Interviews July 2007

Writers in Training

Edward J. Delaney discusses the country's best graduate writing programs and how to compare them

"Trying to assess graduate programs is like rating the top ten party schools,” writes journalist and fiction writer Edward J. Delaney in “ Where Great Writers Are Made,” his essay in this summer’s Atlantic fiction issue. “You can count how many bottles go in, and how many empties go out, but you can’t prove the party was fun.”

Delaney set out to assess the burgeoning—and predominantly American—phenomenon of the graduate program in creative writing.  Thirty years ago, he notes, there were 50 programs; today the number hovers around 300. Most of these programs offer a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing (some offer an MA). All claim to allow a certain amount of time for a student to work on the craft of writing in a chosen genre, and with completion, to confer a degree that will enable the writer (in theory) to find a teaching position in a university.

Also see:

"Close Reading" (2006 Fiction Issue)
Learning to write by learning to read. By Francine Prose

Flashbacks: "So You Want To Be a Writer" (August 14, 2006)
Wallace Stegner, Francine Prose, John Kenneth Galbraith, and others offer advice to aspiring wordsmiths.

"Writers and Mentors" (2005 Fiction Issue)
Rick Moody thinks back to his earliest years as a writer, and the kind of teaching that helped or hindered him.

"The Perils of Literary Success" (2005 Fiction Issue)
Her novel, unexpectedly, became a best seller. Then the fun began. By Curtis Sittenfeld.

Delaney made in-person visits to about 30 creative writing programs and interviewed program directors, faculty, students, and graduates of many more. The success of these programs, he found, was difficult to measure. Yes, publication of a highly regarded book soon after a student’s completion of the degree might mean that a program can share in the credit for that writer’s success. But what if the writer publishes ten years after graduation, when myriad other influences may have played a part? What if that writer’s graduate school mentors have since moved on to other programs or that writer’s success comes in a genre she didn’t study in graduate school at all?

And yet, as immeasurable—or meaningless, as some might argue—a degree in creative writing may be, Delaney found that there was enough consensus of opinion to produce a top-ten list.  In the resulting article—a piece that should be required reading for any prospective student in creative writing – he discusses his observations in depth.

There are many factors, he emphasizes, that an aspiring writer can consider in comparing MFA programs. Some offer students more funding. Some are smaller and focus on community in a way that the larger, more urban programs might not. Some offer teaching fellowships. Some  offer a  low-residency  option, which allows a writer to correspond with mentors by e-mail, only meeting for intensive week-long craft sessions once or twice a year. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop has been around the longest—it had about a thirty-year head start on the others—and its reputation, its output of successful writers, and, as Delaney notes, it’s “mythology” remain strong.

One measurable factor is the number of applicants a given program receives versus the number of students accepted. The University of California at Irvine, The University of Michigan, and The Michener Center at the University of Texas (the latter two of which are among the top-funded schools) each saw about 500 applications for their 5 or 6 openings. Those are tough odds.

In “The Words & the Bees: Advice for Graduating MFA Students in Writing,” D.W. Fenza, the executive director of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, writes that MFA recipients are now so numerous as to be “part of a great democratic experiment in public access to higher education and the arts. [They] are part of a new plurality.” The MFA program is indeed an intriguing experiment, and its effect on American literature is something to watch closely. What does the growing popularity of these programs mean? Do these droves of aspiring writers bode well for American literature? Is it as problematic as it seems that more and more people are studying “serious” literary fiction while fewer and fewer Americans are reading it?

Delaney’s essay offers an instructive overview of the playing field, showcasing not only the most prominent schools, but also an array of lesser-known programs that nonetheless have strong reputations, strong teachers, a unique personality, or are doing something innovative in the classroom. (He notes there are also many other strong programs, however, that he didn’t have room to mention.)

A selection of Atlantic fiction by Edward J. Delaney:

"The Warp and the Weft" (November 2001)

"The Drowning" (March 1994)

Delaney himself is both a journalist and fiction writer. He has written a novel, Warp & Weft and a collection of short stories, The Drowning and Other Stories, a number of which were first published in The Atlantic. Before trying his hand at fiction, he received an MA in journalism from Boston University, and he now teaches mostly journalism classes at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. Like countless writers before him, he learned to write fiction simply by writing and by reading other great writers; proof that getting a graduate degree in creative writing is not the only way to learn how to write.

