I’ve now reached the end of my 3rd semester as an MFA student. Only one more to go, and then I’ll have a degree! I’ve enjoyed it a lot, actually. The people are fun and interesting (I’ve never been around people who were so interested in books before). The workload is unbelievably light (this day I was free five days a week; next semester I’m going to be free four days a week). The workshop holds me to a high standard and keeps me honest—I’ve produced some of my best work for the MFA workshop. I don’t always follow their specific critiques, but it is always interesting to me to see how real readers respond to my stories.
And it’s been fascinating to see how the literary world works. I’ve found that I’ve picked up tons of information just from osmosis. Unlike the genre fiction world, the literary world is very closed-off: you really only learn things by word of mouth. Being in the MFA program has given me access to writers who’re at later stages of their careers, and, by observing them, I’ve been able to see some of the ways in which it’s possible for things to go down.
All of those things are very true. And yet…I am not sure I can wholeheartedly recommend an MFA to people who ask me about it…
Before I start, I just wanted to issue a disclaimer: I know that tons of people who read this are going to interpret it as being part of the literary vs. genre divide, but that’s not how I intend it at all. First of all, the Writing Seminars have been unbelievably receptive to non-realist work: even professors who only write realism have engaged with my work on its own terms and have provided valuable comments. And, secondly, all of these things also apply to genre workshops.
My problem is that, as interesting as the MFA is and as much as I enjoy it, there’s something about it that feels fundamentally orthogonal to the project of writing fiction. Writing fiction is something that you do primarily inside your own head: it’s a certain sort of thought process. Everything that takes place outside your head can only impinge on the writing of fiction insofar as it changes the nature of that thought process.
I don’t see workshop as being about tinkering with stories and trying to make stories better. I see it as being a process of artistic education. The workshop is attempting to guide each artist towards a better understanding of beauty.
In some ways, that almost seems unnecessary. Beauty feels like it should be something that we see and perceive on an automatic level. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. If it was, there’d be no divide between high and low art. Instead, the ability to perceive beauty is something that requires extensive education. Usually, this education is a self-education. By reading a lot, you come to perceive finer and finer effects. You cannot appreciate something that you cannot see. When you first start reading, you can’t see anything: you’re overawed by the existence of these living pictures in your mind. But as you read more and more (and read more widely), you’re able to compare new books to books that you’ve read before. And through this process of comparison, you start to notice things. And when you start to compare the effect of those things on your soul, you begin to appreciate which things have beauty and which things do not.
But I’m not convinced that formal education is a good way of training someone to perceive beauty. Accepting another person’s instruction re: beauty seems, to me, to require an immense amount of trust and faith. When someone points at something and says, “I feel this way about this thing,” then you need to do your best to follow their eye and look deeply at the thing to which they’re referring and try your best to see that thing too, and to feel that thing too.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to happen very often. I find that usually people (and I am as guilty of this as anyone) will just say, “No. I don’t see that. No. I don’t feel that. My tastes must be different from yours.”
Aesthetic judgments are tied up with too much ego and pride. It’s humbling to admit (even to yourself) that there’s something you are missing. And it sucks to be humbled.
And you know when it’s even harder to admit that you’re blind? When the thing someone is pointing to is something that you created.
In every aspect of creative writing education, from my intro classroom right up to grad-level workshops, I see a lack of communication. We’re pointing and we’re saying words, but very little meaning is being transmitted.
And if a person just says, “Oh, whatever, the workshop is wrong,” then that’s fine. That person isn’t benefitting from workshop, but they’re also not being harmed by it. Their artistic development will proceed just as if they were working alone (although hopefully the workshop will still provide some kind of positive reinforcement—whenever their work does appeal to other people, they will receive praise. In this way, they’ll slowly be trained to move towards what is more beautiful).
But people aren’t stupid. They know they’re not perfect. They know their work isn’t perfect. And they know that their workshop is full of smart readers. So often they’ll come out of workshop saying, “Oh god, the workshop must be right!”
The problem is, they’ll accept the workshop’s judgment without understanding the things that led to the formation of that judgment. So they’ll go back to the story and start changing things in a more or less blind fashion, “Oh, they said the character is unsympathetic. I better have him save a cat in the first act. And they said this conflict is unclear. I’ll explain it over here.”
And then they come back to the workshop and are all like, “Welp, I fixed all the stuff you said was wrong!”
And they’re extremely disheartened when the workshop says that the story is worse than ever.
That’s the worst of all possible worlds. You cannot give up your aesthetic judgment. The only way to use workshop critique is to go back, stare at your story, and learn how to see the same things that your workshop saw. A story can’t come together except by an act of singular vision. If your mode of perception changes, then you can go back and re-envision the story. But what you can’t do is take a singular vision and just throw in a bunch of other peoples’ opinions. If you do that too much, then you’ll eventually learn to distrust your own aesthetic impulses, and you’ll end up destroying your ability to write.
That’s because there does come a moment at which you need to ignore everyone’s opinion. There comes a moment at which you’re doing something new, and it is you who are educating your audience and teaching them (through your work) to perceive a new kind of beauty. If you lose the confidence to recognize and trust in this moment, then you’ll never be a good writer.
It takes a very confident and perceptive person to be just permeable enough to accept guidance right up until the point where they need to start ignoring it. And I don’t think that most artists have those qualities (I certainly don’t).
Luckily, I am way too egotistical and stubborn to put much stock in other peoples’ opinions, so this whole problem is an academic one for me.