Grad School for Writing - Do you either have it or you don't?

This friend of mine – I’ll call her Sat on Cookie– is thinking about grad school for creative writing. She’s done some writing in the past and currently. Getting published in a big way is always going to be her goal. After about 18 years of false starts, she’s finally finishing her undergrad degree.

Now, the fact that there’s not a surplus of creative writing jobs out there makes grad school intriguing. After all, she’d be earning credits toward her Master’s while being kicked in the butt (by way of having assignments due, etc.) to creatively write. Maybe something from the experience might even be publishable.

Financially, school would be an okay option for her.

Some of her friends think it’s a great idea, others think you either have it or you don’t, and that no amount of further education is going to make a better creative writer outta anyone.

If she didn’t go to grad school, and she couldn’t secure a position as a writer working for The Man, she’d probably get a job with skills from her former life as an executive assistant. She’d be making adequate dough-age and would continue writing on her own.

Any opinions for my friend?

Was it Mark Twain who said that genius without education is like silver in the mine, or something like that?

I went to grad school for writing, but a different kind - I have a master’s degree in print journalism from Boston University. There was a heavy focus on writing skills, in addition to the media law and reporting techniques we also learned.

Grad school, when done right, really gives you a new understanding of the subject and a substantial new set of skills - even if it’s only a one-year program, and even if you already have work published.

You see, writing is a lot more left-brained than it looks. Think of it like painting - the artist needs vision, but the artist also needs to know which paints to use and what they’ll look like when they mix or dry. Although writing may seem more straightforward, it’s not. It helps to know your tools, their capabilities, and thier limitations.

Grad school can be expensive, but if that’s not an issue, I say go for it.

I went to grad school for poetry back in the early 80s, Sat on Cookie. I knew going in that I wasn’t going to wind up with the world at my feet. It was poetry after all. The experience gave me the time to write, but also racked up a hefty debt and if I had it to do over again I probably wouldn’t. I wish I could tell you that the degree was worthwhile, but I dropped out of the program, for financial reasons, a semester before I would have finished my M.F.A. The experience, short of the degree, was only marginally so.

Just make sure you research the bejeezus out of the program before you fork over your money and time. Some writer’s programs are wonderful, others YMM frighteningly, drunkenly crankily, bitterly, backbitingly V.

Keep writing SoC, whatever you choose to do. Feel free to email me if you like. Though anything I could tell you is now long out of date. Good luck!

Tough question. I doubt any graduate faculty at any institution has the foggiest clue what it takes “to get published in a big way.” Even established authors have difficulty explaining why certain works succeed and other ones do not. What they do know is that major success isn’t formulaic. It can’t be taught.

If your friend’s objective is to gain invaluable skills–and solid connections–she should consider a top-rated grad program. But if her actual goal is to parlay said education into a Big Seller, she’s setting herself up for an expensive and disappointing lesson. My take? Just the exposure might take her in a fresh new direction. Obviously, she would want the best program she can afford and qualify for.

I went through a graduate program in creative writing. However, at the time I started, I had already sold several short stories and a novel.

You can’t really teach someone to be a writer, but you can make the learning process easier. The skills involved in writing fiction are varied, subtle, and diverse, and a good teacher can help you avoid the dead ends and shorten the learning curve. It can also make you look at your writing in different ways.

Your ultimate success as a writer won’t come from anything you learn in the writing course.

OTOH, a MFA in writing can get you a job as a writing teacher in colleges, so it isn’t entirely useless (though the idea of people getting degrees in order to teach others to get their degrees so they can teach others to get their degrees seems a bit recursive to me).

My own degree was extremely useful in getting my job in I&TS at a college, since they needed someone with a Masters to teach a computer lab, and it didn’t matter what the Masters was in. It was also useful as a way to polish my writing.

Thank you for the feedback.

I want to clarify that when I said she wants to get published in a big way - oh, screw the third person - I meant that it has always been my goal to write a novel on my own, versus be a part of someone else’s project, or some magazine, or or or. I don’t mean that my goal is to write the next blockbuster, just to keep in line with the independence of my own projects. I realize that “getting published in a big way” was probably an inaccurate term for my goals!

I think my reasons for continuing my education would be to be able to “learn the right brushes to use” as Daniel says, to make some contacts, and to provide myself with a structured environment.

