• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
  • Archives

The Painted Ponies Go Up and Down

My third favorite magazine arrived today, Poets & Writers. When I was writing poetry, I lived for the Classified section where all the contests were listed. The new issue has the 2011 MFA ranking. Guess who’s still coming to dinner at number #1? I-O-WA. How do they do it? Year after year? And this is in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. It’s the grand slam of wordsmithing. And what of my alma, Columbia? Twenty-fucking-five. Oh, how the mighty fall. And the poetry is ranked #47. Mother of god.

#2 – University of Michigan at Ann Arbor

#3- University of Texas at Austin

#10- Cornell at Ithaca

#50 University of Nevada in Las Vegas

Do these rankings matter? Do they help you on the job market? Getting published? I think the best thing you can hope to accomplish is to a) not go broke  b) find a bff/first reader  c) find a mentor who doesn’t eventually turn on you. What I discovered when I got my MFA was that I was a better editor than writer; at least that’s what I surmised. I also learned a kind of snobbery in taste. I made a great friend. And I studied with some greats like Denis Johnson and Richard Howard and Bill Matthews.

It’s an old question, but I’d love to hear if you feel your MFA program was worth it and what # ranking would you give it? If you don’t have an MFA, what are your thoughts about going to school to write

66 Responses

  1. I’m an alum of effing #25 as well and I was just thinking this morning (as I wondered what kind of higher ed my kids would want/could afford) about what a difference Columbia has made in my life. Honestly, I think it made me serious. You can’t really be there paying all that money and not be incredibly sure that this pursuit is it for you. The end all be all of your effort and talent. I, too, came away an editor, but more for others than myself. While writing my first novel I had my own hazing as I learned to exist without the workshop voices every week. Oh, and spending an afternoon in the Hungarian Pastry Shop always gave me the illusion that every word I wrote was dreadfully important and might actually save the world from itself.

  2. My school isn’t on there (nor would it ever be–small private college) but I live close to #42. I think just going through college, and getting exposure to literature on a deeper level (aka not-highschool-level) is really beneficial. However, a lot of people apply these rigid rules to what the write. It can be really detrimental if you aren’t shaken out of your “I am a literary connoisseur” mode. You’re not going to write like any of the greats you read–ever! You’re going to write like you! That isn’t something I think can be taught in college…

  3. Does anyone know the Who on the P&W staff who actually decides what school is #1 and which one is #948? How does this All-Knowing One decide on the Official Ranking? (I need to know, so I can learn whether I got a real education or just thought I did).

  4. I’ve been accepted. I’ve accepted, no then I deferred. No then I changed my mind before I sent the application. Every single year, I think is this the year I want to go to grad school. DO I need it? Do I want it?

    I got a BFA in Creative Writing at the University of Evansville. Does anyone know where that is? I don’t know if it has a rank. I do know that I was gifted with amazing professors who had contagious loves for writing and life and who were pretty honest about writing. …

    However I can’t even finish this little comment without thinking about whether or not I should apply for grad school this year, so not sure I should have even submitted this comment.

    • I’m in the middle of acceptance and deferment. I oscillate daily between actually registering for Fall 2011 or not. I can’t decide between spending $100K on an MFA or just quitting my day job and writing until the money runs out (or I make it).

    • I’ve known a lot of writers, many of them pretty successful, none of them would have been helped by 100K in debt. Just saying.

      • I agree with SpringChicken. If you have to become a corporate slave to pay off your grad school debts, you will be too depressed and/or not nave the time to write. Quit your job!

  5. Went back to school after 30 years to get my MA (not MFA) in Writing at a nearby college. Not as intense, perhaps, as the ranked schools. But the novel I worked on while earning my degree eventually–just recently, actually–got published. And not having the F between the M and A probably saved me a boatload of cash.

    • And a wonderful novel it is. You all should read it! (no, Jim didn’t pay me)

      I went back after 30 years too, though it was to switch from the last two courses I needed for a psych degree to CW. I think age and life experiemce and knowing what you want has an awful lot to do with what you get or don’t get from an MFA or any other program.

  6. I got an MA rather than an MFA. I think the writing classes taught me a lot, both when I critiqued and when I was critiqued. It helped me create discipline, and it also felt good to be surrounded by other writers who “got” me.

