Interviews July 2007

Writers in Training

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

Why don’t “genre” writers tend to get faculty positions in prestigious writing programs? Is it snobbery? And will that maybe start to change?

There is definitely an orientation at most of the better programs to teach a certain type of “serious” fiction. A couple of people I asked about that seemed to feel that if you learn to write serious fiction, you’ll learn the basics of good writing and that you can always then apply that to genres later because genre writing is more formula based.

What advice would you give to a young writer who’s about to go into one of these programs?

There were some people in those workshops who clearly thought they already knew what good writing was. So they tended to criticize from a particular position they had already taken. That seems a shame. Because there are an assortment of people in a program—both faculty and peers—who can really help you shake up all your perceptions about writing. And that would seem to me to be the best part about being there.  If you’re really looking to be a better writer, why not be open to every suggestion and see what happens?

There also seems to be a growing perception that the work you do while you’re in the program should be the work that you get published rather than as the stuff you work on in order to learn how to write. The result is that many people are getting too narrowed down too soon. Students who bring work they’ve already been working on for years find it especially difficult to free themselves from what they’ve been doing. Several of the faculty members I spoke to said that what we need to help the students understand is that your best writing isn’t going to happen for years, so loosen up, be open to suggestions and really try to something different for the sake of trying something different. That competes with that natural desire to prove as soon as possible that it was worth going away to school for this. Someone who simply graduates with an MFA may feel they have a less defensible position than someone who graduates with a book contract.

If you were to give advice to a graduate of one of these programs what would it be?

I guess I’d have to quote Chang Rae Lee [the Korean-American novelist who teaches writing at Princeton] who I talked to and who basically said that you have to recognize that the degree in and of itself only does so much. If someone goes to Harvard for an MBA, one can presume that that becomes their calling card. But even with the top programs, this may be how you get rolling, but there’s a whole lot more to do from here.

I went to the AWP convention, which had a huge number of attendees who were either currently in programs or had recently graduated. It was interesting to talk to groups of people from various programs who had been out maybe two or three years. They were using the convention as something of a reunion opportunity. And they were definitely comparing notes on who had published, how many stories or poems in what publication, and so on. Certain people were like racehorses—way out in front. And there was an inordinate amount of attention focused on who had accomplished what. Because people were trying to figure out, to some extent, whether it had been worth going to a program like this.

That can be really tough, that kind of competitiveness.

Right. If Student A, or recent graduate A gets published in a top magazine or quarterly, and the other writer’s struggling away and hasn’t really published anywhere yet, does that mean anything? It may well not.

Some of these programs are extraordinarily selective. Your piece points out, for example, that last year Johns Hopkins only admitted two fiction writers.

That’s right.

That’s really tough odds for the applicant. In terms of the application, would you say that the writing sample is the most important part?

That’s what I kept hearing. It can be frustrating that you can’t send them 500 pages of your work so they can really get a sense of it. Instead, you send them somewhere from 10 to 50 pages on average and from that some sort of determination gets made. A couple of the people I spoke to in some of the better programs talked about how they had agonized over whether to send this short story or that one, or a little of this and a piece of that, because they understood how crucial the samples are.

A number of the top programs told me, “We had 12 slots,” let’s say, for fiction writers. “We offered our first twelve, and all twelve accepted and came here.”  I heard that from a number of the top programs, and I know that a lot of students apply to all of these programs. So it suggests to me that each of these programs, either consciously or unconsciously, is choosing certain types of writers. That then shapes what their programs are like. For example, if Michigan gets all the writers that they offer places to on the first round and Iowa gets all theirs and Irvine gets all theirs, and yet all these people applied to all three programs, then that suggests that there is no absolute as to who are the best. It’s a matter of something about each of their writing appealing to someone in a particular program, which indicates a good match.

That’s encouraging, I think. It sounds like they’re really reading and choosing very carefully.

It seems they are. They say they are. They made a lot of the fact that January is usually crunch month, where you’re just sitting and reading and reading and reading because, ultimately—especially with the programs that only accept 5 or 6—these are really crucial decisions that can’t be taken lightly.

You write that “at some programs, famous writers seem guilty of propagating the notion that writing can’t be taught at all.” You probably can’t say who these people are, but my first reaction was: Who are these people? And why do they say this?  Aren’t certain elements of craft teachable? And why is writing such a strange art in this way? An artist teaching someone about visual art or a musician teaching someone about music probably wouldn’t be doubting whether they really have anything to teach.

Well, there are a certain number of people teaching in the programs who just feel like there are no absolutes. They may well be right. But for students, for whom knowing a few absolutes is at least one way of feeling like they’re getting something out of their education, it can be frustrating. What you tend to find is that there are some teachers who would say, “Never say never,” and then there are those who would say “No, always be sure to follow such-and-such rule.”  One thing that people tend to disagree over, for example, is whether you should always know where your story is headed as you’re writing it, or whether you should just let it unfold and see what happens. There are teachers who don’t want to get pinned down saying one or the other. But a lot of the students I talked to seemed to react better to hearing something specific, even if they disagreed with it.

Some of the teachers that I talked to said they would prefer not to even give grades if they had their way. They’d rather set things up like the Stegner fellowships at Stanford where people are supported in their writing and given some feedback, but nothing gets assigned value; you just try to help people move from one step to the next. But some students, particularly at Ivy League schools, said that people in departments other than creative writing don’t take them very seriously, because there isn’t that heavy attrition that goes on in a law program or a medical program. People view it as unserious because once you’re in, pretty much everybody passes.

You have a section at the end of your article about the PhD. There are a number of people writing about this. A recent Poets & Writers article raised the same question that you did about whether the creative writing PhD will be the new MFA. Do you think it’s the new degree people will need to get in order to get teaching jobs? What, in your view, are the ramifications of this potential move into the creative writing PhD?

The US News College Rankings puts a fair amount of weight on the percentage of your faculty who have PhDs. But let’s say you have a business school. Would you rather have someone who’s worked in finance or advertising and has an MBA from Harvard, or someone who has a PhD in business but has never actually worked in business?  The students I talked to about PhD programs weren’t that enthusiastic about the idea. They feel their writing is an art, and they didn’t want to intellectualize it too much.

Do you think the creative writing PhD could have an interesting effect on the traditional PhD in literature? Could it bring fresh eyes to literary theory?

I did note at a lot of programs that there seemed to be a real sense that the people over in the English department had kind of lost touch with what’s really going on in writing and had become much too theoretical and abstract. So maybe the people getting their PhDs in creative writing now are the ones who used to get their PhDs in English years ago – the ones who really want to talk about good stories and have a knowledge base that can illuminate that.

You note that the number of creative writing programs has gone from 50 to about 350 in the last 30 years. What do you think this proliferation means for literature in America?

One thing I found interesting is that as publishers are publishing less and less serious fiction, there are more programs in which the focus of the writing is exactly that. Other than the low-residency programs, which have gone more into genre work, most of the standard programs don’t pay a lot of attention to anything other than what you might call literary fiction. It becomes a very difficult market for all those new writers. So I think there will be good work being done on all kinds of levels, but probably not a tremendous profit motive.

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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