The Portable MFA in Creative Writing
by the New York Writers Workshop
Writers Digest Books, 2006
280 pages / $8.99 (electronic) Buy from Amazon
In August, something called “The Portable MFA in Creative Writing,” written by a group of people from the New York Writers Workshop, was offered as a free download on Amazon. Among its claims: “Get the core knowledge of a prestigious MFA education without the tuition.”
This collective (a different person writes a chapter on each genre) does land a few valuable points. Tim Tomlinson, in the book’s introduction-cum-statement of purpose, lists some of what he considers the “flaws” and “perks” of traditional MFA programs. My favorite flaws include: “Teachers with a Moses Complex” (hoo boy, are there those); “An Elevation of the Lyrical Writer as Opposed to the Narrative” (this former reporter certainly chafed at those expectations); and “Writing by Committee or by Consensus.” On the perks side of the ledger, Tomlinson includes, rather generally, “Time”, “Community”, and “Connections.”
After stacking the deck in favor of shortcomings (ten flaws, five perks), Tomlinson claims that “The Portable MFA in Creative Writing can save aspiring writers about $55,980.”
In that spirit, I will try to save you $8.99 and offer the things I learned from this book:
- Write enough, but not too much.
- Writing is whatever you can get away with.
- If it works, it works.
- Unless it doesn’t.
I kid, sort of. Tomlinson, poet Rita Gabis and magazine writer Charles Salzberg each offer some useful exercises. I’ve never tried to write a play, so I have little perspective on Charlie Schulman’s playwriting chapter, but I had high hopes for Peter Bricklebank’s chapter on nonfiction — and was quickly disappointed.
I had trouble deciding whether the well-credentialed Bricklebank (teaching work at NYU and Hunter; residency at MacDowell, Pushcart nominee) was trying too hard, or not hard enough.
Consider his discussion of nonfiction’s forms:
Ummm… okay? I know what he means, I think. The essay as a genre (Montaigne’s “attempts,” etc.) is kind of a mess. Prose about it doesn’t have to be.
Bricklebank tells us, helpfully, that the beginning of a piece “is one of the most important aspects of writing anything”:
Just as I began to despair of ever hacking my way through this thicket of tangled metaphors, along came a piece of what might fairly be termed actual advice: “[Essay collections] are about as hard to place as story collections, which is to say nigh impossible, unless you’re a blazing new talent or well connected.”
As so much of the best advice in this book, it’s almost diametrically opposed to The Portable MFA’s stated project of providing “the core knowledge” of an MFA without the expense. Some examples:
From Dabis’s poetry chapter: “One of the great benefits of an MFA program is that it provides an instant structure for learning.”
From Schulman’s playwriting chapter: “Making contacts and developing professional relationships are the best reasons for going to graduate school for your MFA.”
What does it mean for a book whose every author acknowledges the critical importance of a community of fellow-writers and/or (more crassly) a network of professional contacts, to argue that you don’t, in fact, need to go to grad school (the very place one might most easily develop this community and/or network)? Though there is no overt pimping of its services, a cynic might wonder if these cognitively dissonant messages were an attempt to steer readers to the considerably less-expensive classes (recall the introduction’s promise of “about $55,980” in savings) offered by the New York Writers Workshop.
I suppose I’m being a little tough. After all, it’s true of any writing instruction — delivered in class, in a book or magazine article, or over a drink — that you should take only what you can use and discard the rest. And there is usable advice in this book.
Bricklebank offers his via a triple-mixed metaphor—“Writing is about mileage: putting in the miles/minutes/pages logging the decision-making experience, applying the subconscious concentration that splices the building blocks of your writing together.”—that could’ve been (and has been) phrased: “put your ass in the chair.”
Salzberg’s advice in the “Magazine Writing” chapter is the most useful, and stands out because it is so frankly commercial. This is partly because it’s hard to tell someone how to go about improving his or her poetry or fiction. It’s easier to tell an aspiring magazine writer to work doggedly on his or her query letters because “[y]ou will be judged as a writer by the quality of your query letter … (editors know that published articles don’t necessarily reflect the talent of the writer so much as they reflect the talent of the editor).”
It probably is possible to cobble together “the core knowledge of a prestigious MFA program” without getting an MFA. But that seems entirely beside the point. The “core knowledge” — I can attest from experience — consists mainly of the same bromides you can find in all kinds of advice books. The core benefits of an MFA program are non-textual: the professors paid to take an interest in your work and the students you meet who share your interests.
So, for all the reservations I’ve expressed, and with caveats about my particular situation (I was married, relatively financially stable, etc.), the best thing I can say about the MFA experience is this: I’d do it again.