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”!