Someone applying to my MFA program asked me the other night whether I’m glad I went. “Yes,” I said, “but …” I do have a few complaints. Not many, but a few.
First of all, do you need an MFA? I was told by a workshop leader at the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference back in 2003 that I only needed an MFA if I planned to teach. Another workshop leader said, “Let’s get you into an MFA program”—I guess he saw potential in my writing, but knew that it needed work, and thought an MFA would help. I did plan to teach one day, and I wanted to learn to write better, but I didn’t want to move cross country, so I applied to Mills College in Oakland, a fifteen-minute drive from my house.
When I started Mills in the spring of 2004, I had never taken a creative writing class in my life. I had been working as a newspaper reporter for three years at small monthly and daily newspapers, and I had just joined my first critique group, but that was the extent of my writing experience. I had wanted to study creative writing at UCLA as an undergrad, but it was complicated since I had transferred there as a junior, and it would have delayed my graduation. I started Mills in the spring because, after being accepted there for the fall of 2003, I realized that I couldn’t afford the tuition ($36k). It was only after learning of all the financial aid available that I enrolled the following semester.
Mills requires 11 credits to graduate (each class=1 credit): 4 writing workshops, 4 literature classes, 1 thesis credit (which isn’t a class) and 2 electives. One of the literature classes has to be a craft class, and at least three of your writing workshops have to be in your genre (poetry or prose now, but back then I think prose was divided into fiction and creative nonfiction). I was working at the time and, although I was only taking two classes/semester, I found it difficult to keep up, so for my first writing workshop I submitted pieces that I’d already written and did almost no writing at all. They were excerpts from a memoir I had started, but in no order and with no connection to one another.
During my two and a half years at Mills, I learned a lot about dialogue, description, point of view, and characterization. But I didn’t have much time to write. The fiction classes and electives took up a lot of my time, and I just wanted to write. (For two of my electives, I took classes on how to teach writing—one for composition and the other creative writing. I took a third elective in book binding, which KICKED MY ASS. I pulled three all nighters to get my final project done.)
I learned better critiquing etiquette, although I admit that I rarely read people’s handwritten critiques. I listened in class and took notes (and had good intentions to read all those critiques one day), but revised more based on the comments that stuck in my mind than on specific edits. I wasn’t emotionally invested in my writing, which was very helpful because some people don’t have good critiquing etiquette and can be very harsh. I think all those years modeling in Europe gave me a thick skin when it came to writing.
I learned a lot about writing, but there were some really basic craft elements, like plot, that weren’t taught. When I asked the head of the department why they weren’t being taught, she said it was assumed that writers in an MFA program already knew that stuff and, if they didn’t, they would take the initiative to learn it on their own. That made sense to me. Why bore the people who studied creative writing in undergrad with the basics for the few of us who had never studied it before? So I bought some books and learned what I could on my own.
I loved Mills, and I had great professors, including Yiyun Li, Victor LaValle, and Daniel Alarcón, but I do have a few small complaints. We were only allowed to turn in 75-90 pages of our book for our thesis. I turned in 100, and they were okay with that, but after 2.5 years in an MFA program, I had hoped my book would be complete. Instead, I was too busy revising those first 100 pages to write any more. Another disappointment? My thesis reader and advisor didn’t give me any feedback on my thesis. They both pretty much signed off on it with a bunch of comments like, “Wow!” “Interesting” and “Great!” I was too tired and too anxious to graduate to protest. It was nice not to have to revise, but a year later when I was paying an editor to read it, I was thinking, “Wait. Didn’t I just pay $25,000 for this?” I was also disappointed to learn from that same editor that after all those workshops and lit classes, I still didn’t know the difference between scene and summary. For a $40 lesson, she explained it to me very succinctly. (She, too, was a professor at Mills, but one who taught undergrads, so she was used to explaining the basics.) I realized that for as much as I had learned, I could learn a lot more.
So I left Mills with 100 pages of the first draft of my book completed, a network of writing friends, and a degree that I can use to teach, when I’m ready to teach. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Do you NEED an MFA to write and publish books? Absolutely not. Can you teach without an MFA? If you’re well known enough, yes, but for most people, no, not at the college level. In fact, I know someone who has two novels published (or is it three?) and is earning her MFA in order to teach.
In the end, there is nothing more valuable than butt-in-the-chair experience. Although craft books, critique groups, and writing classes are extremely valuable, there is no substitute for writing as often as you can (every day if possible) and reading everything you can get your hands on.
What about you? Do you think writing can be taught? How did you “learn” to write?