Jessica Murphy

How many creative writing programs were you able to visit? And while you were there what were you looking to observe?

I visited about 30 schools and did phone interviews or in-person interviews with people at another hundred to 150. A lot of the interviews I did were at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Atlanta. At the places I visited I wanted to get a feel for the curriculum and what role the workshop plays in the teaching of creative writing. I found that at most places the workshop is still the center of what’s done. So the next question was, What are they doing outside of the workshops? If 50% of your curriculum is the workshop, the other 50% may range from literature courses to specialized craft courses to things like guest speakers and other outside activities. On paper, some programs might not seem to have the most cutting-edge curriculums, but a lot of them bring in so many different types of speakers and have so many different types of outside events that they basically fulfill the same goals.

The workshop seems to be the main mode of teaching, but not everyone is in agreement about its value as a pedagogical tool. When I interviewed Francine Prose last year, she said she doesn’t teach workshops anymore. She prefers to teach classes on close reading because she feels that close reading is a better way to learn to write. What are your thoughts on that? Did you hear that view expressed by others?

I did hear that from some.  If you’re in a top program where you can virtually guarantee that every student coming in is extremely well read, highly motivated, talented as a writer, and has a desire to help the others in the workshop, then the workshop can really function well. One workshop I particularly enjoyed was at Boston University with Ha Jin. The perceptiveness of the students and the way they helped their fellow students work through a piece really seemed to strike the right tone. A lot of that comes from the faculty member, who is as much a facilitator in this dynamic as a teacher. But at some of the newer or less selective programs, I found that you do tend to get a high number of students who haven’t read much. I met students at some of those programs who, while they seemed to be very capable writers, were only beginning to read seriously as graduate students. And if the workshop is made up of people who don’t have a lot of reference points, that tends to be less effective.

To what extent did you find that MFA programs today are stressing reading within their curriculum? Do some stress it more than others?

There’s definitely a range. There was one creative writing professor I talked to who completely dismissed the whole notion of having to be well read. He used himself as an example, and explained that before he came to writing he had only read a small number of acclaimed works, and that those few had been enough to give him the momentum to want to become a writer. The question for most is not should you read, but what should you read? Are you better off reading a work that is generally considered a classic? Or are you better off reading a lot of works that have been successful and acclaimed in the last ten years? Someone I interviewed pointed out that if you want to learn to make movies, Sure, it’s good to watch Citizen Kane, but what you really need to know is what came out last year. At some of the top programs, I think there is just a presumption that the students are already well read and that the focus should now be on the writing. But some of the students at those top programs admitted they hadn’t done all that much reading beforehand.

Did you see any innovative structures within the workshop setting? I know there are a lot of different ways to set up a workshop, so I wondered whether sitting in on so many had introduced you to any that worked especially well.

They seemed in a lot of ways much the same. On the workshop level you’re mostly dealing with shorter pieces and addressing their most visceral elements—the things that people can react immediately to. Dealing with chapters of a novel over a longer period of time, though, is more difficult; it’s a lot to ask your fellow workshoppers to stay with something like that over a sustained period of time. So one workshop that I found to be especially innovative was at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington where they had specifically put together a class on how to do those longer works.

What were some of your general impressions of the teachers you met?

Teachers of creative writing today are far, far more serious and devoted to the art of teaching than their predecessors.  I interviewed a lot of people who went to creative writing programs twenty, thirty years ago and felt that they really didn’t get much from their faculty. A lot of the faculty in those days tended to focus mostly on their own writing. And the workshop model sometimes turned into a racket for people to sit back, let the students do the work, and not really bring that much to the table themselves.

Presented by

Jessica Murphy Moo

Jessica Murphy, a former Atlantic staff editor, is the 2006-2007 Milton Center writing fellow in Seattle, Washington. Her writing has appeared in Poets & Writers Magazine and her fiction has appeared in Memorious magazine.

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