October 17th, 2011 / 1:04 pm
Behind the Scenes

Inside an MFA: Call & Response #1.5

Last week, I put up student responses to the following questions:

Can you teach creative writing? How? How would you teach creative writing that is different from your MFA? How would you “innovate” or “renovate”? What have you “learned” from your MFA? What has been the biggest surprise? Disappointment?

Here is a long response, penned by Jeff Pickell. Enjoy. & read it all. It’s worth it!

  1. Shitty syntax begets shitty phrases. Shitty phrases beget shitty sentences. Shitty sentences beget shitty paragraphs. Shitty paragraphs beget shitty sections. Shittiness begets shittiness begets shittiness.
  2. The MFA enrolls in a creative writing program. He does not enroll in a written creations program. Asked what he studies, the MFA replies “creative writing” or simply “writing.” He doesn’t reply “creative.” This is because the MFA doesn’t have a creative deficiency. He has a writing deficiency. He should know this, too. A lot of MFA’s—the shitty MFA’s—don’t. The shitty MFA is a strange creature. More on him later.
  3. Many contend writing can’t be taught. This is absolutely false, as any MFA with a journalism background knows.
  4. The shittier the story is, the harder it is to revise.
  5. The first-year MFA submits a story twice a semester. A week later, an outfit of equally inexperienced writers discusses it for an hour and issues vague, contradictory, and often moronic recommendations. But to leave it at that amounts to cynicism. The shrewd novice does exist, though he is elusive; one must scribble down his sound insights before the room’s ambient banality swallows them. For his part, the teacher moderates, trying his best to confine the discourse to the germane. At his most heroic, he squashes the more asinine notions, though his comments never have sharp teeth. He caters his observations to writer of the hour. Some students actually prefer sharp criticism.
  6. The rookie reporter is just as shitty a writer as the first-year MFA.
  7. The rookie reporter files twelve or fifteen pieces weekly, each receiving nearly immediate feedback from an outfit of experienced editors.
  8. With such rapid feedback, a reporter might revise a piece three or four times in a day.
  9. With such inconstant and directionless feedback, the MFA decides revision is impossible. Maybe he’ll take a stab at it a few years down the road, as his thesis comes due.
  10. The reporter improves. He has to. If doesn’t, the editors will fire his ass. If they don’t, the publisher will fire their asses. If he doesn’t, people will stop buying the paper and this jeopardizes everybody’s money.
  11. Maybe the MFA writer improves. If he doesn’t, oh well.
  12. Good syntax begets well-organized phrases. Well-organized phrases beget well-organized sentences. Well-organized sentences beget well-organized paragraphs, well-organized paragraphs beget well-organized sections, well-organized sections beget well-organized stories.
  13. On his first day, the rookie reporter writes “The shed burned to the ground after it was set on fire by a bolt of lightning, which struck it around 9 p.m. Thursday night.” After six weeks, he writes. “Lightning struck the shed around 9 p.m., sparking a blaze that quickly spread to another shed in an adjacent yard.”
  14. In his first submission, the MFA writes “The shed burned to the ground after it was set on fire by a bolt of lightning, which struck it around 9 p.m. Thursday night.” Six weeks later, he writes “The shed burned to the ground after it was set on fire by a bolt of lightning, which struck it around 9 p.m. Thursday night.” Why would he write it differently? Nobody marked the sentence on his copy, and the class’ discussion mostly concerned whether the narrator’s girlfriend was a “fully-rendered character” or too much of a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” type.  Well, one guy marked the sentence but he marks up everything. Everyone hates him.
  15. Of course, the submission editor of a literary journal wouldn’t get to the narrator’s girlfriend. The story’s first sentence is sufficient for rejection.
  16. The newspaper’s corrective model succeeds because feedback is direct, dependable, and ongoing. The MFA program’s corrective model fails because it isn’t.
  17. The short story lives and dies at the syntactic level.
  18. A well-organized story is likely good. Well-organized stories that are bad are more easily revised.
  19. The MFA program’s corrective model requires modification because it does not adequately foster improved sentence-level writing.
  20. This isn’t to say the MFA program should abandon its corrective approach. But it should supplement the corrective with preventative instruction.
