Horror and the MFA in Creative Writing: Vanity Degree or Elevation of Genre?


I’ll be the first to admit my head was turned.

I was about to graduate, drunk with ambition and that sense of promise a newly minted college degree inserts into the psyche. It had been a long and perilous journey – the muse had almost drowned in other peoples’ opinions and swamps of guilt trips. But I had finally realized that writing wasn’t a dream – it was a vital part of who I am. Several professors had suggested I seriously consider pursuing a Masters in Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing. And I found myself seriously considering it.

At the precise moment a person realizes that they are a writer because they are a writer and not because someone else gives them permission, an insatiable hunger forms – the hunger for craft.

I know, I know. Most writing elitists would never believe it: the proof is in the pudding, they would say, most novice writing stinks — genre or otherwise. But amazingly enough, when a person starts to write they inevitably become part of a very old argument:

Can great writing be taught, and if so, should it?

Born This Way (or Not)

Believe it or not, this is actually part of an argument tossed about by Literary Critics – those crazy fiction fanatics whose job it is to dissect prose in the academic pursuit of the secrets of invention. They have ignited a firestorm of passionate discussion about what makes a writer a Writer of Literary standard – are they born with it? Is the birth of a Literary Work a spontaneous act of innate factors valued above the talents of a common writer who needs to be taught?

Critics are indeed Purists…the High Priests of Prose. They love and protect Literature, and see themselves as the most likely to find that answer.

But I wonder sometimes how far they think about what they are really saying.

If one looks at author biographies for Literary works, what one finds consistently is a group of  elite writers who grow up in some kind of informed community – other established Literary Writers, teachers, activists, printers and publishers, poets, religious groups, artists, philosophers…critical thinkers of their time.

In those groups the young writer is nurtured, mentored, emotionally supported. And being raised around the humanities boosts the moral imperative to create and to create powerful vehicles of communication and thought.

A far cry from what we offer young writers today. Or old ones, for that matter.

Today, we expect Literature By Divine Intervention… prodigies only are the real artistes… Everyone else is a hack.

No wonder most of us have fled to the genres. Why bother to try if your pedigree is going to be a factor?

Arts – of which writing is one – flourish in community more than in isolation. We learn from each other — successes and mistakes. We learn and share technique, we withdraw from the world and hang in enclaves that carry us through the creative doldrums and celebrate our victories as part of a community. We mentor each other, experiment with the limits of craft.

Except that today, most writers don’t. We get ‘A’s on papers early on, mystifyingly amazed looks from teachers, vague comments that encourage but tell us nothing, and are left to fantasize about writing…not to learn about it. We wind up eventually believing the myths created by people who either do not understand the tidal pull of the arts on the soul, or who (for our own good) wish to kill it. We work in jobs that eviscerate our imaginations, and use us up until there is nothing left to use to write – not even in our “spare time.”

We spend years trying to understand whether we are writers because we need to write, or whether we are writers only if we sell $20’s worth of fiction… Which sounds easy until you can’t find $20’s worth of magazines to submit to (i.e., that are accepting submissions and/or accepting them from unknowns). Just sayin’…

And that conundrum pushes us further into private hells that have no exit except in writing…so we do. We continue to write and practice writing badly because no one teaches us how to write well. No one teaches us how to properly construct a story, develop character, follow arcs, adjust tension, manage dialogue, or even defines what Literature IS and what it DOES.

We spend hours trying desperately to be in awe of The Classics and Literature Reading Lists, trying to scry from oceans of antiquated prose why everyone thinks this is GOOD…to figure out what teachers are REALLY looking for in term papers and literary analysis assignments….

We don’t know because none of this is taught.

In the Big Rush to not contaminate the “pool” of possible prodigies, we have thrown away generations of writers who just needed sustenance and common instruction in technique.

How sad is that?

