You’re a writer. You’re a teacher. You have a background in journalism, and you also write fiction. But you don’t have an MFA. Before there were MFA programs, people learned to write in other ways. How did you get into writing? And how did you learn to write?
That’s right – I didn’t go to a creative writing program. When I was an undergraduate I wasn’t even vaguely aware there was such a thing. I wasn’t that worldly. I went to Boston University’s school of communications because I wanted a job where I could get paid to write. So that brought me to journalism. And of course, when you’re in a newsroom of any size, there are a lot of aspiring writers—people with the proverbial novel in their top drawer. Over time I moved from being a news reporter to a feature writer and then on to a columnist. And as that evolved I became interested in doing more creative types of writing. As of my early 30s I still didn’t think I’d ever try writing fiction. But eventually I began to make the switch.
It’s interesting that I’m the one who ended up writing this article. I think one of the reasons The Atlantic asked me to do it was because I didn’t have many predispositions or any particular kind of loyalty. I couldn’t be accused of favoring a certain program or type of program; it was all new to me. One of the driving questions I kept asking myself was: What did I miss as someone who didn’t get to do this myself? It’s hard to say. The natural presumption is that if one goes to a graduate program in creative writing, one has to get at least a little better. I’ve never heard anyone say that their writing was ruined by a creative writing program.
One interesting thing to note is that many people attribute their improvement more to their mentor than to the program itself. Often there are programs within programs, where one faculty member has a certain way of looking at things and another does things a completely different way. The result is a program that lacks cohesion, but it gives students an opportunity to find someone congenial whom they can apprentice themselves to.
I’ve heard some writers say that the creative writing degree and the two years it gave them to really focus on their writing probably saved them time. They feel they’ve made gains more quickly than they might have had they just done the reading and writing on their own.
I’m sure. Anyone who’s been through a program where they’ve had to work hard and learn things about their own writing has to be helped by it – especially if they’ve gotten thoughtful, well-meaning guidance.
One of the points you make right up front in your essay is that ranking MFA programs is somewhat of a slippery thing; it’s hard to pin down. Why is it so hard to measure an MFA program’s success?
It was amazing how many times I was given “facts” about a program that were simply not true and hadn’t been true for a long time. For example, even as recently as a week ago, I was chatting with someone who told me that Columbia’s program doesn’t give tenure to its faculty and that they use nothing but part-timers. In fact, that was never completely true, and what was a bit true hasn't been in years. So you have to be aware that when you do a poll or you informally interview people about these programs, they may be operating on misperceptions and out-of-date information.
Another factor is that with these programs there’s usually a certain lag time before it becomes clear whether its graduates are finding success. Harvard Law School can measure its success by something as simple as the percentage of its graduates who pass the bar exam. Or they can gauge how many of its graduates are getting jobs at the top law firms. But with writing programs, it’s understood that for the most part these writers are going to spend a decade or more after graduation toiling away in obscurity, just continuing to work on their craft. So if a student in a program has some success 10 or 15 years later, is that an adequate measure of the program as it exists now? It’s easier for a program to claim that credit if there’s been a lot of faculty stability. If a student who studied with writer X 15 years ago meets some success and writer X is still working at the same institution, then that would seem to be a more accurate measure.
Then of course there’s the question of how one even determines what success means. The traditional measure is: Have you published a hardcover book of short stories or poems or a novel? But a graduate creative writing student from the Columbia program just won a big award at the Sundance Film Festival. As some of these creative writing students move out into the world and start getting into other media and find success there – in television or film or wherever, should they be viewed as successful or unsuccessful in terms of their writing? There are all kinds of new and innovative ways that writers are finding success these days. One of the most interesting places I visited was Brown University, where they don’t call it creative writing; they call it the Department of Literary Arts. Some of those students are working on fiction that can be sent on a cell phone, or in hypertext, and things like that.