  21. Most obviously, each workshop should include a reasonably-sustained discussion of syntax.
  22. The teacher might also break from the discussion format and spend ten or twenty minutes a class lecturing on some element of process. One day he might lecture on description, the next day on transition. He might focus on interiority or crafting dialogue.
  23. It’s important, too, that the teacher shoot down imbecilic comments and suggestions. Not every idea is a good one. Not every point of view is valid. The workshop environment should indeed promote acceptance, by which I mean the acceptance of short stories for publication. Not the acceptance of stupid, deleterious notions.
  24. The student who doesn’t give a shit will never be a good writer. It’s hard to know whether a student gives a shit. Sometimes a student doesn’t give a shit and isn’t even aware of it.
  25. The student who does all the readings, attends every class, and nods at the teacher’s comments doesn’t necessarily give a shit.
  26. The student who drops by office hours and converses earnestly with the teacher does not necessarily give a shit.
  27. The student who is devastated after a bad workshop does not necessarily give a shit. If he gave shit to begin with, maybe the workshop wouldn’t have been so bad. Of course, he knows this and that’s why he’s so devastated. He’ll have a rough few days. Afterward, he’ll go right on back to not giving a shit.
  28. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The writing proves whether the student gives a shit.
  29. Even the best teacher cannot force all of his students to a give a shit, but with well-conceived assignments, he can make them better writers whether they like it or not.
  30. “Write a story” is not sharp instruction because it requires the mental rigors of conceiving an idea, plotting it, figuring out characters, devising the logistics releasing information. None of these are relevant if the student can’t put together a decent sentence. The goal is to get students thinking about sentences.
  31. The sentences don’t even have to be the student’s own. It’s useful to type out, word for word, the writing of an established author. This forces the student to actively, physically engage the text. The student who types each word engages each word. The student who types Hemingway learns to navigate the continuous present. The student who types Alice Munro learns about interiority, phrasal arrangement. The student who types Carver learns about dialogue, succinctness. The student who types Nabokov learns about images, rhetoric.
  32. Prompts are useful, so long as they are specific: Write a paragraph in which a character spends an hour waiting for something. Write a paragraph that moves organically from present narration to recollection, then back to present narration. With exactly 200 words, write a paragraph that begins with a character waking up, ends with him five hundred miles away, and explains why he made the trip. Assigning low word counts forces the student to address wordiness and arrange sentences as economically as possible.
  33. Many students are terrified of revision because they think it entails solving all of a story’s problems with a single rewrite. The teacher can dispel this fear by assigning transitional drafts. The transitional draft focuses on rectifying a single, uncomplicated issue: Cut the word count by fifteen percent. Eliminate all passive constructions. Add a vivid, specific detail to every other paragraph. Eliminate fifteen extraneous details. The teacher can gear the assignments toward a class-wide issue, or vary them from student to student according to specific weaknesses.
  34. Vocabulary exercises are especially useful. Smart diction reduces vagueness, amplifies cadence, and fosters concision. Students with enhanced lexicons write more easily and with greater confidence. They spend less time poking through the thesaurus, more time focusing on other issues, like not being shitty. Some MFA’s may complain that vocabulary exercises are childish and have no place in graduate level instruction. The teacher may reply that inarticulate sentences are childish and have no place in graduate level submissions, and yet…
  35. However useful the above suggestions are, the teacher is still only fractionally—like five percent—responsible for turning the student into a better writer. Everything else depends on the student. If he is a self-directed hero MFA, he’ll get better. If he’s a shitty MFA, he’ll…well, he’ll stay shitty. He might even get shittier. I’ve seen it happen.
  36. The hero MFA and the shitty MFA are worst enemies.
  37. At times, it’s difficult to distinguish the hero MFA from the shitty MFA.