    What my program was missing was a course teaching the basics of getting published. And not only “How to query an agent” but also the more practical side: I believe every MA and MFA course should teach a course on commercial freelance writing, just so these newly-minted MA/MFA students don’t walk out the door thinking the only way they can earn a dollar writing is by publishing a slim volume of poetry or that beautiful literary novel.

    We should be able to work as writers doing things like “Ten Ways To Keep Your Cat Entertained During Your Vacation” so that our day job matches our eventual dreams and we aren’t stuck managing a database ten hours a day while jotting down paragraphs in between customer service phone calls.

    • What do most folks major in their undergrad? I was a Creative Writing major. Is that the norm?

      I do agree with the need to have classes on how to get publish. I had one my senior year one class over this stuff. It wasn’t enough.

      • I was a philosophy major, a path I took specifically to (somehow) make me a better writer. I already had a trade, as a bartender. Which I don’t do any more, it’s a killer.

    • I live in Minneapolis and am fortunate to have The Loft Literary Center, which has classes addressing such matters as “How to query an agent.” I wonder if your community has such a resource tucked away some where.

      I come from a law school background and always wondered why law schools failed to teach practical classes like “How to achieve 90 billable hours/week” instead of yet another theoretical look at case law. I taught legal writing at a top 25 law school last year, however, and realized that students just do not care about the practical at that point in their career.

      I just read an article in U.S. News, however, which said that studio arts MFA programs are adding “business for artists” classes into their curriculum.

      In any event, I’ve found the practical classes offered by The Loft to be immensely worthwhile at this point in my career. Not sure I would have valued them as a twentysomething . . .


  7. At soon-to-be 48 years old I’m actually contemplating a low-res MFA. But. Only because I want to work with a certain writer. Those of us who have come to the writing game later than late may have different reasons for going to back to school. In my case I don’t care about the rankings. I’m looking for a decent teacher who knows what she’s doing, whose writing shares my aesthetic, and who isn’t caught up in crazy, crazy competitiveness. I just want to learn how to write as best I can, and am not looking for an MFA to do anything for me beyond that. The rest will come. Naive? Yes. I don’t care.

    • I have visited several universities. Talked with so many of the professors and I think it was easy to see which schools have a nurturing teaching program and which ones were just a name. It was very interesting. You got to really figure out what you need out of grad school before you go. And I know I don’t need anymore debt. So that’s a huge concern.

      I need a workshop group, or even just a group of strong readers. That is the toughest part. Not having that group like someone said before who get you. But I am slowly finding those people and it is costing me a lot less.

  8. All I want is a first reader (or two) who gets me. Someone who’s in an objective place between my mother and the classmate who told me she didn’t like my “hobbit” essay because she didn’t believe in evolution.

  9. If I had gotten my act and my senses together when I was younger, I would have gotten an MFA instead of going to law school. I can only imagine that the level of in-depth critique, camraderie, and connections one receives in a formal degree program. But now I have three young children, and it’s just not practical. I occasionally consider a low-residency program. For now, I’ll just keep my fingers crossed while my agent shops around my book.

    • Another lawyer here. . . I’m getting my MFA at 39 and I too wish I would have done it before, instead of law school.

      • Here, here . . . I went to law school at 22 because I was afraid of my creative writing. Always critical. I allowed my inner-critic (and perfectionist) to drive me away from the creative path towards the more “practical” . . . now at 40, I look at paying for school all over again because I didn’t do my MFA back then. Still, my law degree led me to a 10 year gig in the publishing world; as an acquisitions editor and then as a publisher.

  10. I’m considering applying to programs, but I’m just not sure. Would it be worth it at my age (44)? I’ll be watching these comments closely, for sure.

    and jilljamison, I know where UofE is. I went to Ball State and IU and grew up north of there in Rising Sun. But did I even know that UofE had a creative writing program? No. When I graduated high school, I was given two choices – teacher or nurse. Hence, Ball State for an aborted teaching degree.

  11. A professor once told us that we would have one or two voices in every workshop whom we would trust. I think that’s true of grad school professors as well. And in many ways, that’s all you need. The rankings are just static.

    I did not love my grad school at all (which used to be in the top 50, but is no longer on the list), but I do love what I got out of it. It was the right time of life for me to be obsessive about line breaks, contemporary poets, and formal poetry. I scanned subway signs for meter. I worked in a bookstore. I was miserable, joyful, and wrote a ton. And I made a couple amazing friends.