But amazingly, we have the CIA to thank for considering education to be the key. In fact, the story is that if it weren’t for the paranoia of government officials about the Soviet Union outperforming the U.S. in the development of national Literature, we would never have gotten the Iowa Writers Workshop and its illustrious and original MFA program (number one in the country, mind you).

Literary-worthy Writers were examined, allegedly three were chosen, and their styles became the models for American Literature to emulate.

And it was exactly that discovery about style that began to un-turn my head about the MFA.

Yet this MFA position has taken the pendulum to the other side of the argument… Given enough money, ANYONE can be a writer by learning to write.

Maybe we just need rescue from these particular academics for a few moments…

Because after all of my research – and I did a lot of research – I was left with the question for MFA programs nationally: why are you teaching style instead of technique?

Writers come in various sizes of style. But we all have to learn technique.

Not so, think Critics… talent is innate. Yep, it is. But if no one ever taught me to hold a pencil and shape letters, how to form noun + verb + adjective, where and when to place a comma… So go ahead. Take away the crayons from your prodigies and let’s see how much Art you get.

Good or bad, I already have a style, thank you, and young writers deserve to find their own within and between the ghosts of the whole and entire scope of Literary choices. I don’t mind learning about a successful Literary Style, but I don’t want to be identifiable as a certain MFA program graduate – like I was a suit rolled out on a rack. I don’t want to write like someone famous….I want to write like me.

Needless to say… doubt began to erode my MFA dreams. I found myself stalling my old professors who kept asking where I had applied for an MFA.

The Assault on Speculative Fiction in MFA Programs (or Why I Remain a Genre Writer)

For me, part of the problem is that I love and write genre…maybe not strict genre, but genre nonetheless, which I discovered begets yet another complication for MFA students: one of the other kind of style. I am fine with being a genre writer. I like genre writing, although I also like Literature and enjoy my genres with the occasional Literary overtones. I am certainly not ashamed of writing Horror – at least, not anymore.

For years I found myself apologizing for what I do and who I am (“I’m sorry…I write Horror”) watching hopeful enthusiasm turn into crestfallen faces that had a serious similarity to the expression of disappointment. But these are people who don’t understand the genre, and worse – who seriously underestimate the Literary contributions of Horror. For centuries, Horror has been a constant driver of Feminist/Gender Literature and what used to be called Freudian but is now called Psychoanalytic Literature. It lurked throughout the Gothic Romances, exquisitely tortured the Victorians, exploded all manner of social issues using monsters and ghost stories.

Horror – even modern Literary Critics finally acknowledge, has the occasional work that exhibits the highest Literary merit. It is a genre with tremendous Literary potential, even as it produces the most generic and luxuriously sloppy pulp. Horror has range. And it has writers that ride that range.

Yet academia – being a product of government-style structure – moves ever so slowly. Educators (like MFA instructors) often spend their entire lives in the system, sometimes self-reinforcing their personal beliefs and rejecting new ideas that challenge their own. So instead of arguing the merits of both, they dismiss and insult…and most of the MFA program graduates who have shared their experiences in recent books reviewing MFA programs have stated repeatedly that instructors and mentor and professors had belittled, trashed, forbidden and condemned genre writing as…crap.

While it is admittedly not always Literature – sometimes joyously so – it is not “crap.” It is genre. It is formula. It is common at worst. It is also storytelling, albeit sometimes bad storytelling. But then, pulp writers are not trying to write Literature. Venom needs to be reserved for those who might roundly deserve it – and that most certainly is not a genre writer sitting in an MFA class hoping to learn better craft and Literary Technique.

So why do we have this abyss between Literature and Genre? What should be a peaceful and tolerant co-existence has been fanned into a Style War. And maybe there is so much genre-writing because writers can figure out genre writing a heckuva lot faster than they can figure out Literature and Literary Criticism.

Imagine if Literature and Literary Criticism were actually taught in high schools? Wouldn’t that education automatically bleed over into the genres? Up everyone’s game?

Is THAT what Literature Purists are afraid of? A little competition?

