Of Spinning and Writing: In Defense of MFA Programs

May 13, 2013 § 22 Comments

A guest post from Tarn Wilson

hemingwayLast month in my 6 a.m. spinning class, sweating up an imaginary hill on my stationary bike—rap music thumping, my frighteningly enthusiastic instructor whooping encouragement—I realized, as disciplined as I believe I am, there was no way I’d be there that time of day, working that hard, if I didn’t have a class to attend. A teacher to yell at me. Sleepy people on either side of me spinning themselves awake. Then, in the loose way our minds make connections when we haven’t quite shaken sleep, I flashed to my MFA program. It, too, provided me structure and motivation to work harder than I thought I could.

As we shifted into sprints and our breath fogged the windows, all the arguments against MFA programs I’d read over the last several years spun through my head (in essays with names such as The MFA/Creative Writing System Is a Closed, Undemocratic, Medieval Guild System that Represses Good Writing): 

  • Writing programs produce “workshop style” prose, dulled by group consensus and shaped by a particular aesthetic, a reflection of the tastes of the famous and narrow-minded instructors.
  • Writing programs create an elitist, self-perpetuating literary community, which controls the publishing world and excludes innovative, outside voices.
  • Or, contrarily, the recent proliferation of writing programs has lowered standards, releasing into the world a mass of marginally trained beginners.
  • Besides, writing can’t be taught.

The arguments are well-reasoned and convincing—and I confess I don’t know enough about the most elite writing programs to address criticisms lobbed particularly at them—but they don’t speak to my experience, to the three years I spent in my low-residency MFA program, which did not transform me into a famous writer, but which challenged and stretched me, provided an inspiring community that has sustained me since, and reshaped, not just my writing, but my life.  

As the spinning instructor pressed us into a fast stretch on an imaginary highway, I tried to articulate to myself what felt like a bias in the critiques, not about what constitutes fine writing, but about what kind of person is a true writer. An image forms in my mind. A typewriter. A small room. A bottle of whiskey. The face looks familiar. It’s Hemingway! Not the real Hemingway, with his crazy neediness, but the Hemingway of our imagination. Independent. Charismatic. Curmudgeonly. He has a masculine confidence in his own words and worth—and his own distinct, controversial writing style. He doesn’t follow trends; he makes them! I recently read an old craft book by Robert Bahr, Dramatic Technique in Fiction, which crystallizes this portrait: “For the most part, accomplished writers are friendly, vivacious, entertaining people, but there is no getting around the fact that they have strong egos . . . they generally get along well with those who treat them with deference and are vicious competitors when challenged.” This Hemingway model suggests we are not worthy of being writers if we doubt ourselves or thrive in non-competitive community.

The truth is—whether caused by genetics, life experiences, or cultural forces such as racism, sexism, ageism—some of us do not possess the gift of confidence. But that is no reflection on our potential. Early in my career, I taught English in a school for at-risk teenagers. I finally abandoned my unsuccessful attempts at a traditional literature program and just let them write. They produced some of the most raw, rhythmic, original, poetic prose I’ve ever read. It stunned me. They resisted both revision and publication, so the world will never read their work. But I’d learned a secret. Remarkable writing comes from all kinds of people, from shy and bold, educated and uneducated, confident and self-defeating. In my many teaching years since, I’ve read beautiful, original pieces written by the talented and confident, the talented and insecure, and those who seemed to have no talent at all but who labor over their work. Each of these future writers deserves the opportunities that match their needs, whether a solitary room in Key West or in an MFA program.

The fan blowing on our faces isn’t enough to ease the muggy heat. Our sweat drips on the floor; moisture beads run down the window like rain. The instructor shouts, “Let me hear you, people! One long hill. Ten minutes. Go!” My thighs ache, but I increase the resistance on my bike and press on.

I’m not a Hemingway writer. I’m a people pleaser. I don’t admire this trait in myself. (I must have been born this way, because my hippy parents were deeply disappointed in my over-eager obedience.) This trait has worked against my growth as a writer because I’m easily swayed to fill my time with other people’s worthy work. But since I couldn’t seem to eradicate this tendency, I decided to use it on behalf of my writing. I applied to an MFA program because I knew I’d work hard to meet the deadlines and expectations of teachers I admired. It worked.