  12. Dialogue at Bread Loaf: Famous writer: “Okay, today we have the work by one of our authors (!!!gasp- that was me). Let’s go around the circle and critique it.” First writer: “Well, I read this really fast, but all I have to say is that whoever wrote this- and forgive me for being blunt- must be totally insane. The characters are so atypical of real life; the scenery is so old world Louisiana; the happenings? Who eats robin gumbo?” Second writer: “I concur: when I read these passages I heard music playing in the background; it was as though I were transported into another world. What we need is reality, you know. The real stuff of life.” Famous writer: “You all must be kidding, right? what literary planet did you all come from? This is illuminating, the best I’ve seen at Bread Loaf. How many of you have read a book this summer?” Hands raised- 2 out of ten writers. Famous writer: “Lord save us.” Me: “gulp”…hands in my lap, and I say to myself: “Yankee Doodle Dandy!” So, the moral of the story: two years for an MFA, thousands of dollars, hell I can get rejections from hundreds of agents on my own!

    • Hahaha. I heard Tin House makes you submit a reciept of a recent book purchase before they’ll consider your story. Best. Idea. Ever.

  13. I wish I had an MFA. I have a BS in elementary education. No writing degrees at all. Nothing. Not even a workshop. I’ve been told that I have a voice and some natural talent. I’m glad about that. But I don’t know the rules. When I write a book, it’s as though I’m running through a forest in the dark. I bump into a lot of trees. I’ve been lucky to have worked with wonderful editors. My beloved Melanie Kroupa (she edited my last book) was a great mentor. When you get taught a thing in a kind, patient way, your stubborn brain says okay, this I can do.

    • How do you find a good editor? I was using someone who I thought was wonderful until I realized I wasn’t getting any constructive criticism. Can’t improve when someone is just agreeing with everything.

      • Deb, Melanie Kroupa bought my last book when she had her own imprint at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Her amazing editing skills came with the deal.

        I can recommend some excellent freelance editors if you’d like.

  14. I majored in Journalism and Mass Communications. Among the classes I took were creative writing courses. My ultimate goal was to eventually write novels. But the practical in me determined I also needed to earn a living in the meantime. As a journalist I could ply my craft, hone my skills and get paid for it. It has been a twisted path with fits and starts and stalls and life in all its complications intervened. Only now am I finally seriously, doggedly, pursuing my dream. Until now I don’t believe I was skilled enough nor settled enough to finally put it altogether. I guess I’m a late bloomer. We’ll see. It’s time.

    • Ditto anonymous. Did write short stories/novels along the way, but no much monetary success with those. I think journalism and reporting is great life experience to eventually develop characters, as well as discipline and earn an income at the same time.

  15. I have a friend who stopped writing poetry after attending an MFA program. She’s talented and a famous poet there liked her stuff. But something about the program killed her interest in writing.

    I’ve never considered getting an MFA. If I wrote literary fiction (I don’t), had lots of money and time, etc, I might consider it.

    • i agree about the killing.

      the people i know who with an MFA picked theirs up a little later in life and i’ve noticed in them a reluctance to take a risk in their writing. has some kind of internal critic has taken up permanent residence in their brains?

      • This reminds me of yesterday’s comments. A lot of people get reluctant as they get older. Has nothing to do with writing in particular. And a lot us don’t get reluctant. And a lot of us have had the internal critic since we were born.

  16. My impression (from friends who did MFA programs) is that getting an MFA (especially from the competitive schools) can, if you are not confident in your writing (and yourself), destroy every scrap of talent you may have had.

    • do you think a creative writing program could kill talent? i’m not certain it could. a filter of fear could do so, but a creative writing program?

      • Not destroy, no, but silence, sure. Put out of commission. Some of the stories I’ve heard were brutal.

  17. There’s interesting MFA article this month in my second favorite magazine, The Writer’s Chronicle. The author, Elizabeth Eshelman, discusses MFAs from the point of view of the development of women’s fiction in particular. How the programs give not only an audience and community, but permission to write. I’m not sure someone who has to write needs permission, but it’s a well thought-out article. Eshelman also mentions a brief conversation with Tim O’Brien, how he said an MFA program would have saved him 10 years of learning.

    There’s also one of the best interviews of writers in this issue I’ve ever read: Andre DuBus III.

    And Denis Johnson is one of the few writers whose fiction and poetry both knock me out. How cool you worked with him.

