The Trouble with Creative Writing Programs

[TW: domestic violence mentions, normalization of child abuse, marginalization of survivors.]

I’m a writer. I’ve dedicated years to learning my craft, and continue to practice daily. Eventually, I’d like to be able to subsist solely off of royalties, but I know that isn’t likely to happen in the next decade. I’ll probably linger in relative obscurity forever. I have a fairly realistic view of my situation, I’d like to think.

When I was in school, I waffled about trying to decide on a major. Computer science? Sociology? Linguistics? Women’s Studies? Japanese? I had many interests, but none of the above captured my attention quite as much as creative writing. When my school developed an undergraduate English program focused on creative writing, I switched over.

And for the most part, it was wonderful. I learned a lot about writing, especially the importance of revision. It was great to meet other writers and be part of a critique circle. Some of them in particular were so good, their work was a real joy to read. I felt honored to be able to do so. The creative writing program’s teachers were knowledgeable and quite genuinely very nice, and for the most part perfectly willing to accommodate me when I (inevitably) succumbed to symptoms of PTSD. Some of them didn’t even need to hear a reason for my absences or late assignments; they just worked with me.

Except one.

This teacher was fairly new to teaching, from what I understand, so I do cut him a little bit of slack. He surely didn’t mean it when he blew up at the class for being so inconsiderate to have to miss a class—coincidentally all on the same day, because as I recall there was a flu going around—that he immediately decided to flunk everyone if they missed even one more class for the rest of the year. He… well, he basically threw a temper tantrum. And at the end of his tirade, he said he now understood why people would want to hurt children.

Yeah. So that didn’t go over too well with me.

Dude realized he fucked up, and he was extra apologetic, but you know what? That doesn’t magically make it better. He still compared the entire class to a bunch of babies, and while I’m sure it was supposed to be hyperbole, it was still a comment that normalized child abuse. I’m sure it wasn’t a statement he would have made had he known that some of us in that class did actually have personal experience with domestic violence… But why, exactly, did he just assume that none of us had?

It’s not like survivors go around telling everyone all about their worst experiences, you know.

And that whole experience, combined with a number of other crappy experiences, soured me on all of academia. As a whole, even when teachers were trying to be accommodating, they just didn’t get it. It’s hard enough to have to share your writing with a whole class full of people who don’t understand and refuse to accept fundamental aspects of who you are, and continually tell you that your characters are “unrealistic” even though they are very much based in reality… But to then also have to deal with teachers who are verbally violent or colluding with violence? No. No, no, no. Fuck that shit.

So no, I do not ever intend to go to graduate school. I don’t need to complete an MFA program in order to get to where I want to be. I was already taking graduate-level courses in the last few years of my undergrad, and you know what? I pretty much got what I was going to get out of it. There came a point where it was pretty clear that I was just… too marginalized. My experience wasn’t seen as “real” enough for others to be able to give good critiques. And I’ll write more about that later, but for now? Let’s leave it at that.

It should be pretty obvious why this article reminded me of that one teacher, and only further solidified my desire to stay the fuck away from MFA writing programs:

No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer.

I worked with a number of students writing memoirs. One of my Real Deal students wrote a memoir that actually made me cry. He was a rare exception. For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults. Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.’

I was glad to see Chuck Wendig’s response:

‘Wh… whuuuuuh… why would… whhh.

That whistling sound is the dramatic whisper of oxygen keening through my open, slack-jawed mouth. Because holy fucking fuck, why would you ever say that and think anybody is ever going to feel good about it? Man, I am a huge fan of the TAKE YOUR MEDICINE LIFE IS HARD school of teaching writing, but never in a zajillion years would I suggest you suffer more child abuse because you’re a bad writer. Thanks, teacher, you’re so helpful.

That’s colder than a snowman’s asshole, dude.

I mean, dang.’

Yeah, I think that about covers it.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Real Deal memoir-writer this (fortunately!) ex-teacher wrote about is a he, and the ones he complains about are not. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he sees talent as the thing that fundamentally determines one’s worth as a writer. “Talent” favors the privileged. There was a girl in one of my classes whose paper was riddled with errors, so much so that I really couldn’t understand what many of her sentences meant. You know why? English was not her first language. She was not considered “talented” and I got the impression that the class’s critiques left her in tears. I hope she didn’t give up on writing, though, because her perspective is one that often goes unheard.

Academic writing programs are inherently elitist. Even those who can afford the expense and are accepted into the program may run into a teacher more interested in belittling their efforts than actually teaching. For those of us who are routinely marginalized? It really may not be worth it.