When I started my program, I hoped only that the structure would help me make writing a priority and I’d pick up a few advanced skills. I’d underestimated the power of mentors. I should have guessed: in my work with at-risk teens, I’d researched what fosters resilience in those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The number one predictor of future success? Mentors. The number one way to increase the percentage of underrepresented minorities in top career fields? Mentors. Yes, my MFA mentors were skilled writers generous with their wisdom, but even more, they showed me, in their various creative ways, how to build a writing life—especially in a culture that rewards very few writers financially and that offers constant, bombarding distraction. They modeled how to make a living, prioritize writing, navigate the demands of family and friends, and manage emotions around success and failure.

The critics don’t argue against mentors, but suggest writers should find them organically. Think Hemingway gathered with the expatriates in Gertrude Stein’s Paris salons. But not all of us know where to find a mentor, and even if we did, we’re too polite or shy to impose on their precious time. Critics argue that MFA programs are classist, but I also believe it’s classist to demand writers find their own support.  Now that I teach privileged teenagers, I recognize how much easier it is for those raised in well-off families to find mentors. They have spent their lives cultivating an appealing, graceful assurance. They know how to network, have access to people who know people, and have the confidence to ask for what they want. The rest of us need an MFA program.

And those complaints that MFA programs produce too many writers and that writing can’t be taught? I agree there is a certain luminous originality in the finest writing that can never be taught. But after years of seeing students’ awe-inspiring growth over a semester’s time, no one can convince me that most writers won’t improve, dramatically, with regular practice and structure and meaningful feedback.  (I think that is also a cultural bias, an American Western, individualistic, frontier mentality: many other cultures value apprenticeship, elders and generations of accumulated wisdom.)  The typical MFA program may not birth genius, but the students improve. And aren’t we all better off when people pursue their passions, when chefs, mechanics, surgeons, parents or musicians are happier and more skilled? Also, I believe what when we struggle with our writing, regardless of the final results, we think more clearly and understand more deeply—and our communities improve when any of us does work that loosens our hearts and defogs our brains.

I step from the bike and wipe the sweat with my soggy towel. My legs shake.  We clap for our teacher and ourselves. I gulp my water. I try to hold the shape of my essay in my mind long enough to get home and transfer it to the page.

But at home, the essay doesn’t organize itself as easily as it did in my exercised-fueled brain. I don’t want to blast the critics. Their arguments sprout from noble impulses: a desire to dissolve exclusive clubs, a passion for innovative writing, a respect for literature and love of excellence. So, as I have learned to do, I listen to my writing as I might a timid, wild animal. Carefully.  With attention. When I read the critics, I sense something else pulsing under the surface—is it my imagination?—the personal pain the writers may feel that their own creative work has not been recognized by the establishment.  Then I see that I, too, am not writing what I thought I was. I thought I was adding my voice to the debate about the value of MFA programs. I thought this was an essay. But it’s just a disguise. This is a thank you note to my program and mentors. This is a love letter.

Tarn Wilson is a happy graduate of the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. Her recent essays have been published in Gulf Stream, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Inertia, Life WritingRuminate, and The Sun.


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§ 22 Responses to Of Spinning and Writing: In Defense of MFA Programs

  • Edith says:

    I love this essay, this song of praise and thanksgiving interwoven with tiny bit sized portions of lament. It reads true and heart-felt. It doesn’t try to find a blithe and easy answer. It covers multiple angles, more philosophy in many ways than expositional writing (or are they really the same?) As someone attempting to learn and develop the craft of writing on her own in the full knowledge that I shall never be able to afford the luxury of an MFA I am always interested to read the pros and cons of pursuing such courses.. Purely from an academic perspective, you understand. Thank you for your balanced post!

  • Julie Farrar says:

    The low-res MFA programs are a godsend for people like me who live someplace where I can’t find a writing community for support. Long distance relationships through the internet can be found, but they are not the same as having a tribe with which I can interact face to face. I’m a firm believer in mentors. They were priceless at another time in my life and another career. While a writer may work daily (or not) in isolation, at some point she needs a community for support, insight, and kicks in the butt. Just because a writer learns to improve her writing within an organized program doesn’t mean she will never develop originality. The best programs would foster that element.