  18. Write for a newspaper or periodical. You save $100K, get paid a pittance, and between your editors and your readers you get a pretty good education.

  19. Did a minor in CW as an undergrad at Chapel Hill. Studied with some great writers and made valuable connections. (A few turned on me.) Left my MFA program in upstate NY after 1 year — couldn’t stand it. May move on to another program in the future. I don’t think anyone should go out for an MFA without a stellar funding package; I had full tuition and a stipend and it *still* wasn’t worth it (I hated teaching, and I had to teach for the stipend). I don’t think MFAs guarantee jobs or much of anything, but good programs attract good writers and good writers make good friends to have in the business, the program = time to write (preferably funded time to write), which every writer needs, and the program forces a certain amount of output, though I’ve known a lot of young writers to crumple under the pressure and produce some pretty shoddy work (they get out and write brilliantly). I think it’s probably a good/trying experience and generally beneficial … but then, writing teachers have their preferences and dogmas and some are too imposing, some will try to shape a young writer or push him/her in a certain direction. I do think an MFA means something in the publishing circuit and can help a little; I hardly see a bio note in any magazine or fellowship list that doesn’t mention an MFA. (Final note — I’ve always found the workshop environment to be a highly jealous, competitive atmosphere, and no workshop I was in ever gelled nicely and moved in a productive direction. Lots of brilliant cheap shots were taken on a regular basis. The best comment I’ve heard re: a short story: “That ain’t nothin’ but shit flung high.”)

  20. c) find a mentor who doesn’t eventually turn on you. Sigh.

  21. Mine (Warren Wilson) tied for first on the low-rez ranking. It was worth the $ for me. I got two years of one-on-one feedback personalized to my writing, I made good friend who are still my first and most valued readers, I met some amazing writers I think of as mentors, I read some phenomenal books I would have never heard of, and I learned to take myself seriously as a writer.

  22. I was considering getting an MFA after I couldn’t sell my first novel but I decided against it ($$$!!!). Reading Betsy’s post I realize that I already have a couple of wonderful first readers (one from a one-off writing workshop at New School and one from the publishing world) and a fabulous mentor from undergrad that I’m still very close to so maybe I don’t have a reason to go.

    Also I’m almost (almost!) done with the new book. I think maybe I was just looking for an excuse to spend two years writing.

  23. The one program I applied to refused to accept me, but I still think it was worth it. I attended three classes in this program while I had the time and money to do so, and learned valuable techniques and perspectives I had not previously had.

    When I first set out as a creative writer many years ago, I was suspicious of creative writing teachers and smug in my ignorance. What little I had seen of creative writing classes at the public school and state university undergraduate levels left me cold. I set out on my own, only accidentally and occasionally writing a small piece of any value.

    Twenty years ago I was rescued from myself by an invitation to go to New York City and study in private classes offered by a brilliant and demanding teacher. His classes, and NYC in general, kicked my provincial ass, but I came away from the experience with the tools to make of myself a sometimes decent writer.

    And sometimes not. I could do some things on the page, but not others. A few years ago, in the wake of a story I had published in a litmag, an NYC agent wrote me and asked me if I had a novel I could send his way. I certainly did–two or three of them, in fact–and over the next eighteen months, he or his assistant were subject to my unworkable novels. When he sent the last one back, he advised me to find the nearest MFA program and take some courses there, as there were things about the novel I clearly didn’t know.

    So I did. Around this same time, an article in P&W pointed out that many agents and editors are strongly biased in favor of writers who have MFAs, since having such a degree demonstrates a certain level of seriousness and a basic acquaintance with the rules, tools, and history of the art. I decided since I was going to take MFA classes, I might as well get an MFA, as it might be something of a door-opener. And I might learn something.

    That I did. Not only did I learn useful technical information, I learned what it was like to be a middle-aged returning student coming from a commercial background into an environment populated by large, fragile, over-inflated egos (mine included) crashing into one another. Early on, one of my professors threatened to kick me out of her class. She said there would be “none of that New York stuff” in her workshop. But she also told me, after my application had been declined, that her particular MFA program would strip from my writing the very components that gave it strength.

    So to return to your questions, yes, attending the program was worth it. My writing is stronger now than it was before I took the three courses I took. There are things about creative writing, about crafting literary art, that simply have to be mastered. Some writers can pick these things up on their own, and some cannot. A good teacher, capable and honest peers, and a focused environment, whether in an MFA program or outside an MFA program, can make all the difference to a writer.

