths.

My cohort developed extracurricular workshops and thesis workshops when things were rough, and it helped, because we could forgo the formality of the classroom setting and dampen some of the more demanding personalities. Classroom workshops have issues, certainly. They also have advantages, particularly before you’ve had time to develop a relationship with a thesis advisor.

Don’t forget: you probably will never get that kind of rigorous feedback on your work again for a long time. Most rejections are form letters.

The article complained about the lack of “practical” skills–because writing and editing competently aren’t practical skills–which mostly involve grant-writing and personal accountability.

Arts Funding is always a problem. If your department doesn’t direct you to grants, universities always have financial aid departments that can give you guidance. It’s also unlikely that most university writing profs have never written a grant before and wouldn’t give their students help doing so–some of them may have even sat on the boards that read the applications and assigned the money.

Some programs will offer career classes and teaching classes, and those will have varying levels of usefulness in the long run, but you’re ultimately surrounded by writers who know the business and can at least give you some guidance.

Personal accountability, on the other hand, isn’t going to spring forth from your program. Your program won’t teach you how to do them. Your program is full of writers. You want them to teach you about writing. Writers muddle through. Sometimes they hire cheap accountants. I’ve witnessed a surprising amount of accountant/writer crossover, so you might hear about an accountant who specializes in taxes for non-profits and people with complicated income.

The program isn’t your parent, it won’t remind you to take personal responsibility.

MFA programs are an opportunity to hone your skills, studying with writers who have seen different sides of the industry, while taking part in a larger community. It’s a place to make connections. But they’re can’t magically equip you to handle an industry undergoing rapid change, during an a time when the economy is weak and our skills are undervalued.

Yes, funding is tenuous at best. Yes, it is disheartening to work in such an uncertain field when everything we do is consistently and devastatingly undervalued. Yes, it is exhausting to face things seemingly on your own–but why turn against a potential source of support?

These articles are lazy, they perpetuate a stereotype about people in the arts being entitled and backstabbing, they are a terrible cliche that we have allowed ourselves to fall into because we’re scared and uncertain. Writing them–rewriting them, recycling them endlessly–never makes sense to me; I can’t fathom blaming my program for things beyond its control–things that are dependent on capricious chance or my own hustle. If your program doesn’t offer you the things you want, you find them, you ask about them. You help each other. You contribute to your environment and its ability to benefit you.


  • Melissa says:

    Here, here! Thank you for penetrating through the reductive rhetoric and saying something real about our experience. Holding fast to you all, Benny… all the way from Smithers!

  • Anna says:

    AGREED. We still adore each other (mostly). Even from a distance. Our google hangouts prove that. Well written, Ben.

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