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Heavy Meddle: Help! My Grad Program Is A Nightmare!

What should a young writer do when her creative writing program is filled with jerks and naysayers? (Kaboom)
What should a young writer do when her creative writing program is filled with jerks and naysayers? (Kaboom)
This article is more than 3 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

I recently started a grad program in creative writing, mostly to give myself some more career options after graduation — teaching, namely, which I love — but also to improve my work.

I'm worried, though, that the culture of the MFA program I'm enrolled in is doing some damage to my artistic self. This is hard to explain. On the one hand, I'm thrilled to have to opportunity to teach and the time that student loans have given me to focus on my writing. On the other hand, I find myself leaving workshops feeling more confused about how to revise my work than I did when I first walked in. It seems like a lot of the students give feedback without much rigorous attention to the actual text, and there is way more time given during workshop towards critical feedback than attention given towards what's working. I leave feeling flayed and discouraged.

I wonder: How does a young artist in such an environment maintain her integrity, and filter out the noise and allure of empty praise?

What's most discouraging isn't the way I feel, which may in part be normal growing pains of my development, but the way technical mastery of writing — smooth sentences or interesting experimental approaches — seem to be rewarded in terms of praise and defended in workshop, even when those same fluid pieces have a huge lack of heart or emotional honesty or even basic elements of story like character or plot or exposition. I'm worried that, by striving for the approval of my professors and peers in a competitive atmosphere, I'm going to lose or compromise my sense of good storytelling. At the same time, I want to be open enough about flaws in my own work to improve from other's feedback.

I wonder: How does a young artist in such an environment maintain her integrity, and filter out the noise and allure of empty praise? How do I trust my gut and still remain open to what in my work needs improvement? How do I learn to tell the difference between useful feedback and what I should just ignore?

Sincerely,

Young Writer

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Dear Young Writer,

Let me tell you a story. Many moons ago, I myself set off for MFA school. Like you, I was full of hope and idealism. I discovered pretty quickly that the underlying dynamics of an MFA program are largely shaped by the faculty. If the teachers emphasize cooperation and a supportive workshop environment, that’s what you get. If not, workshops can turn competitive and antagonistic.

That’s what happened, far too often, in my program. One day, we walked into workshop and the professor — a young writer himself — announced, rather abruptly, that we would not be critiquing a classmate’s story, because it was not “worthy” of our consideration. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that the professor was male and the student was female. She later called me up in tears. Certainly, the professor had a right to run the workshop as he saw fit. But it struck me as a despicable moment, an unnecessary humiliation that later drove this female student from the program.

This kind of thing happens.

But my basic point here (again) is that you really can’t do much to control the dynamics in your MFA program. You’re just a student. All you can control is your own learning — the books you read, the pieces you work on, and the critiques you write of other student work.

In my own experience, the way that young writers learn is mostly from writing these critiques. Why? Because you’re necessarily blind to much of what you’re up to at the keyboard. You’re not just too close to the material — you’re inside it. You can see much more clearly what your classmates are doing, and you should use critiques to explain to them (and yourself) precisely when and how and why their work soars, and when it flounders. It is only by developing this critical faculty that you can begin to see the merit and mistakes your own work, without succumbing to what I call “the opera of self doubt.”

In my own experience as a teacher (and a student) what matters isn’t style or talent, but determination.

It’s inevitable that other students will have a different sensibility. They may value innovation and style over emotional depth. That doesn’t make them bad writers. It just means they have a different aesthetic intention than you do. The professor might even share their aesthetic. Welcome to art!

I realize that it’s hard not to be discouraged when a workshop seems to value different aspects of writing than you do. But you have to remember that most writers wind up receiving a lot more criticism than praise, especially early in their careers. The key to all of this is how you deal with this criticism. It’s okay to be hurt, and even temporarily discouraged. But you have to find a way to absorb these criticisms without internalizing them. That is: to see them as aimed at a particular piece you wrote, rather than an indictment of your talent, or your right to make art.

Try to remember, also, that your experience in an MFA program is two or three years, a tiny fraction of the time you’ll spend writing in your life. The whole point of these programs is to give you some concentrated time — to read and write and teach. In my own experience as a teacher (and a student) what matters isn’t style or talent, but determination. It’s the students who are determined to do the lonely dogged work who wind up succeeding, not immediately but eventually.

Your job is to remain humble, to reject an attitude of entitlement, and to spend your time thinking about your characters and their crises, not the politics of your program.

Onward, together,
Steve

Author's note: It is very strange to read a letter that I might have written 20 years ago. I wonder if other writers, or artists, want to chime in here with words of advice for Young Writer? Send them along in the comments section below. And, as always, I exhort you to send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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