Well wheel out your prodigies then. It’s Junior Rodeo on…

The current environment of genre-bashing that seems rampant (if not bragged upon) by MFA programs is off-putting to say the least. And while many programs may prefer that it be thus and prefer to communicate that folks like me are not welcome unless I am willing to join in the genre-bashing and convert to Literature… I have to question their motives.

And that made me wonder if I DID set aside genre — just for the duration of the degree, just to learn craft – would it ruin my voice and inject the ghosts of dead American Literary Greats into my prose which I might not be able to exorcise? In other words, would it ruin writing for me?

Ultimately, I chose not to take the chance. Wrongly or rightly, I don’t want Raymond Carver in my head…Or any spark of the alleged other two (again, the rumor being that all MFA programs are modelled after three preselected American Literary giants, and the helpful application hint being that a writer needs to understand which writer which program emulates in order to find the best “match”).

I mean I’m sorry but all of a sudden we are talking about idols and how to mimic them – and not about craft, technique, LITERATURE. THEORY…. All after fielding a cost of some $35-50,000 for the privilege of sitting in a classroom…you know – where open-minded learning is supposed to take place…

How can I possibly be a rebel if you are teaching me to be a conformist? Even if we are talking style?

Again, I chose NOT to take the chance. Even when I found ONE program that proudly announced it supports Speculative fiction writers. Because it proudly denounced LITERATURE.

It’s like watching a tennis game. And all I wanted to do is learn better craft. To infuse my genre writing with Literary elements and improve as a writer. Silly me.

Silly Critics if they think that this academic solution is any kind of solution. We don’t need more polarizing thoughts and behaviors.

We writers – genre and Literary – need to be on the same side as the Literary Critic, who needs to be on the same side as writers who want to learn to be better writers.

We can’t help each other if we set up schools to teach novices how to insult each other in some giant argument from ignorance.

Proof in the Pudding (or, You Get the Monster You Create)

So I had begun to think that the authors of The Portable MFA were right: a writer just might be better off saving the money one would use for an MFA in Creative Writing and buy a better computer, more printer ink, more 20-lb white bond paper.

And such thinking was further reinforced when I tried an experiment of my own – reading the published works of MFA graduates. (Here, working in a retail bookstore became an advantage. And I purposely read “first” books by MFA grads whose programs I neither knew nor researched.)

The result was shocking. Shockingly disappointing. Sometimes even…bad. It was like reading genre fiction without the “spark” of genre…watered down, lackluster yet eerily “perfect” in construct…I couldn’t really argue with structure… But most of the time characters didn’t “pop,” prose didn’t engage, and I had to force myself to finish even ghost stories. Ghost stories for Poe’s sake! I mean didn’t these people read the British canon of Literature?

Like the Critic I am starting to wonder if we are doomed…

And I was left wondering how these writers managed a publishing contract. Perhaps it was one of those “networking” sessions with agents and other publishing professionals so heavily promoted as a benefit to MFA program participation. Maybe it is the high influx of MFA grads who (thereby) get jobs in publishing who “grease the wheels” for fellow MFA grads… Several books I used for research made mention of exactly that sad possibility, and which in turn in my mind further tarnishes just such a degree.

Doesn’t that reduce the lofty intention of the MFA from one of increasing our Literary output to a sad paper mill for a vanity degree?

And shouldn’t it matter to the writer IN an MFA Program that what gets published gets DESERVEDLY published?

I admit that I did not research the published fiction of MFA grads who went back to the genres… But if what I am seeing on the bookstore general fiction shelves is any indication of what MFA programs are churning out, then I am FINALLY glad that so much Horror has been re-disseminated into other genres. Because I don’t want any association with what I am seeing – not as a Horror writer. And no worries about Literature, either…one course in university –level Literary Criticism taught me that most of that MFA-produced stuff isn’t going anywhere but the remainders pile. One INTRODUCTORY COURSE in Literary Criticism, mind you…

No harm, no foul? I think differently. Because that was the final nail in the MFA coffin for me.