  24. I don’t think one of my favorite writers got a degree in writing, MFA or whatever. As I think back, I also believe that getting an MFA is an excuse for not sitting down and practicing your craft- which means you’re probably afraid. Addendum to the conferences with famous writers: If I heard one more of them start off with Faulkner’s kill all your darlins’ speech I was going to puke (except the food was always really good) and the booze.

  25. I was a poor kid who struggled to pay for a top ten MFA program while working full-time. I went b/c I knew I had talent but also needed training—I wasn’t sure what kind, but something more, different, better than what I had. In grad school, I discovered I was a terrible editor and re-learned how to read. At first, I was shredded beyond belief, but I burned with righteous indignation and wrote and re-wrote, read and re-read, edited and re-edited, and left with a thesis (my first novel) that I sold two years later to a high-flying editor for a shitload of money. (Granted, it rained money in the late 90’s but still.)

    Writing is a craft, a skill that is honed over time by training and mentors and people who shred you. Lawyers go to law school, surgeons go to med school, and while I realize many great writers didn’t go to MFA school, I wouldn’t be half the writer I am had I not gone.

    Workshops in a top MFA program can be nasty, soul-killing experiences, but if you’re a writer, you will write. I am a novelist. I write novels. I still work (almost) full-time at a corporate job, but the idea that anyone—student, publisher, critic, neighbor—could say anything that would make me stop, or even slow down, is beyond my comprehension. My art is my art, and I work at it every day, pushing myself to learn why certain novels don’t work, my own included. Having an MFA gave me the tools to do this in a professional way. I also learned how to deal with rejection. My second book tanked, and I spent the subsequent ten years suffering one rejection after another, returning to the work again and again, the same way I did in writing school. This past May I finally, finally, finally sold my third novel. My point? I’d love it if you bought my new book when it’s released in 2012.

  26. I will buy it, but will you tell us who you are? Did you do all this with or without the help of therapy and/or psychiatric meds. Don’ t have to answer. But shit, yes, I’ll buy your book in hardcover.

  27. I have no A, MFA, or f-in A–but I’m not sure any of it (or the related debt) would have helped me in any way.

    I’m a write by ‘feel’ person, so all of the rules and structure of higher education would probably have messed me up badly.

    I don’t agree with anonymous, in that I don’t think you need any of the ‘training and mentors’ (some writers/artists work by ‘feel’–it’s a sensory thing, a beat, a timing, and I think it depends on if you’re left brained or right brained and what works best for you as an individual. I think for some a structured education in an ‘art’–and that’s what writing is–can actually do more harm than good.)

    I liken the way I write to someone who can sit down and play any piano concerto after hearing it once, but can’t read a note. I’ve familiarized myself with the rules over the years, but only enough so I know when I can break them.

    …but I do LOVE my shredders. My skin is alligator thin and I go to the toughest critics on my workshopping site when I need opinions (regularly)

    BTW, just started reading Food and Loathng…probably not the best week to do so. School is starting for my two autistic kids who both have anxiety issues and…let’s just say there was a severe melt down in a parking lot today. I made it out alive but I could use a fistful of Xanax about now! Ha!

    Anyway, I’m enjoying the book already, and can totally relate to young Miss B because I was Miss J with many of the same issues. 😉

  28. …uh that was alligator thick.

    I blame the error the kid behind me watching Popeye at an ear splitting decibel level. 😉

  29. …uh that was alligator thick.

    I blame the error on the kid behind me watching Popeye at an ear splitting decibel level. 😉

  30. I would love to sit in a classroom discussing literature and digesting feedback on my writing.

  31. I earned an MFA 2 years ago from a school not on the list.
    What does the list mean? Not much actually (at least in a workshop environment) because it’s the other students (which no list can really quantify) that determines much of your experience.
    It’s a complicated thing to discuss because it’s an odd degree. Unlike other curriculums it doesn’t really train you to do anything, it simply (hopefully) makes you more competent at something you already know how to do. (Part of that comment is based on the fact that you have to submit a manuscript indicating your skill level in order to be accepted in the first place).
    One of my last workshops (other students critiquing a section of my novel) went like this:
    Student #1: “I didn’t really like the part about….”
    Student #2: “Really? That was actually one of my favorite passages.”
    Student #3: “I don’t know. I was kind of ambivalent about it.”
    Not verbatim, but that’s what actually happened. What is a writer supposed to do with that kind of feed-back? Usually people love it or hate it, but that third student really made me question the whole process.
    I am a better writer for having gone through the program. I’m also a better editor. Now, if only I could stop the editor in me from making the writer in me revise long enough to finish something I’d be happy!