I don’t have much (any) choice about schools, as I have a Mr. Sat on Cookie who is established and cannot move. A big bonus for me is that the program I am considering is essentially run by a former professor who is a fan of my style (not everyone is; it’s humor). He’s quite serious about writing (obviously) and I think I would learn from him and the other professors, without a doubt.

So, I guess that’s the long and short of it. I suppose an M.F.A. won’t make a difference in terms of employment but it could make a difference in terms of connections and working on my writing.

I don’t see any downside here. If you’re fine with the major investment of time, money and angst, go for it. You’d probably regret it otherwise.

But first…

First, get thoughtful feedback from current and former students regarding the strengths/weaknesses of the program. You say the department chairman enjoys your genre. Question is: What can he teach you to improve it? Question to ask students: What do you know now that you wish you had known before you enrolled?
And: What one thing would you change about this program?

Going through any grad program is hard work. Before taking the plunge, you should clearly understand what you’re getting into. Realize that, in a sense, a college/university is just another business schlepping an expensive intangible. So, sit in on a class or two, catch some students at the lounge, interview faculty. Giving prospects the rosy-glasses treatment is par for course, meaning that you should dig for information requisite to the investment inherent in obtaining an MFA. Heck, you could probably write a magazine article on your experience.

I would like to recommend four things to you in addition to your schooling:

  1. READ lots and lots of humor observantly: The Moon’s A Balloon and Bring on the Empty Horses – both by David Niven. I can’t remember which came first. All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriott. Lake Woebegon by Garrison Keillor. A collection of Mark Twain. Dave Barry. James Thurber.

But also read Gertrude Stein and Hemingway.

I’m sure that you and others can add to this list easily.

  1. Travel abroad. Everyone is funny in Europe.

  2. Journal even when not travelling. But have a place to do it privately. An LJ is so different from what you might write with the doors locked and your back to the wall.

  3. Keep writing for yourself while you are in school. If nothing else, write about your experiences in school.

The reason that I am encouraging you to get the schooling is that I think that your instincts are already telling you to do it.

I’ll have my MFA in fiction from St. Marys of California this year. I’m sticking around another year to get one in nonfiction. Two years to write is a precious gift. If you are good enough to get into a good program, and writing is something you want to do, it’s a great thing to do. Your work will get a lot of attention, you’ll make connections and slip into that great amorphous thing called “the writer’s community,” and you’ll hear some stuff that WILL inform your writing.

Working in a vacuum only works for a select few. Having people whose opinion you respect spend time on your work can only help.

I’ve heard about the reputation MFA programs have for being bitchy and nasty and backstabbing and whatnot, but I haven’t experienced that at all. I’m so glad to be doing this. Go for it, I say.

I’m a professional (nonfiction) writer. I took both fiction and nonfiction writing courses in undergrad schooling. Never went to grad school.

I found nonfiction courses useful because they closely resemble what you’re likely to encounter in the real world: an assignment, on a topic (that either you came up with or someone else did), for a specific market/audience/outlet, with a deadline. It was basically my day-to-day job now, only I didn’t get paid for it then. That was incredibly helpful. It was brutally practical–my best teacher had been an editor at Popular Science and laid out for us exactly how one could go about pitching, researching, and crafting a magazine article. It was fantastic. Like woodshop.

I found fiction classes pretty worthless. Why? Because writing fiction is intrinsically different from writing nonfiction. You DON’T write on assignment. Good nonfiction can be written about something you’re merely curious about, while good fiction, IMO, can only be written about something that’s gnawing at your skull and you have to get out. That never happened to me in the classroom setting. I later had things I desperately wanted to write about, and did, but when I didn’t have such an urge, I didn’t force it. The times I tried to come up with something, the results were obviously uninspired.

So my advice is, stay out of grad school and keep writing in your spare moments. Set up a schedule for yourself. After all

what exactly are you going to do once you have your MFA/Ph.D.? And I don’t mean in terms of putting it to use/feeding yourself (although that’s important, too)–I mean in terms of continuing to work your writing into your daily routine. Unless you miraculously come out of grad school with a hefty book contract and promise of a sequel, it seems unlikely that your future “structured environment” for writing is going to resemble your grad school schedule in the least.

I would keep writing, keep contacts with this prof., and then send him your novel when it’s finished so you can get some input from him.

Meant to address this–I don’t believe that this statement is true insofar as it means “Either you have talent or you don’t”; I don’t put much stock in talent–relentless hard work is just as good, if not better.