Maybe I should have title this essay “How I Decided Against Pursuing an MFA in Fiction…”

I only know I don’t want to be published at any cost. I want to be proud of what I write and be satisfied that it was good enough to pass the muster of traditional editing (from line to content). What I don’t need is an albatross hanging around my neck…an albatross that should have stayed in a drawer somewhere.

If that means no fame and fortune for me, at least I won’t live my life in embarrassment. Because there is a LOT to be said for the value of the editorial talents of the old major publishing houses. Especially if we have now simply created yet another Good Old Boy’s –type system that has nothing to do with Literary value.

Ironically, a lot of us unwashed masses laboring in the genres have THAT in common with Literary Critics. Isn’t it time we joined forces? Isn’t it time we got our game back?

I mean… not to be inflammatory, but in the name of healthy competition…The British have…

Just sayin’…

 

References

Affording the MFA [blog} https://affordingthemfa.wordpress.com/

The Gotham Writer’s Workshop. Writing Fiction: the Practical Guide From New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School. New York: Bloomsbury, c2003.

Kealey, Tom. The Creative Writing MFA Handbook: a Guide for Prospective Graduate Students. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., c2008, 2005.

McGurl, Mark. The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, c2009.

MFA vs NYC: the Two Culture of American Fiction. Chad Harbach, ed. New York: n+1 /Faber and Faber, c2014.

The MFA Blog. http://creative-writing-mfa-handbook.blogspot.com/

The New York Writer’s Workshop. The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. Cinncinati, OH: Writers Digest Books, c2006.

Olsen, Eric and Glenn Schaeffer. We Wanted to be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, c2011.

Wiedbrauk, Eileen. Speak Coffee to Me [blog] http://speakcoffeetome.blogspot.com/

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Embrace the Horror: Life After the English BA


So I was walking around my bookstore, straightening shelves and adjusting product when a customer suddenly approached me and confessed regretting every English degree she had achieved – right up through the Ph.D.

Nothing had turned out like she planned. People got in the way, had foiled her at every turn, and now she was questioning every move she’d made professionally. Never, she’d said, would she allow her children to major in the Arts and waste their time. Never.

Know what my thought was? (Prepare for irreverence…)

Then you’re not using it right.

What IS an English Degree?

An English BA is a wild, carefree trip through the Humanities. It allows the student to explore their undecided side… perhaps fiction, or philosophy, journalism, or psychology, religion or art, history or politics, law or logic. It allows the student to try on a few hats, test their interests and abilities, see if anything “calls” to them.

The problem is, sometimes something does. And in today’s world, there is nothing like a degree in the Arts that translates into poverty for most of its graduates.

Why is that? Because we no longer value people who critically think in this world. Thinkers are dangerous people. When they see something that is wrong they are wont to try and change things. And there is usually Big Money and wanton Power attached to things done wrong.

If you want to kill an army, you need to cut off the supply train. (See? I was paying attention in history class!)

Arts people are the canaries in the mines. Often times we make bold, scary-to-parents statements. We rattle cages and in some countries we risk our freedom or our lives just to make a statement.

Nothing scares people who love you more. Because they want you to have a nice, cushy life in the suburbs, and hope that you will be (in better ways) a nice little carbon copy of themselves to carry on the magic and fairy glamour of American Life.

And Technology is out there promising you that you too, can be smarter than everyone else and with the right career choices in math and science, can live in the Big House, safe and away from those huddled masses of unemployed, trouble-making Arts people.

But getting a degree in a Tech field as an Arts person really solves nothing. Tech people know their own, and if you are an Arts person in Wolf’s clothing, you will not be embraced even if you get the job.

Today’s world does not want thinkers, it wants drones. Like the bee kind… That work to death and are tossed out of the hive at Christmas (only they will call them lay-offs).