    • Of one of my stories, one of my MFA classmates said, “There is no part of this thing that is a story!” Another said, “I really liked this story until everybody told me what was wrong with it.” That very story was published in a litmag last week. Go figure.

      • I guess that’s that hardest part of the whole process, trusting your own instincts. A belated congratulations for getting your story (with all that was wrong with it) published.

    • Stick your head closer to the speakers. Feedback fades quickly.

  32. LOVED my MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles (ranked 5 on low res programs by P&W)! Wouldn’t trade it for anything – worth every penny.

    Here’s what Steve Heller, chair of the MFA program, said in an e-mail to us:

    Although it is gratifying to find AULA consistently ranked highly whenever someone publishes a list of the best low-res MFA programs (and our Communications folks will no doubt draw this fact to the world’s attention once again), as Chair of the Professional Standards Committee of The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) as well as Chair of the MFA in Creative Writing Program, I want to caution all of us against making too much of such rankings. For example, this one is based on a survey of MFA applicants, not MFA graduates. This might make sense as a survey of what potential MFA students desire in a program, but applicants necessarily judge programs from the outside, not from experience.

    Although MFA faculty and staff believe in the nature, mission, and specific purposes of our program, and we certainly believe it is one of the very best of its kind, we also know that the choice of an MFA program is an individual and very personal one, and that our program, despite its virtues, is not for everyone.

    There you have it.

  33. I went to Columbia, too, and while it overwhelmed and terrified me most of the time that I was there, I realized how fortunate I was to be among such talented people, instructors and students alike. I’m surprised at how far it’s fallen in the rankings. But I thank my lucky stars: I have two friends, a few cherished mentors, years of writing and reading, work as an adjunct professor, some encouraging interest from agents, an almost finished book, and another in the works. Was it worth it? Absolutely.

    • The rankings are based on statistics collected by a financial aid advocate. They come from his personal blog. Columbia seems to rankle him and he chases off any “Columbia apologist” who dares question his rankings. Meanwhile Columbia continues to churn out reams of publishing writers. Caveat emptor. All slightly pissed off at this well meaning, but misguided pest.

      • I read the methodology article for the rankings and it looks like the statistics come from public releases of information by the programs via their websites and rejection letters to applicants and so on. I don’t know what you mean when you say the statistics come from a blog, how would a blog have information on any program’s funding or acceptance rate unless that information was first taken from elsewhere? And the article says the polling was done at The MFA Blog, which is a site I’m familiar with. It was started by Tom Kealey, the guy who wrote The Creative Writing MFA Guidebook.

        In any case, anyone who’s a financial aid advocate is not, sorta by definition, a pest in my book. From what I understand this advocate you’re talking about has been very, very tough on every poorly funded program, not just Columbia. And here’s to that, I say. I wish there were more people pushing back on the whole funding thing.


      • To Telford:

        The information that comes from press releases etc. is used to compile the about program size. The rankings themselves come from lists of programs that were submitted to Creative Writing MFA Handbook Blogspot and (in previous years) Seth’s own site. In both ‘communities’ Seth actively shut down any dissension, any conversation advocating for Columbia or looking choosing a program for any reason other than financial aid.

        Seth advocates for financial aid, which is a very good thing; but it does not make him an impartial observer as he is trying to portray himself. The rankings he complies are deeply flawed. That Columbia continues to provoke such wrath from Abrahmson seems suspicious to many applicants, students and alumni.

        Plus – read some of his replies, is this really someone who should be ranking writing programs? And isn’t it odd how the institutions Seth attends are always #1? (Iowa MFA and – more suspiciously – UWisc. PhD?)

  34. Uh oh, fair warning, discussions of writing programs are a trigger for this lurker’s occasional bouts of semi-coherent but impassioned verbal diarrhea. Still, five years ago when my degree was fresh all my discussions of writing programs quickly devolved into inarticulate grunts, high-pitched squealing and exasperated hand gestures. So, progress.

