Ever since I read Johannes Goransson's post What did I learn at Iowa? I've been meaning to write something about my MFA experience at Bennington, where I studied in the low residency program during the years of Liam Rector's reign. Yesterday when Sean Lovelace mistook my comment 'outside MFA' to mean 'against MFA,' I then felt the time had come to run my mouth.
Looking back at 2 years year round of a low-res creative writing program, there's no question that I loved all my time there, and made some incredible friends (most of whom I've lost contact with now unfortunately), though I still can't say specifically what I paid to learn.
When I was looking around at schools to apply to, I found a lot of online forums from ex-MFAers bitching about how MFA programs are meant to turn you in John Cheever or Ray Carver, that they systematically aim to destroy the innovative parts of their students via the workshop process and assimilation to one mind. When I read about that I would always roll my eyes and think, "If you are allowing yourself to be assimilated, it is your fault." After all, no one is writing your words for you, and at least in my experience there were not 'grades' where a professor could pass or fail you based on how well you pleased them (our main evaluator was mid and post-semester reviews, which for the most part I think always passed the student unless you just didn't do the work, which leads to another kind of question). The thesis also had to be approved by your final teacher and a 2nd reader assigned by the school, which I only heard about a couple of instances where this had happened in recent years (and in the cases of one of the writers I knew of who'd had this happened, the stories I heard him read were a man and son watching a baby calf being born while the father explains life to son in a very textbookish manner).
While I still hold to the idea that writers are only 'made into bad writers' if they allow it, I do think there are some pretty major flaws in the common workshop process, flaws which I won't try to outline simply because they've been discussed to death, and most anyone who's been in one of these knows it pretty runs in one of several ways
(a) everyone likes the story, no one can figure out what to say bad about it, you end up discussing how good it is, even the teachers, etc., at some point the writer is invoked to talk about what they had in mind when they did it with a little swagger in their mouth, 'i had no idea this was even done,' this is rare, and usually seems to only happen with well-encapsulated, not-challenging stories (or else how would everyone agree?)
(b) everyone hates the story if for different reasons and the workshop leader spends most of the time trying to parse negative comments into constructive criticism for the writer, who often won't look up from the desk except with a little sheen in their eyes while writing everything everybody says down with their hand moving as fast as they can across the paper in a blur of ink they probably won't even be able to decipher later
(c) some people like it, some people don't, and you get to hear people go around saying why they thought it worked, why didn't, sometimes arguments, no real conclusion, or sometimes a pasted-together conclusion ie: 'this is what we think you need to change,' and in the end you end up with a pile of notes that all disagree with one another and for the most part most writers end up only listening to what the instructors said anyway, cause they are the ones who know?
Anyhow, rather than blabber semantically about how this kind of group speak can be damaging to a budding writer (which I feel I should mention, of all the writers I went to school with there are only a handful out of them that I have noticed publishing even a little, though I don't know how prevalent that is in the post-MFA scene, a lot of them started families), instead I'll just say some things that happened to me while I was there.
- The first story I had workshopped was an excerpt from a now-abandoned novel I was working on (ugh, yeah, I did a novel excerpt, sigh), a pretty surreal-ish but still narrative section where this fat kid is climbing hotel stairs to try to get to his even fatter mother's floor, where she has been eating and drinking herself into oblivion, rather ridiculous but mixed with a kind of bizarrely sentimental jaundice: during the discussion of the piece one of the instructors, a well published and successful writer, female, called me often over-the-top to the point of nausea, and pointed at a description where I had likened the main character's pained facial expression to something like 'like a very Jewish rabbi passing a kidney stone.' She pounded the table with her fist after she read it. She said, 'What is that? I can't see that. I can't see that!'
- During another workshop of a story about a woman that had little to no backstory, was basically a character without definition just acting in the moment, attending a funeral, moving through the city, a general consensus came among the group that she needed to add more to the character, motivation, background etc. I raised my head and said I completely disagreed, that why couldn't the character be faceless, just act, why did we need to throw light of who the parents were, who the character had loved, etc. into the mix, which resulted in a kind of defensive 'No, no, we're not trying to 'MFA-ize' the story (I had said they were trying to MFA-ize the story), maybe you're right, it could go either way, digress, digress... Often it seems the most constructive and/or fun things you can do in a workshop is to disagree just to start a fight and/or take a shit on the workshop table and watch everybody move their water bottles and their coffee.