  38. With the exception of Kelsie Hahn, every hero MFA occasionally acts like a shitty MFA, and vice versa. This partially explains why MFA’s are prototypically tortured creatures.
  39. The shitty MFA appears attentive when the teacher outlines common usage and line-level errors. Two weeks later, he submits a piece lousy with those same errors.
  40. The shitty MFA packs his belongings, bids his friends and family farewell, and moves to a strange city half-way across the country to fulfill his life’s ambition of being a writer. He begins typing his first submission the night before it is due. Three semesters later, he begins typing his last submission the night before it is due.
  41. The shitty MFA begins typing a submission the night before it is due. Rushing to finish, he commits the same common usage and line-level errors the teacher outlined two weeks earlier.
  42. The shitty MFA begins typing a submission the night before it is due. He turns in a shitty and obviously incomplete piece prefaced with a note in italics. It reads, These are the first pages of a novel I’ve been working on. My main question is: Does it stand alone as a chapter or perhaps as a shorter, self-contained piece?
  43. The shitty MFA spends nine days and a combined seventy hours on a lit paper discussing plague imagery in the first-person narratives of post-Mariel Cuban exiles. Psychologically worn out, he begins typing his submission the night before it is due.
  44. The shitty MFA begins typing a submission the night before it is due. The piece is predictably shitty, as is his workshop the next week. The shitty MFA pays little attention during the discussion, and later that night pitches his end comments and return copies without reading them. His next submission is lousy with the same common usage errors, line-level follies, and structural oversights his teachers and classmates identified in his previous submission.
  45. The shitty MFA bristles at vocabulary words he doesn’t understand. He’s an MFA. He should understand them. If he doesn’t know how to spell the “dictionary” part of “dictionary.com,” he should leaf through the D section of the dictionary until he stumbles across “dictionary.” Alternatively, he could skip the troublesome word.
  46. The shitty MFA lists David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon as his favorite authors, but complains of jarring incongruity when the words “dipshit” and “perspicacity” appear in the same sentence.
  47. The shitty MFA habitually turns back less than a single double-spaced page of end comments, then wonders why his classmates have so little to say about his thesis submission, a several-hundred page novel.
  48. In his end comments, the shitty MFA insists a submission is about five pages too long, but doesn’t suggest any cuts.
  49. The shitty MFA doesn’t practice for his thesis reading. He stumbles through his piece in a shitty, boring monotone while the audience of two hundred thirty prays for death. The reading lasts thirty-five minutes. Now let’s see: two hundred thirty times thirty-five is…if we carry the two…cross out the remainder…multiply by one over x…That’s five and a half days humanity will never get back. The shitty MFA killed an entire workweek.
  50. The shitty MFA encounters a shitty sentence in a classmate’s submission, rolls his eyes at how bad it is, but writes nothing on the copy. Later, the classmate reviews his copy notes, finds that only one guy marked the shitty sentence, chalks it up to anomaly, and goes right on writing the same sort of shitty sentences.
  51. The shitty MFA spends two weeks brainstorming and jotting notes…about the next tattoo he’s going to get.
  52. The shitty MFA complains about the typos riddling an otherwise strong submission. A few weeks later he turns in his own piece, a true monument to diligent copy-editing. Despite this careful attention he somehow overlooked how shitty the story was.
  53. The shitty MFA announces that he’s not big into process.
  54. The shitty MFA thinks two revisions, three revisions tops and he’ll be dealing with finished product.
  55. Can it be taught? Can it be learned?  Discussion of whether creative writing is teachable often proposes a fundamental disconnect between the earnest teacher and the earnest student. There is no such chasm. The simple truth is that good students succeed and bad students fail. Can creative writing be taught to bad students? Can eighth grade geometry be taught to bad students? Can carpentry be taught to bad students? Can anything be taught to bad students? The shitty MFA is a bad student, and there are a lot of shitty MFA’s out there. But there are good students. And there are hero MFA’s.