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14 thoughts on “The Trouble with Creative Writing Programs

  1. This is actually why I avoided majoring in English completely, despite writing being my first passion in life and the major I assumed I’d choose. I just… didn’t need other people to tell me what to write, or what not to write, when they knew nothing about me or my characters.

    It’s interesting you mention the girl for whom English wasn’t her first language. I took a personal essay class for fun my final year of college and one student’s papers in that class would always be riddled with grammatical and spelling mistakes. Really obvious, glaring ones, hundreds in even a short paper. Everyone corrected him on all of them, every paper – until he finally told the class that he was dyslexic and couldn’t SEE the errors he was making. That shut the rest of us up real quick, and taught me to never assume someone’s “mistake” comes from a place of ignorance or laziness.

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    • Yeah, I’m sure there were some dyslexic people in my classes, too—although they never actually spoke about it, but I know it’s pretty common for them to not admit it publicly (at least two of my family members are dyslexic, so). I try to correct every typo anyway because I know that even if you aren’t dyslexic or a non-native speaker it can be hard to see the errors sometimes. I’d like to think that doesn’t come across as shaming, but in an environment where almost everyone else is doing that? It’s really hard to convey that you’re only trying to help.

      Totally understandable to not major in English. I wouldn’t say my time in the English program was wasted, not by a long shot… but. There definitely came a time when spending more time in the program would not be very helpful. If I ever decide to go to grad school it will be for something else.

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  2. I read this reply to the awful thing you quoted too: https://fozmeadows.wordpress.com/2015/03/01/ryan-boudinot-and-the-peril-of-mfas/

    ;)

    I really appreciate this whole post of yours. I took a couple creative writing classes – one in high school, one in college – and I can totally understand where you’re coming from, especially since your experiences have been so extreme, and so awful, and so many people don’t want to believe these things happen to the people around them in their class.

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    • Super late to reply here (I may have forgotten that I had comments to respond to), but thanks for linking that! It’s disappointingly unsurprising to see that guy’s behavior on twitter is exactly the kind of terrible you’d expect from his article. I do hope he didn’t discourage too many students.

      I don’t know if I would even say my experiences have been that extreme, honestly. Other people seem to disagree with me whenever I talk about it, but for me? I dunno, it’s very normal. And what my classmates were reacting to wasn’t even my own experiences—it was fiction about an aro/ace character (I’ll write about that later). The class with the terrible teacher was a mixed grad/undergrad fiction workshop, and I really didn’t discuss my own experiences until he had that explosion of awful.

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      • Yeah. I get that your experiences might not even be that extreme. I’m sorry I worded it like that.

        I look forward to seeing you write more about the fiction you were writing about an aro/ace character that people were deeming unrealistic. :P That would obviously be frustrating…

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  3. I’ve thought about doing an MFA program at some point, but reading your post and that awful one you linked to is giving me second thoughts… I wouldn’t want to risk ending up with a professor like that!

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    • Most of the profs were incredibly patient with me, so they’re certainly not all bad. But there are more problems with MFA programs than just a few teachers being jerks, unfortunately, and they’re pretty much systemic problems. There’s a very narrow focus on a specific genre of writing (literary fiction ONLY YOU TAKE THAT GENRE CRAP SOMEWHERE ELSE!!). Lots of elitism and pretentiousness. So yeah, I tend to have a preference for non-academic writer’s groups these days.

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      • Good to know that there are issues beyond a few bad teachers. There are some aspects of MFA programs that really appeal to me, but overall I’m thinking it’s not something I’ll pursue anytime soon…

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  4. Thank you for sharing this story. I had a similar experience when I was still in middle school, although it was an art class. The teacher had a very clear idea of what he wanted (pretty much factory exact “art” pieces) and was dismissive and even cruel to anyone who attempted to add creativity to the assignments (which were far beyond the skills of all but the most talented artists). I was never a very good artist, but after taking this class I found that I was unable to even think of showing my art to anyone without a panic attack. I have never been able to overcome this, and this is sometimes difficult for friends and family to understand, but it was a traumatic experience for me. Cruel teachers like the one’s you mentioned may not seem like such a danger, but they can affect children for years and convince talented people not to follow their dreams.

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    • Ouch, that’s really rough. I’m sorry that happened to you! Thank you for sharing here.

      Some of my teachers in middle school were especially mean—mostly math and science teachers. That put me behind and hampered my progress for years. I learned algebra about a million times better the one year they experimented by giving us a computer program to learn from.

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