All college Creative Writing programs are terrible. The concept and systemic reality of college Creative Writing programs is terrible. In principle and practice: terrible. I got a degree in Creative Writing (an undergrad double-major, with English) and man it was a bad joke. No offense to myself and Jeff and other wonderful people involved, but I mean… damn. Everyone is terrible. I was terrible. I might have been the terriblest: I was unmotivated and childish, and but so are most college students. How good can a 17-21 year old be? If you’re in undergrad right now, I’m pretty sure you’re terrible too.
But how could you teach writing as a college class anyway, like it was Calc II or something, and grade it? Basically, it’s a bunch of college students sitting around being forced to talk about each other’s misspelled, ridiculously-plotted, gut-clenchingly embarrassing trash – like, phoned-in 10th grade trash. While the sweaty professor maintains an air of respectful suspended-disbelief, the way the Queen would if someone with a developmental disability threw a used condom on her face, and holds forth about “craft.”
Insider’s secret: instructors just grade you on whether you show up and turn in papers. How could they grade you on talent? So you get an A for doing what would get you an A in 5th grade: showing up and turning something – anything – in. And everyone else has to criticize it, class being nothing but conversations in one big group unskilled (understandably) at both writing and criticism. Imagine if airline piloting was taught this way. Prepare for wreckage, amidst the pretension.
At all levels, writing as a degree-granting academic pursuit exists as a facade step: young writers want to do something that feels like progress towards their goals, and somewhat successful old writers need some paying gig they’re qualified for with a flexible schedule that gives them time to write. It’s a practical economic thing. The college Creative Writing system puts those two groups together, removing one of a lot of cash and delivering a little to the other (most of it goes to the college at large).
I’m not saying there’s anything inherently evil about this. I hope to God I am one of those somewhat-successful cash-receivers someday, and I will stand then by what I am saying now as I grumble encouragement at my promising students. But how much is it really helping those little hopefuls along their path? Realistically, it’s not. (Note that I’m even worse off than those little hopefuls, because I’m in the same success-less place but years older – this gives me perspective).
At the M.F.A. level, I assume people are no longer so terrible. But by then they are adults looking to further their writing careers and become professional authors, if they have taken it to that level. If you make a list right now of who you think are the Top 10 writers of all time, I guarantee you none of them did a Creative Writing M.F.A. If you make a list right now of who you think are the Top 10 writers working today, I bet none of them did a Creative Writing M.F.A. Even if one of them did, that’s a 10% rate of correlation. That’s terrible.
Out of our presidents and business leaders, a ton of them went to Harvard Business School. So it makes sense that if you want to be a president or business leader, you go to Harvard Business School. Out of our best authors, few to none have college degrees in writing. So why would you get a college degree in writing to become a writer?
Even I can tell you (but smarter, more experienced people say it all the time), that you should become a better writer by living your life, doing different out-of-comfort-zone interesting things, meeting lots of people, and sitting down to write all the time: All. The. Time. If you don’t have the desire or discipline to do those things (most of my life, I have not), a college degree is not going to give you that either.
You’ll probably end up turning in things you don’t really believe in but were forced to write, even though you weren’t inspired (because you’re still in college, or now in college again, which is where you already were for 4 years). I can almost hear the instructors’ crazed self-pitying internal monologue: “If I have to read about one more oh-so-unique dysfunctional middle-class family from an overwrought, self-hating twenty-something’s ‘clever’ perspective, I swear to fucking god, this circle-jerk is gonna burn...”
What it’s supposed to be is a place for the internal artistic “literary life” that doesn’t exist in the wide world at large anymore. And that’s nice. I see posters for readings at coffee shops and bookstores and that’s great. There should be readings at coffee shops and bookstores. Just don’t think that it’s the path to authorship success. Everybody wishes Carver showed up to read a brilliant new piece and Bob Dylan was sitting undiscovered at the cafe strumming a few chords, but it ain’t happening, people. It’s just gonna be those same couple of guys as always, and it’s gonna be awkward.
From what I’ve seen, academic Creative Writing programs at the advanced degree level just foster this secluded Private Club atmosphere of quiet and pretentious friends. Which is nice… I guess? But it’s not a meritocracy, and it’s not the way to be a bitchin’ writer in the opinion of all the wide world of people out there.
It is tempting, if you’re young and smart and want to be a writer, to want to do something real and concrete towards getting that dream, because writing is such a solitary, tell-people-and-they-don’t-believe-you kind of pursuit. I myself shelled out a few hundred dollars for one day of the Summer Writer’s Conference at Northwestern but that was small potatoes compared to the tens of thousands of dollars that an advanced degree charges, and at least they threw in a turkey sandwich lunch with a pretty-good cookie. It was fun.
To be clear, all grad school is a bad decision, and one that I wholeheartedly intend to pursue, but Ph.D.’s are what’s called funded, which means the school doesn’t charge you anything. They waive tuition and give you a tiny living stipend. It isn’t enough to really live on except through ramen and re-using paper towels but that’s part of the Poverty Vow of being a grad student – at least they aren’t charging you anything.
I have nothing but envy and respect for those who completed a program. Getting degrees is the bee’s knees. I know a few fine folks who have done or are doing M.F.A.s and they are intelligent and talented writers, and I’m positive that the work the M.F.A. demands of them is difficult and a testament to their creativity and determination. However, never in their entire lives has any of them claimed that it helped them become a writer, like, published, and as a living. At all. Ever.
So if that is your future aim, as you look forward at your choices, it makes as much sense to consider a degree in Renaissance art or fine French cuisine. It makes more sense to do things that actually pragmatically bring you closer to your goal, like write nonstop and submit nonstop and become industry-savvy through contacts and self-promotion.
Having some kind of degree is good, and if you’re that type of person, then get an English degree: it’s just as useless in the real world, but you don’t have to read really terrible crap every day to get through it. Once in a while you get to read something good in an English degree. Education in and of itself is crucial, and something everyone should value as a sky-high priority.
But you don’t have to specialize academically in writing to be a writer: the agents and publishing house readers aren’t going to check your credentials before liking or hating your novel, and no one’s going to teach you any Big Secret that opens the doors. You have it or you don’t have it, and you get better by doing it. No one takes classes and gets a degree in how to football. If you want to make the big leagues, just go and football it up, all the damn time like it’s all you want to do. (Football is a verb, right? “To football.”)
Also: don’t use the word “wordsmith.” Ever. No, not even like that. I swear to God.
Kurt Vonnegut (who taught at the most famous of all programs, the Iowa Workshop) wrote about his experience at a Writer’s Retreat in an essay, and was none too impressed. You don’t see people going away for weekends and pretending to be plumbers, he said, or pretending to be a refrigerator repair-man for a day. (I’m paraphrasing). Kurt Vonnegut was depressed by the sight.
If you want to “be a writer,” you can’t see it as a quaint little pastime like quilting, and you can’t believe in a structured academic program where a degree means success. You just do it. That’s why the best Creative Writing college of 2013, and 2014, is the screen you’re looking at right now, all by your lonesome, and the keyboard beneath it.