A Detroit native, Jeff Pickell studies writing at New Mexico State University.




  1. Non

      Sometimes, the internet gives you the surreal opportunity to read what your elusive, stillborn, better self would have written. Thank you, Mr. Pickell, for writing so well about so much so clearly.

  2. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      People get into MFA programs for creative writing without having a sound grasp on something like sentence composition? Is this true? I’m really asking.

      And if so, what skill set is an MFA candidate expected to have prior to entering a creative writing program?

  3. deadgod

      10.  “Improve[ment]” = ‘catering to commercial popularity’.  In journalism – a Bad Sign.  In telling a made-up story, so Bad as almost not to be a Sign at all.

      28.  The proof of a pudding is in partly in the odor, partly in the appearance, partly in the eating, partly in the digestion, partly in the circulation of nutrition, partly in the cellular metabolism, partly in the excretion, and partly in the stewardship of resources marshaled in the making.  (The cleaner-up, at least, will add that the proof of a pudding is also partly in cleaning up after it is eaten.)  Explanatory metaphors that are too simple are – in some cases – shitty.

      30.  “The goal is to get students thinking about sentences.”?  Okay:  “Write a story” is not sharp instruction[,] because [writing a story well] requires the mental rigors of conceiving an idea, plotting it[s narration], figuring out characters, [and] devising the logistics [of] releasing [the story’s] information [so as to create desired effects].

      31.  Copying things certainly is not a royal road to assimilating their structures and detonations into one’s own capacity to structure and detonate.

      39.  Are there no hero MFAs with Rabelaisian senses of humor?

      40.-43.  Are there no hero MFAs who procrastinate?

      46.  Self-congratulatory hi-lo clumsiness is not disliked only by shitty MFAs.

      The shitty-MFA caricatures are pretty-to-quite funny (I don’t know how true-to-life they are, or how often), and the suggestions at 22.-23. and 32.-34. seem to me useful.

      Bonus qualification:  With respect to 1. and 12., there’s a strong argument to be made that paragraphs are prior to sentences in competent language usage.  One way to start such a conversation would be to assert that shapely paragraphs are a condition for the possibility of effective sentences.

  4. deadgod

      NB to editor:  The subject of 26. – “student” – wants a finite verb ‘to be’ or ‘do’.

  5. Anonymous

      Lots of good things to think about, much of it reflecting my own cynicisms. The great stuff is where you totally call me out, though. Thanks, Jeff.

  6. lily hoang

      Thanks, deadgod. Fixing it now.

  7. Baltimore Stoop

      I wish I could’ve seen more about what defines the “hero MFA.” The opposite of all this stuff, I’m to assume?

  8. Darby Larson

      The bolted shed lightning burned when 9 struck Thursday. 

  9. marshall

      well organized

  10. Krystal Languell

      Hi there, Jeff Pickell! Good work.

  11. James

      A clear articulation of grievances, but maybe a little too self-assured regarding how simple a matter it is to tell “good” writing from “shitty.” After all, aren’t these values culturally relative? Is Mr. Pickell really assuming a universal standard of “goodness” that he and only a privileged few others are able to identify?

      For folks who sympathize with the 55 points above, I would suggest this article as a place to start studying pedagogy:

      Rosalie Morales Kearns. Voice of Authority: Theorizing Creative Writing Pedagogy. College Composition and Communication 60:4 / june 2009

      And then maybe this one:

      Green, Chris (2001). ‘Materializing the Sublime Reader: Cultural Studies, Reader Response, and Community Service in the Creative Workshop’, College English 64.2: 153-74.

      And then maybe scroll around on here for a while:


      And there are any number of places to go from there. Really, it’s a pretty rich conversation these days. Pickell’s theses strike me as well-intended but also uninformed by the scholarly work on creative writing pedagogy.