  • Jerry Waxler says:

    Fabulous essay, that presses high-road values into the service of clarifying and answering important questions. Nicely done!

  • melissamatthewson says:

    Great essay! Thank you! Comes just as I am about to start an MFA program and all of these questions are running through my mind.

  • Awesome essay….I agree….I went to the MFA program at Florida International University and was able to corral Dan Wakefield into being my mentor….It was the best thing that every happened to me.
    My blog is at http://www.ceciliamfernandez.wordpress.com

  • What a great essay to read two days after graduating from UNCW’s MFA program. Thanks!

  • Reblogged this on Kerry Headley and commented:
    I’m still in a post-graduation haze. Tarn Wilson is more articulate than I am about the value of MFA programs.

  • […] Of Spinning and Writing: In Defense of MFA Programs (brevity.wordpress.com) […]

  • Tina Schumann says:

    ” …there is a certain luminous originality in the finest writing that can never be taught.” Agreed. Stunningly articulate Tarn. And not only is that what all writers should aspire to (though many of us will never get there), but that is one of the top ten best lessons you will walk away with from an MFA program – i.e. what to aspire to. There are many passionate wanna-be writers in the world, but passion and a pen does not a writer make. If you don’t understand via lessons, discussions, workshops, critical readings and one-on-ones with a mentor what you should aspire towards you are done for. Long live MFA prgrams!

  • […] “Donald Judd’s House” by Alexandra Lange (“Culture Desk” blog, The New Yorker, May 13, 2013) […]

  • Marjorie Rommel says:

    Right on, Tarn! Why on earth should writers who don’t recognize and value the apprentice approach, as do those who work for excellence in other arts? And one more thing: in addition to our official mentors, those of us who engage with low-residency mfa programs — at least the Rainier Writing Program at Pacific Lutheran University — also greatly benefit from the ongoing support of our colleagues who don’t go away at program’s end. We learn so much from one another!

  • I still find it very strange that anyone is arguing about MFA’s in general. I don’t understand what the point of it is. Isn’t it (please note I’m not traditionally educated at all) pretty much going to vary person to person?

  • George says:

    I have no particular opinion about MFA programs. But in tribute to Hemingway, may I propose an alternative title: The Too Big-Hearted Spinner.

  • 1WriteWay says:

    I’m so glad I came across your blog and this post in particular. I’ve toyed with the idea of applying to an low-res MFA program, but have been undecided mainly because of the criticisms you describe. Thank you for the reminder that, for some of us, structure and mentoring is dearly needed. And for all of us, we get out of a program what we put into it.

  • genproofreads says:

    lot of emerging writers can relate to your essay. Structure helps us prioritize our writing.

  • […] at 7:15 on May 19, 2013 by Andrew Sullivan Tarn Wilson found an unexpected benefit from being in an MFA program: When I started my program, I hoped only that […]

  • Veronica Rodriguez says:

    It may be true that fine writing cannot be taught, but it most definitely can be learned. Your essay speaks of the need to gain confidence in your voice, and a caring tribe that is challenging and nurturing is very important, especially for beginning writers. My daughter is in such a group for girs in L.A. Writegirl is helping young women find their voice. I am grateful to have found this great group for her. If you have a teen and live in the Los Angeles area, Check them out.
    And, if I may abuse of this forum a bit, they are now in the middle of a fundraiser. If you donate, you’ll receive a piece of writing by a WriteGirl teen! http://writegirl.org/writeon.html (Please share!)
    Veronica Rodriguez

  • Mary says:

    This is awesome! I needed motivation again with my own experience in my Spinning sessions — and writing! (You can read about my first go at it on my post:To Quit or Not to Quit.) Thank you for this! Happy Spinning and Writing! May we Press on and Write on 🙂

  • Darrell says:

    You did good. It was helpful. Thanks.

  • st9ja says:

    Reblogged this on naijawriter and commented:
    I liked this, you might like it too.

  • Great essay. I sent it to my Antioch University fellow MFA students. Thanks Tarn!

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