An English Degree then is a degree in Critical Thinking. You will be taught how to and be required to dissect everything you read and everything you think. You may find out you don’t think like you thought you did. You may discover something deeply important about yourself by what you dislike or prefer, in hearing a tone of voice in your own verbal arguments.

It also teaches you how to express those thoughts and opinions – graciously to not offend, or disguised as metaphor for your secret audience, or angry as a polemic. It shows you how to use words or pictures or cultural beliefs to communicate….anything.

And it teaches you that people are complex biological factories of precarious thought and driven by powerful, life-altering emotions; that we are subject to our neurobiology and our psychological quirks, religious views or lack thereof, limits or expanse of geographical and economic horizons…

A degree in English is a degree in seeing, describing, illustrating, comprehending and communicating with…people.

No wonder the tech world dislikes us. No one abhors the vacuum of html space like an English major.

(Why? Because it’s not the troll online you have to worry about. It’s the radical terrorist invading your country and condemning your right to speak freely, to converse, argue, condemn, endorse, explore and experiment… because if your words, your actions, or your ambivalence made him or her feel justified, then to reduce the number of terror candidates you better know it and know how to unmake him or her and whether or not you should…a task that is not on a computer game.)

An English major will teach you that words matter. They have the capacity to incite, to wound, to inform, to heal. It will teach you to see and recreate the difference.

How You Know You’re An English Major

You know you’re an English major when you’re just standing on the street corner and you see things. You see poverty, injustice, inequality, and homelessness in the richest country in the world – when you work forty hours and can still see homelessness from your back porch and bank account. You know you’re an English major when you can’t wait to read something for yourself – whether it is a novel, a political treatise, or the Trial of Socrates. You know you’re an English major when you’d rather read Dickens or Austen or Morrison than the latest Star Trek novel (even though you have an extensive Star Trek novel collection).

You know you’re an English major when you’ve tried not to be and you keep running screaming back to the English department, breathing a sigh of relief when you are finally seated in a rhetoric class because you know the definition of rhetoric.

You know you’re an English major when you love language, the way it works and sounds and looks on the page, when linguistics excites you, when you read dictionaries and thesauri. When you love saying “thesauri.”

You know you’re an English major when you can read and appreciate an opposing viewpoint because it is well stated and well argued. And especially if it changes your mind.

You know you’re an English major when you know you are nothing else. So stop letting other people make you feel ashamed. Own it. Do what you were meant to do and stop looking for wealth (Most of us aren’t going to get it anyway: you might as well be happy.)

How You Know Doing Something Else is Worse Than Everyone Else’s Disappointment in You

One thing the world has taught me is that for every job out there, there is someone who has made it their dream and life’s purpose.

And there is nothing worse than living someone else’s dream… Unless it is applying for the job that you don’t get (no matter how much it means to you) because someone who’d rather be doing something else gets the job instead. Or maybe it is working with that person

But work – when it is done right – takes a lot out of you. What you will have left at the end of the day will determine what kind of life YOU have…family? Kids? Career plans? House? Decent car? Best-selling novel?

The sad truth is that if you are an Arts person, the economic deck is stacked against you. Not only has the American economy morphed into a tech-loving, art-stomping beast, but it has lost its middle class and that necessary plateau of jobs needed to support people who kind of don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. In this economy, you either “have it” or you “don’t”… and there is a good chance that if you are an Arts person with an English degree, you will be not in the right category. Who knows how long this will last? How many shifts flipping burgers have your name on them with or without a degree?

However one thing is for sure: happiness is the only way you’re going to survive whatever lies ahead. Dreams are the pathway to finding that happiness. I’ve gotten a lot of forty-hour mileage out of dreams.

Maybe there aren’t enough jobs in publishing right now, or enough opportunities to support all of the writers already out there. How do the rest of us fellow-writers and English majors know you aren’t The One who will shock it all back into sense? How do we know WE aren’t?

The only thing we DO know, is that when and if the world ever comes back to its senses, if there is any chance at all that you can make a living writing or with your English degree…you will need to be prepared. Do it now.