  12. bartleby_taco

      Might sound cliched of me (and maybe it is [also don’t intend for this to be pugnacious as it perhaps seems like helpful advice]) but when I see people talking about fiction like this it makes re-think ever wanting to apply to an MFA program. Like: I understand that all of this advice makes sense, and I guess its really more about the politics & ethics of being an MFA student (as opposed to *just* writing fiction), but it really does make writing fiction seem like a rather boring process and/or thing to do.

  13. DMC

      Writing fiction *is* a rather boring process and/or thing to do.  If that’s not something you’re interested in, then you will probably be very unhappy in an MFA program.

  14. CK

      The theory that good writing starts with good sentences is outdated and contrary to most current composition theory. Just saying.

  15. Lilzed

      This list made me laugh. Shitty mfa? hero mfa? Good quality = herolike in mfa classrooms? shitty mfa and hero mfa are “worse enemies”? You even through in the elusive “they are hard to tell apart.”

      “The Hero, the Shitty, and the Ugly.”

      What about the concept that, it takes many failures to produce something new and unique? That is a concept I find artistically rigorous and ** exciting. **

      Your standards for a “good mfa” don’t seem artistic so much as academic. I guess that’s obvious. What about the shitty mfa who’s comfortable with failure and still striving? Is that the anti-hero mfa?

      Seems like “learning how to be a good mfa student / an mfa student” is just as hard as “learning how to write.” The very legitimate fear I think is that the former would leave a too-lasting impression on a student’s writing habits than the latter.

  16. Lilzed

      *too-lasting… compared to the latter

  17. HeroMFA

      56) The Shitty MFA writes a copyright symbol, with a Bic pen, in the right hand corner of his workshop draft he wrote the night before. 

  18. Guestagain

      Your standards for a “good mfa” don’t seem artistic so much as academic. And thank you for making this crucial distinction, pedagogy cannot be applied to the essential ineffable, the shitty MFA believes s/he has been alchemized into an artist.

  19. Bernerdawg

      This Halloween I’m costuming as a shitty MFA.

  20. Guestagain

      You’re going to deconstruct pagan rituals to excise demons?

  21. bartleby_taco

      Maybe for you but even at its most tedious/frustrating it has always been very enjoyable!

  22. anon

      Could have said it in 8 points:

      1. I don’t like most of my classmates, they are “shitty.”

      2. I like some of my classmates, and I like me, too. We are “heroic.”

      3. I don’t like the workshop: it allows people to participate whom I do not like. It also allows people to write in ways that I do not like.

      4. I’d rather be getting a degree in journalism. Or I already have one, and I wish getting an MFA was *a lot* more like that.

      5. I think all that really matters in stories are sentences.

      6. There is an absolute and absolutely clear difference between good and bad writing that is universally true in all circumstances. I am one of the few “heroes” who can easily identify this difference in every sample of student work I see.

      7. If I ever teach creative writing, I’m going to pick favorites and call them heroes because they write the way I do. Everyone else will get comments on their story like “This story is shitty,” and “This sentence is shitty,” and “You are a shitty MFA.”

      8. I will be better at teaching than any of the instructors in my MFA program.

  23. Lilzed

      the people on this blog are funnneeeee

  24. Lilzed

      can someone do a post comparing the shitty mfa with the shitty mba ? (and heroes too) ?

      after all the same discussion keeps keeps on reappearing on this site, may as well spike it with a dip into another peer circle

      look, they even do ROI analysis and talk about stuff like marginal benefits:


  25. bartleby_taco
  26. Curt Moyer

      Sentence/Line composition is a huge problem. I’m actually enrolled in the same MFA program as Jeff (Poetry, 1st year). But sentence composition isn’t the only issue. Although I agree sentence/line composition should be top priority, as it’s the scaffolding that holds up any good/great poem or story.

      Your question of skill set is difficult to resolve because I’m not sure if there can be one right combination of tools. Although I do think a poet or fiction writer should have at least developed their syntax sufficiently before entering the MFA. Another aspect should be developing a critical ear/eye through reading other poets or fiction writers. Just reading isn’t enough though, you also have to be able to learn from, as much as enjoy, a piece (this is something that takes time and practice but ends up really improving one’s work).

