What does “MFA” stand for?

Fellow blogger Chicklit provides this link to a great story by Margo Rabb, published in All-Story.  Rabb provides a funny and insightful perspective on MFA programs.  I’ve always had mixed feelings about MFA programs:  sometimes I want to enroll in the one at my local university, and take advantage of the “connections” I might be able to make; other times I want to just hole up with my laptop and write what I want to write, damn the critics.

My opinion is colored by my own experience in a creative writing program (what my local university had before they developed an MFA program).  I was ostensibly a literature major but took writing workshops because I wanted to develop my writing.  So much of what I observed during the two years in that program are captured in Rabb’s story:  the favoritism, the unskilled (and thus worthless) workshop critiques, the sexual games among the students, the competition.  

I was lucky in that most of the students in the program treated me kindly.  I had so little confidence in my writing that I obviously wasn’t a threat to any of them.  I also was happily married at that time (and still am … to the same guy even) and avoided the after-class bar and bed hops.   What disappointed me about the experience–and why I would loathed to attend writing workshops again–was the fact that I came out of it with no more confidence in my skill as a writer than I did going in.  

Yes, I did receive praise for a couple of my stories from one of the more highly regarded workshop professors, and I even won a graduate student writing award (although that was for a literary essay, not a short story).  But what has unfortunately stayed with me was the high ridicule expressed over one of my stories during one workshop, a story that had an autobiographical basis.  I didn’t know how to deal with the humiliation, nor why I had to be humiliated, no matter how bad my story was.  Like the narrator of Rabb’s story, I wept bitterly.

The fallibility of the workshop professor was also a disappointment.  His overt favoritism toward some students sparked ill-will within the group, and his was always the “last word” in the workshops.  One time I strongly argued on behalf of another student regarding a technique she had used in her story.  I said it worked; he said it didn’t.  His opinion squashed mine, which could have been OK if only I had been allowed to make my argument in full.  

So I guess I still have some grudges–15+ years and counting.  But since then (and most recently), I’ve engaged a paid writing mentor who provided criticism and support, and found myself writing more in these past three years than I had in the previous ten.  I’ve also shared my stories with friends, again getting needed criticism but also much needed support.  I think my former professor would consider me delusional to rely solely on the feedback of friends and paid mentors.  But so what?  I am writing, and I am being read, even if (at this time) by a very small group.  It’s enough to sustain me and encourage me to, as one friend commands, “keep writing”!

6 thoughts on “What does “MFA” stand for?

  1. @KJ
    I’ll have to check out your response to Midiguru. I expect it to be a fun read 😉

    I agree with your comments. A writer who is unnecessarily cruel in his or her criticism of another writer’s work is simply immature. These unconstructive, cruel critics probably just like to hear themselves talk. They may think that they are incredible wits while, for me, they are incredible boors. I’ve been lucky to have been the target of such a boor only a couple of times in my long life.

    I agree that workshop comments can sound like “theatrical performance.” I noticed that many of the students in my creative writing program also seemed to be “performance artists,” some literally so and others just by their colorful personalities. It was a daunting atmosphere for someone as introverted as myself. I was a writer, which for me meant the opposite of a public speaker or a performer. I know that’s why I failed miserably in my one (and only) semester teaching first-year composition. I could not perform in front of twenty 18-year-olds, in stark contrast to my more extroverted classmates. I guess that’s another reason why I liked having a long-distance mentor. Our communication was 100% through the written word, and I didn’t have to compete with students whose personalities might glow brighter than mine.

  2. Thank you for the link to my blog. I had a very similar experience with a slightly autobiographical story as well. I understand criticism and I don’t think I’m particularly thin-skinned, but I think sometimes writers tend to be unnecessarily cruel when discussing one another’s work. I recall realizing late in my fourth semester that the workshop comments sounded more like a theatrical performance than a discussion, as though the students were commenting so they could show how much they knew rather than for the benefit of the writer.

  3. @KJ
    You’ve hit the nail on the head–perseverance! As hard (and expensive) as it is you just have to keep sending your stuff out. Best of luck to you in your writing endeavors!

    Thank you for mentioning my post on your blog. I agree that it’s important to have good critics to point out areas for improvement in one’s writing. I admit that I was quite thin-skinned back in my creative writing program days, and it hasn’t thickened much since. That’s where the long-distance writing mentor helped–I can take the criticism as long as it was in a letter and not to my face in front of a bunch of near strangers.

    I’m also lucky that my husband and friends aren’t afraid to tell me when my writing doesn’t “work.” For me, that’s the point of pulling together a group of readers–to get that kind of feedback. Of course, I want to hear positive things, but I also want to know when something doesn’t work right. A good reader can tell you where you went right and where you went wrong, and a good writer will always want to know both!

  4. I’ve just posted a response to K. Jayne’s response. You’ll find it at midiguru.wordpress.com/2008/07/20/what-does-good-mean/.

    For what it’s worth, your assessment of your college writing program seems eminently sensible. It’s important to find a supportive peer group. That said, it’s also valuable to have people point out the weaknesses in your stories, and to be able to see where the criticisms are valid. If you can’t manage that, you’ll find it very difficult to improve.

  5. Here here! Hang in there. If you believe in your writing, that’s the most important thing. I don’t have an MFA, nor any other degree, but I believe (and have been told) that I am as good as any other writer being published today. And one of these days, our perseverance will pay off.


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