Really. The Zombie Apocalypse could happen at any moment. Wouldn’t you rather have your English degree when it does?

What You Can Do About It

Number One: Stop listening to other people who want you to be as professionally miserable as they are.

Number Two: Trust that somewhere out there is your ideal job and that your English Degree is required for it.

Number Three: Don’t stop until you FIND it.

Number Four: If you don’t find it, consider creating it.

Why You Should

The Arts are not dead.

And while you are toiling away at that data entry job, or trying convince yourself that you can do I.T. better than a person whose dream it is to be an I.T. person… other people out there have been honing their Art…and making money at it…working their way to some measure of fame. You – on the other hand – are still waiting to write in your spare time, hope that by Divine Intervention instead of practice you will do as good or better with your one offering to the world (if you finish it), and still believe in the myth that even one published book equates to a lifetime of riches.

The hard fact is, any career in the Arts requires years of study (not necessarily academic study, although that can help make you a better student of the Arts). There is no free lunch, and prodigies are indeed a rarity (contrary to the message of social media).

You may have talent, or you may not. You may have more talent than people getting published or not. Success in the Arts is shaped like the very same pyramid you find in the regular workplace, sometimes with plenty of cult priests with butts to kiss perched on the steep slopes, sometimes with rare Oracles you can barely hear dangling off a brick, and sometimes there is that pebble in the sand – the editor who likes your style and talent enough to gamble on you and approach their boss on your behalf. But you must always remember it is a pyramid, because not everyone is going to wind up on top – even if they climb over you to get there.

So you must have faith in your goal and your plan for getting there. Stop waiting for angels to descend and carry you topside. You are going to have to work harder than you’ve ever worked before, and probably do a lot of self-education to grow professionally.

A good start is always a BA in anything. But the BA in English is a nice, round humanities degree. It is the perfect base degree for many Master’s degrees, and thereafter for Ph.D. degrees. Getting a BA in English for a writer is boot camp. It will help you decide how far you want to go with your education (in any field), while teaching you about your passion and your ability to listen to and apply criticism – something you will need even as a novice writer submitting stories to magazines, book editors, or agents.

Keep in mind there are actual jobs out there that require a BA in English – such as those still remaining in publishing, Library, retail bookstores, technical writing, journalism, education, Literary Criticism – and many of which do require higher education thereafter.

But also keep in mind there are a lot of English majors applying for those, and there is the same kind of (let’s call it “competition”) for those positions as there are for other jobs.

So you need to know you. What do you want? Because it should never involve a single other person’s interests. Because you are going to have to live with yourself no matter what you choose.

Choose wisely. Choose what makes you happy, even if you have to struggle against the tide the rest of your life. Trust me, the tide is elsewhere too. Pick your own tidewater. If you’re going to make it up that salmon ladder or get eaten by bears trying, it might as well be for what’s in it for you.

How do I know this? It took me thirty years to get my BA in English. And I don’t regret a minute of it.

What I do regret is all of the time I lost following other people’s suggestions for how to make myself less of an English major and more of a cog in someone else’s money machine.

Would I still be working at the same retail bookstore for lower than stellar wages? Probably. Only now I would be a manager with a retirement plan instead of an economic refugee with a lost retirement and no chance of strolling about my own bookstore with a coffee cup and a wry sense of humor.

I am sorry I did not have the courage when I was young to be what I am – a writer. Of Horror fiction. Who works in a bookstore. I am sorry I didn’t have the courage to seek out teachers of fiction and fellow writers in workshops and conventions. I might still not be big-published, but I bet I’d be writing better fiction, and that would make me happy no matter how many shifts I worked.

No, I would never discourage anyone – especially a young person – from a life in the Arts. That IS life. Gritty, poor, honest. What could be a better inheritance than a life well-lived – the one that leaves YOU loving YOU.

So yep, I told this lady wandering my bookstore I had not a single regret about going back to college for my English BA. I told her why.

She asked if we had any openings…