    I can only speak to a BFA experience (the MFA students were like the hot, uninterested Varsity athletes to our JV team) but here is mine:

    As a teenager I loved writing with the zealousness of a recent convert and all I knew when applying to college was that I Just Wanted to Write!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And also read!!!! And Gregory Corso was just the end!!!!!!!!!

    Four years later my flaming crush on the written word was, as other commenters have alluded to, completely squashed. (To be fair it might’ve died on its own of natural causes.)

    Here are some things I learned:
    – a group of 19-year olds around a conference table generally do not have the depth of life experience or breadth of reading to make a workshop, you know, all that useful.

    -I also learned the general outline of what Betsy’s aforementioned snobbery is supposed to look like, but I was taking workshops instead of literature courses so I don’t actually have the breadth of reading to be a real snob, so I just learned to fake it in a mildly passive-aggressive way.

    -Creative writing courses tend to attract a lot of douchebags. And conspicuous tattoos. (Mine did, at least.)

    Pros and Cons:
    I did have one or two talented, committed teachers who didn’t think of undergrads as an afterthought. And I did learn some useful nuts and bolts type stuff so if my urge to write (in genres other than longer-than-necessary blog comments) ever rises from the dead I would have a general idea of where to start looking for information. I did make one friend who was also a writing major but technically it was because we lived in the same dorm. Our favorite pastime was complaining about the douchebags in our writing workshops.

    I have been told that certain programs have certain “flavors,” and that depending on where you end up you tend to perfect whatever the flavor of that particular program is. But If you are a barbecue sauce in a subtle chianti world you might be out of luck. This also begs the question, do i hate experimental poetry because i hate it, or because it wasn’t really any of my teachers’ bags?

    I think I definitely wrote more, and to more of a state of completion, than I would’ve on my own. I was helped by the deadlines, and the prospect of being verbally diddled by classmates if they liked what I wrote (which was not as hard to make happen as if more of them had been familiar with the Corso poems I was ripping off.) I still remember the time a guy with white-boy dreads told me he took a copy of one of my poems out of the teacher’s mailbox to keep – and he *wasn’t even in the class!* Probably my finest moment as a writer.

    As for how it has affected me in the present day, I will say that i am *great* at taking criticism – particularly now that In my current line of work I am writing but not on topics I’m emotionally invested in. So I can be like “It’s OK, feedback-givers, skip the niceties, let’s just make it better.”

    And I also find that when the occasional piece of writing for personal pleasure slips out, I feel like it’s not finished until it’s been sent to workshop to get the stamp of approval. Now that I’m done with (though not done paying for) my suckling at the workshop teat, the process often feels incomplete. In a way it’s disappointing to write for its own sake without the promise of a room full of questionably-smelling people waiting to dissect every comma. If a poem falls in the forest…

    And I agree that you probably get the most out of a program when you know what you want and know why you’re there. And you should probably be old enough to have done some living, so that you have something to write about in addition to spring break and the death of your grandmother. The writing programs give you the tools but they don’t help you if you got nothing to carve.

    When I think back to that golden time when writing and I were still in lust, it had nothing to do with forms or line breaks or literary magazines. I loved to read because of what it said about life. I loved what it said to my soul, before I learned that Real, University-sanctioned writers don’t use that word if they want to be taken Seriously.

    Anyway, i am not the first to maintain that if you’re writing, you’re a writer, and that you can do that with or without a “program”. People seemed to have managed with out them for quite some time.

    Go, and learn some useful things and potentially have the desire to write slowly purged from you as if by leeches; or don’t go and avoid the sometimes unintentionally restrictive environment but probably make more avoidable mistakes. Either way, I think good writing that sticks to your ribs and changes things doesn’t come out of rankings or approval or disapproval or lists or grades or workshops. It comes out of like, your soul and stuff. Your life force, fire energy, damaged childhood, primal urges, dream state, inability to control yourself, rage against the machine, love, death, all that sick stuff.

    OK, I’ll reel myself in now. I’m still going to hit “submit” even though I’ll probably regret it in the morning.

    *Diatribe over, soapbox vacated*

  35. looks like you touched on a topic that might draw lots of readers around the time FFTT comes out. Maybe you could link it to your PR: do not read this book if/unless you have an MFA. Controversy sells apparently. And crime.

  36. Going to school to write is great as long as you write on the way to school.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: