A recent comment by one of our readers on our “The Two Academies” essay gave us an idea for another essay: how, exactly, is the art of writing, teachable?
The Scarriet article, inspired by Seth Abramson’s work, called into question the creative writing business within the academy—the Writing MFA.
The comment, by a sensible person who has long read Scarriet, defends the Writing MFA in the typical manner: “experimental” writing in the MFA programs is not the norm; MFA students study “formalist” poetry and read “lots and lots” of books, including many written “before 1900.”
In other words, the new Writing MFA is similar to the old English MA.
It shouldn’t surprise us, really, that the old model, in many respects, lives on. Writers, as much as plain students of literature, should read, and read widely.
But won’t the MFA student who reads in order to write, read better and learn more?
Whatever else we might say of the MFA, then, we should be able to say the MFA is as pedagogically sound as the old Masters in English, and perhaps more so.
Or is it?
Here’s a fact we must agree on: The instinct to write, the desire to write, exists prior to enrolling in either an MFA or an MA program.
The would-be-writer is reading in order to write with, or without, the MFA program.
And the commenter herself, because she is sensible, pointed out all the great writers who existed before there were any MFA programs.
The question becomes: what kind of special instruction or special reading is offered by the MFA, above and beyond the MA?
Writers cannot, any more than “ordinary” professors, teach others to write. There is universal agreement on this. One can teach grammar, but this is not the job of the advanced writing teacher or the graduate English professor, though tips are always welcome. All a writer can do is teach others what they are reading—and this begs the question: what are the students reading?
We really cannot say. There’s the canon an MA student would be expected to read, and we have to assume the MFA candidate’s canon is the same.
If the student wants “connections” to the publishing industry, who is to say that the MA professor cannot be in the same position to help the student as the MFA writing teacher?
And if the MFA writing teacher, who also happens to be a writer, is using his students to gain an audience for his own writing, is this even ethical, much less pedagogically superior to the MA professor who simply teaches “good literature?”
Numbers across the country show conclusively that creative writing students are replacing the old English major, but shouldn’t it be cause for concern that we cannot define the Writing program—which is replacing the time-honored English program? Shouldn’t it be a cause of concern that we cannot say, why, exactly, the MFA is replacing the MA, since they are the same thing? Unless of course, there’s something unethical going on?
How is the MFA different from the MA? Except for the potential fact that the MFA allows writing instructors who are writers a chance to exploit the system in a way that exploits students?
We need to be honest here. Why is the MFA replacing the MA?
Is it the lure of “being a writer” trouncing the lure of actually studying literature?
Is it only for cynical reasons? Is it merely vanity occupying the academy in the form of “so you want to be a writer?”
If a certain vagueness attends the writing program investigation, it may lie with the mundane fact of what writing—apart from the other arts—actually is.
Is the MFA system a true guild system?
Here we might ask: How is writing different from art and music?
Painting, photography, and music speak a language which needs translating based on technique.
One can hear music without knowing what the notes are. One can be pleased by music—without understanding why.
One can see a painting without knowing what techniques were used to create that painting. One can be pleased by a painting—without understanding how it was done.
Reading a text, however, one immediately understands that text as a text: there is no further art or technique involved—as far as the act of reading is concerned.
If we can read, we can understand.
Writing is different, then.
Writing is a far different art than painting or music, then, and writing’s craft is not a matter of advanced education.
We wonder if anyone has contemplated this fact?
A text may require extra information to understand, but this extra information belongs to that extra information’s specific body of knowledge—the art of writing reveals itself as itself, unlike art and music—to whomever can read.
If one were to go and study with a painting master, as used to happen in Renaissance studios, for instance, the apprentice is happy to immerse themselves in the master’s technique and literally paint part of the master’s painting. This immersion does not rob the apprentices’ identity; the technique mastered is necessary to further accomplishment.
Writing, however, has a completely different learning curve.
If one were to approach William Shakespeare and say, “Teach me to write,” he would laugh. There is no technique in writing—unlike painting and music—which cannot be picked up in the text itself.
Even music, which only has “a few notes,” and features remarkable prodigies, is governed by a language and a craft that is not self-evident to any literate person.
As complex as language is, once a person becomes literate, there’s nothing left to teach as far as the act of writing goes, no matter how many MFA programs there are.
We are not saying writing is easy—that is not it at all. We are only looking at the teaching of it—which is quite a different thing.
As for immersion, a seminar in which a group studies Keats will lack nothing in comparison to a group that studies their own writing.
And one wonders how educational it is to study the work of one’s fellow writing student, as opposed to say, Keats.
To study the work of one’s classmates and to have a writing instructor study one’s own writing (since we agreed no one can be taught to write) cannot possibly be as enlightening as simply studying the great writers. Isn’t this an actual fact?
An MFA program might actually make a writer worse, as systemic mediocrity, worried about education bills, drags others down to its own level.
To find out one is a bad writer (based on critiques from one’s instructor and one’s classmates) is not what the MFA program will ever admit to doing. And how a bad writer finds out they are bad should not be the concern of any positive educational enterprise.
To find out one is a good writer is not something a truly good writer needs “to find out.” Education should not be necessary for the good writer.
So what does the MFA do?
What is it?