The Modern Writing-School Paradox: More Students, Fewer Jobs, More Glory

What explains the boom in MFA and MFA-like programs? The Internet makes the promise of an audience greater than ever, even if the monetary payoff is smaller.

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Flickr / MadLabUK

Never before have there been so many teachers telling so many students how to write. This is very good for the teachers. However meager the money, teaching is a paying gig and a subsidized education. Nothing helps you understand something like being forced to explain it.

The students, though, are a mystery. The number of traditional MFA programs, undergraduate writing programs, non-traditional low-residency writing programs, online writing courses, weekend writing workshops, summer writing conferences, writers' colony retreats, private instruction classes, and How-to-Write books, blogs, and software programs has grown so colossally you'd think there is as much demand for new writers in the marketplace as there is for mobile app designers. You'd be wrong. But given the explosion of writing academies, you may be persuaded to chuck that programming job at Y Media Labs to join the monster literary salon.

Everyone, it seems, wants in. In an extreme case of "Live First, Write Later," Amanda Knox, ex-con author of a blockbuster memoir for which she was paid a celestial $4 million advance, is studying creative writing at the University of Washington. This month in New York, author Simon Critchley taught a class called "Suicide Note Writing Workshop." Writing instruction apparently is now a pen-to-end necessity.

It's curious. As every writer in America who's ever had to do other things to earn a living knows (that would be almost every writer in America), this lava flow of writing instruction has erupted inversely to the number of book, magazine, newspaper, and online publishers who will actually pay writers a decent wage for their words (Amanda Knox's millions notwithstanding). Why are there so many student writers at a time when the death of literature has become accepted wisdom? I'd argue it's a paradox that, like many others, can be explained by the Internet.

There have long been three kinds of writers: writers who write for readers (novelists, poets, memoirists, essayists, journalists, etc.); writers who write for other writers (students); and writers who write for themselves (diarists, shipwreck survivors). The digital age has screwed with the dynamics of that trilogy by turning writing from a solitary, exclusive, private act into a collaborative, inclusive, public one. Anyone with a WordPress account can write for readers, and the mushrooming of the number and type of writing programs has been a field crop for that revolution. If you're going to be a writer, you might as well know something about how to do it, right?

This all crystallized for me when I saw the reaction to an essay I wrote for last month. In it, I used the case of a student writer placing an unexceptionally written but promising piece in The New Yorker online to exemplify the movement of publishers and readers privileging "story" over the craft of writing. That cultural shift has felt like a door blown open to people bursting with tales to tell, and a freshly dug grave for writers who tear at their flesh trying to sculpt perfect sentences (to invoke Truman Capote) while the digital world zips by.

Part of the essay focused on my dissenting view of the University of Michigan's MFA "Zellowships," annual $26k stipends that fund students for a year after graduation, endowed by a historic $50 million dollar gift from Helen Zell. I thought the students would be better served getting out of the academy and into the world, and that the money would be better spent supporting publications that paid writers for work that would be read by real readers. In response, Michael Byers, the director of the Michigan program, blasted me online and, impressively, recruited an army of Wolverines to bare their claws. Byers called me "witless" and my writing "horse puckey." One of his students, in an online magazine essay, referred to me and my ideas as "stupid." Other readers, however, replied more thoughtfully—agreeing, disagreeing, even apologizing for the Michigan robohate, and sharing their personal stories about why they study writing and what led them to it. Many of the writers were people years beyond the age of traditional writing students, with mortgages and dependents. Why were they moonlighting from or quitting their day jobs to pay someone else to teach them to write?

All writing, all creative work, on some level, is about confirmation. (I still send new work to my old teachers.) The sprouting of writing programs indicates that the lure of having people read and applaud your work still outweighs the fears student writers may have about the pain and aggravation of being called "witless" in a public forum. What's changed now is the payoff. The monetary rewards for writing are smaller than in the pre-Internet age. Even if every writing program in the country had a Zell grant to float the post-grads, there's no way that number of writers could enter the profession and sustain the day-to-day of eating and staying dry. But the psychic rewards, the seduction of an audience discovering you right now, have never been greater. Writing classes, which operate with the collaborative-inclusive-public M.O. of Internet writing, are the first step.

Recently, my wife and I were guests at a dinner party. The two other women around the table were both accomplished lawyers who'd been practicing for decades. Both were enrolled in expensive creative writing courses. The hostess wore the easy charm of a lifetime of family privilege and the almanac of names and tales that come with prominence. She did, indeed, have stories to tell, and she dizzied us with a sparkling cocktail of scandal that was the subject of a piece she was working on in class. Her narrative delivery was scattershot, but I drank in every drop of the saga. At the end of the night, after I'd eagerly agreed to read her story, she leaned in to me at the elevator. "I'm thinking of sending it to The New Yorker," she offered. "If they're publishing that one you said wasn't very good, then why not?"