- During graduate lectures Liam Rector would sit along the rails near the front of the room (the building sunk into the ground some, so there were areas along each side that looked down into the room where the people read), and listen and always have several questions at the end, long often contentious questions, he loved to poke at people and make them speak up, he was huge on 'big nasty free speech' and was very much an excellent counter-figure style persona to have heading an MFA, if anything his spirit of contesting rules had a definite grasp over the program as exhibited by his tendency to show Alec Baldwin's monologue from GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS to new students on their arrival, making the majority of them go, 'what the fuck?', and which, I think now, should be definitive THIS IS WHAT YOU MUST DO viewing for new writers, if you have the mind to apply what is being said into the publishing realm, Liam was wicked smart, encyclopedia-brained, and could quote at length from more work than anyone I've ever met, though outside these meetings the only time I ever really talked to him was in the men's room.
- I got told at least several dozen times a residency how I had to be gay, I was too 'good looking' to be a male writer and not be gay, impacted probably because I never 'hooked up' in dorms, neat, I don't know what this means
- Tons of students were intensely interested in 'publishing modules' offered by the school, where you'd go listen to agents or publishers talk about what they looked for, their process etc., how to write a cover letter, query, etc., bullllllllshit, which always had the effect of making people think 'how the fuck will I ever get published.' If there's anything I would change about the writing program experience it would be creating a much more realistic, step by step, (I hesitate to say 'grass roots') style method of publishing small in magazines and moving up, how to use the internet as community, how to make contacts outside of bullshit handshake shit with agents you meet at these kind of functions, etc. REAL PUBLISHING ADVICE, which isn't as difficult as it seems, I think.
- I made exactly 0 'connections' at my school that helped me end up getting published, which I think is probably a big misconception for students, that 'you will make contacts to help get you published,' which I know I thought. Honestly, I would say most MFA students should forget about trying to publish at all until they are well out of the program, I wish I had done that.
- The majority of what I learned came not from the workshops but from the one on one time with my instructors, who would write long responses and usually line edit the huge packets of writing we had to turn in each month. This was all very helpful even if I didn't always fully agree with what was said. Some of my best advice though, happened to come from my 2nd reader of my thesis, Tom Bissell. Mostly 2nd readers would read through the thesis, write a paragraph to the author about it maybe, pass it or don't. Tom wrote me a 20+ page letter that began 'There's a lot of good stuff here, but seeing as time is short we won't linger on the good, let's get ripping...' (extremely paraphrased, but you get the idea). Tom then spent 20 pages telling me, in various ways, to quit fucking around and write from my testicles, which is harder to come by advice than you'd imagine. After I read that letter, no shit, I think I realized the point of the last 2 years of study, I could not stop smiling, and I think maybe without this letter a lot of my experience would have been a bust, because...
- My writing during this time SUCKED. I don't know if it was partly me falling into the traps discussed by those like I'd heard before, or if I was still just really green and trying to catch up among a group where I actually felt what 'writing life' could be like (outside me just blabbering into my computer for hours). I think I honestly did try to start melding myself to garner approval of certain forces, not necessarily any one teacher, I can't even really say what it was, but I know that when I look back now at what I wrote it is of a much more linear, explanatory and unmagical mind, even less so that what I was writing before I started there. I do have to say though, that the writing I did before my MFA also lacked a certain kind of prowess I think, on an opposite end from the way I sucked while 'in the mill' you might say. It was only after I spent those two years going through a certain mind, faced with various opinions (most of which came from a place different than where I wanted to go), and otherwise just reading a ton of new stuff some forced upon me and some quite exciting, it was only after I saw what exactly what in me I wanted to conquer, what I wanted to shred, what I wanted to move toward and what I needed, that I figured out why the hell I was even doing this writing shit thing in the first place (if I've even come anywhere near knowing that now).
It's not exactly a 'learning the rules so you can break them' mindset, but more a process of metamorphosis, and learning, by example of others and by being continually questioned, that you start to uncover what you're after.
There's a whole question of price vs worth here, the cost of an MFA program vs just spending a ton of time reading and writing intensely on your own watch, and since MFA programs are often what you make of them, you can 'skate by' if you want to, I think there's definitely a question of 'what kind of writer do you want to be' here, and 'what do you want out of that shit?'
In the end, though, an MFA program is several years of intense focus, heavy reading and writing, which how could that not be helpful? I still really do believe that if you don't come out of that bent in some new way (whether just inside your own mind and even further from the minds you encountered in the process, however you realize) then maybe it IS you that's putting the brakes on, and maybe there's a reason for it.
More so, though, words are words.
I really believe these 5 things are what I would write on the blackboard the first day if I taught in a writing program, which I one day have hopes for:
1. Fuck the man.
2. Read a lot.
3. Vomit is important.
4. It feels good to beat your head against the wall it really does.
5. Do the fucking thing already.