  27. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      Thanks for the response, Curt.
      My concern has to do with the concept of an MFA. If someone goes for a Master’s in a subject or discipline, I’d like to think that that someone has some sort of grasp on the fundamentals of that subject or discipline. I can’t help but think that something as basic as sentence structure shouldn’t have already been learned before going for a Master’s in creative writing. It bothers me to think that someone might start a graduate program that focuses on writing with a sentence like “The shed burned to the ground after it was set on fire…” It sort of begs the question: what did they learn as an undergraduate?
      I guess a lack of sentence-ing ability could be compensated by creativity, innovation, enthusiasm, etc., but how do you teach a group of students if some are fine with sentences and others aren’t? Wouldn’t a focus on sentence composition take away from those who have entered the program with those skills already learned? It leaves me a little confused.

  28. Curt Moyer

      “My concern has to do with the concept of an MFA. If someone goes for a
      Master’s in a subject or discipline, I’d like to think that that someone
      has some sort of grasp on the fundamentals of that subject or
      discipline.” I agree. I think the problem with this is people that make that kind of decision think something along these lines: “I think it might be fun to be a poet, I’m going to go for poetry. I wrote a few poems in high school and undergrad…etc”. It has a lot to do with mentality before actually entering the program [i.e. not that poetry can’t be fun, but it certainly takes a degree of work, and there are obviously fundamentals involved, just because it’s “creative” doesn’t mean it’s a license to do anything you want; I think this is a mistake on the “Shitty MFA’s” part.]

      “Wouldn’t a focus on sentence composition take away from those who have entered the program with those skills already learned?” Yes and no (no because those students will affect the workshop negatively over time if they don’t get better). I think this is more of a solution that should be brought to the student’s attention one-on-one and in the workshop of their poems (not pulling the whole class aside you know?). I think this is frustrating for my instructors, because they know (and a few of us know) that “something as basic as sentence structure should have already been learned before going for a Master’s in creative writing” and they don’t want to spend time on it, they want to tackle the ‘big ideas’ (and rightfully so, this is a graduate program right?). I guess the attitude is the students who don’t care will eventually weed themselves out which leads to instructors not wanting to waste the time of those already at an acceptable level (although I’m not sure if this is true).

  29. lily hoang

      All students – all writers – can spend more time on their sentences. The next theme for my Form & Tech grad seminar will be: the sentence. A whole semester on the sentence. If I were a grad student again, that’s exactly the kind of class I’d want to take. Wouldn’t you? (“You” not being specific to you, Frank Tas, the Raptor, but you: yes, you.)

  30. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      Yeah, I guess the part I really have difficulty wrapping my head around is someone carrying the mentality of “Maybe I can be a poet!” into an MFA program. It just feels… reckless. If you’re thinking about being a poet and going for your MFA on a whim I think you should probably just donate the money you mean to pay your tuition with to a charity. That’d be a lot more poetic and admirable.

  31. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      I hear what you’re saying, Lily, but I think I could handle two weeks of sentences before I’d want to start writing stories.

      I see my investment in and knowledge of sentences the same way I see my investment in and knowledge of math. It’s always there, I’m always using it, but sometimes returning to it head-on will reawaken parts of it I didn’t fully appreciate last time around. I just don’t see that reawakening process taking more than a week or so (sort of like studying for the math section of the GRE!).

      But I’d also be interested to know how a semester-long approach on the sentence would be set up, of course, because, who knows, maybe I’m wrong!

  32. Odd Words « Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans

      […] and I’m having a hard time finding something that fits and is affordable). And then I read Inside an MFA: Call and Response over at HTML Giant. Strangely this came just after the flashback of watching Season Five of the […]

  33. Anonymous
  34. Anonymous
  35. JC

      I hate writing, but like masturbating all day when my house mates are away, I just … can’t … stop …