Where it is true is that either you currently have a story in you that has to come out, or you don’t. If it’s the latter, you’re going to write a lot of crap.

I somewhat disagree with you on your last post, toadspittle. I have seen writers who have a story in them, and the dedication to keep trying, but don’t have a lick of fiction writing ability in their bones. They try and they try, but it’s just not there. If I wanted to be a singer, and wanted it bad enough to go to classes and all (I can’t sing even a tiny bit), I could become–at best–a decent singer. So I guess what I’m saying is that some measure of talent is necessary.

I agree completely on your previous post, however. If you don’t have the drive to write anyway, what’s going to keep you going once class is over?

Everything I’ve learned about writing has come from the Internet and just flat out doing it, Holly Lisle’s website, SFWA’s site, and Googling various sites taught me more than the two writing classes I’ve taken (continuing ed classes).

Grad school certainly won’t hurt you, but I have my doubts that it’ll help you much either.

I disagree, but I like your style, my friend. :slight_smile:

To become proficient in anything—and, by that, I mean to reach the highest level–you must master an immense body of knowledge and hone your innate talent through relentless hard work. The learning curve in fiction writing is deceptively steep and the path to the summit gained only through supreme dedication. Novice writers will find two paths: (a) the slow, stumbling, trial-and-error path that chips away at self-confidence and leads to premature quitting, or (b) the established path that comes with with seasoned guides. Option B is the systematic approach and greatly speeds (and steadies) your shaky movement up the learning curve. Option B, as you might surmise, is called graduate school.

If you truly want to be your best, the first step (among many steps) is to find an outstanding grad program, even if that means being away from family for a year. Whatever your goal, whether to learn to play the guitar or write shimmering prose, there is nothing quite like the experience of immersion–of rubbing shoulders with major talents and opening mind and heart to their wisdom.

Your lighthearted analogy of becoming a good singer is apt. Ever notice that everyone from Olympic athletes to artists, from dancers to singers and potters all have coaches–everyone, that is, except writers? The overwhelming majority of writers stall early in their development because they embark upon their writing careers alone–without an experienced guide to help navigate the shoals. Sad to say, a writers’ group or odd continuing education course won’t begin to cover the bases, and the admonition to write write write is meaningless without knowing—and I mean really knowing—the art and science of fiction writing. The artistic elite reach such exalted proficiency only by paying their dues and learning from the masters.

Seems like your time would be better spent finding some informal writing group to do some woodshedding with. Or finding some small paper that might take you on as a columnist.

Creative writing, I would think, is not a pursuit where anyone cares if you have an advanced degree.

Ah, but Carnac, you can find all that information out on the Internet. You really don’t have to go to school to learn it. I have a business degree, and I’m a computer programmer. None of that taught me how to write fiction. But reading novels, reading websites dedicated to teaching you how to write, writing novels and submitting them, joining online writer communities and talking with other writers has taught me to write. I still have a lot to learn, and hopefully, that will always be the case. I don’t have any fiction published, but I’ve written three novels and I’m quite published in non-fiction (and slowly gaining ground fiction-wise).

Obviously, I chose your Option A (minus the quitting part). I don’t think there’s anything wrong with your Option B; I just disagree about the necessity of it.

I think Benjamin Franklin.
But what is the quote trying to imply? That silver isn’t as good as gold, or a genius without education is good enough?

Um, if the silver is still in the mine it’s worthless to you, isn’t it? You have to mine it before it helps you in anyway.

Thank you all for your thoughtful and helpful replies. I can honestly see the pros and cons.

If accepted, I will probably go. However, if I’m not accepted I feel a bit more comfortable with some other options that have been mentioned. (I recently started being a bit more concerned about acceptance since I have talked to some folks at school who have been denied and who I thought would’ve easily been accepted).

As I said, I don’t have the option of scoping out different schools -Mr. Cookie is established and I’m not going without him!

We’ll see what happens, and thanks again for the input. :slight_smile:

Continuing with the silver mine analogy:

Digging a mine where there is no silver won’t produce anything either. In this case, education without the raw talent will not produce the desired result.

I’d really like to be a world class sprinter. I’d like to win an Olympic gold medal in the 100 meter dash. Guess what? I ain’t fast enough, and no amount of coaching is going to make it happen.

If you’ve got confidence in your talent, then by all means attend the grad school. If you feel your talent is marginal, go if you’d like to learn some things, but it may not result in your desired goal of getting a Big Novel published.

Good luck, whatever you decide.