MFAs: The limited good, the very bad and the terribly ugly

I posted this on reddit today, but thought it should go here, too. I just graduated with my MFA from a good Canadian university and I feel I have to warn writers who think that the academic creative writing path is how to improve. I could talk on this for days, but I’d like to sum up the three main points:

The good: If you’re already a writer who can write work that sells reliably and an MFA is between you and a teaching gig, an MFA makes sense. Or, if your writing is already pitch-perfect, the UBC program is fine for you. They definitely know the techniques necessary for nicer finished prose.

If you’re still getting more form rejections though, be very wary of any MFA program that is not willing to teach you the craft necessary to improve. The UBC made no attempt and had no desire to let anything but exceptional work that broke the rule the author tried to and couldn’t as their teaching method.

It’s fine to know exceptions exist. But if they’re going to be the only lesson taught in an MFA program, it’s not enough to teach a student how to follow the steps as to what the author had to do to make Humphrey Humperdinck a character the reader could at least attempt to empathize with in the contemporary and modern context of his character. That’s just learning how someone else did it. If exceptions are being taught as the lesson, the structure of what an empathetic character does to a plot so that the author can fill in the gaps not being empathetic will cause in their own unempathetic characters. To break a rule like “the protagonist should be empathetic so the reader will care about the character enough to read on just to find out what happens to them” something else in the prose needs to keep the reader reading if the character doesn’t make them care whether they get hit by a bus.

But to tell a learner writing the typical story of an unpleasant POC character with no stakes in what is happening to do unpleasant things and yet makes no effort to avoid the unpleasant end they’ve made for themselves is a story that either needs multiple revisions so that the reader still gets the same emotional payout as a story that has a character willing to try to change their fate whether they succeed or fail.

Breaking a structural function in fiction creates a deficit in the story that following the rule would have provided. That is so much harder to do than just using the structure as intended. Conflict is the easiest way to show a character who needs to grow. They want a thing but they can’t get the thing until they grow as a character. It’s a built-in layup.

Showing character growth without the character needing to act against anything standing in their way is even harder. Spontaneous character development without a cause or a cost is next to meaningless.

Writing a story in which no character growth is even attempted is the hardest of the three. If the events of the story doesn’t matter to the character, it had better be a rip-roaring ride from the start to make up for the lack of character development. Even characters in well estblished serials need some growth of character or even die hard fans get bored.

But I was also a writer who never stepped down from a challenge. If someone told me twenty years ago that it was impossible to write an effective story in which a fundamental structural rule was broken and yet nothing filled the void it created, I’d throw myself against that problem until I either had, yup, impossible confirmation or a SUCK ON THIS.

I was lucky. I’d only believed that there are no rules meant no rules existed for a period of about five years where I wrote the six best stories I’d ever written while breaking fundamental structures as I did. But I’d written a hundred stories that all tried to do the same thing and failed before deciding that maybe it was easier to write great stories on purpose instead of relying on me writing something great by chance.

But the ugly part of the MFA is that they’ve completely lost the plot when it comes to showing the reader what the reader needs to understand to fully engage with the world, plot and story. If a writer needs help with the prose they’ve chosen to tell the story itself, the MFA can help. But there’s been a fundamental disconnect between the modern writer and the purpose of the creative writing critique that universities haven’t even come close to addressing if they’re still using peer critique groups that allow “but Beowulf did it” to be the lesson taught and learned.

If the instructor and the students all agree that there are no rules means if any rule can be broken, then no story needs structure. If it teaches the learner that if what was told was meant to be told so it’s fine, they’ve done that writer a huge disservice. Any rule can be broken.

Show don’t tell isn’t a rule. It’s the prime directive. And like all prime directives, there are times you can break it, times you want to break it but know you shouldn’t and times you accidentally break it and don’t end up blowing up interplanetary relations, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still the prime directive.

Showing the reader what they need to know before they need to know it is the fundamental tool of storytelling. The beginning of the book needs to show the reader why they should invest their time and money into this character from the first scene. The middle beginning of the story needs to show the reader who this character is before their life turns to heck so that when their life turns to heck, the reader sees the growth themself. And at the end of the beginning, the reader should be fully invested in reading on, just to see what happens next. In media res beginnings need to do that all at the same time without sacrificing the flow of the piece for exposition to explain it.

If any writer thinks that’s an easy thing to do, they’re either already brilliant or a beginner. To do all that in which any part of the character’s dreams and fears, worries, interpersonal dynamics or the way they fit in this world is told to the reader rather than demonstrated through the character’s actions as they move through the story, it makes the engagement the reader needs to care harder not easier. Without showing the reader the story, they have no way of objectively understanding the world if every bit of information they learn from it is subjectively told through dialogue or exposition that one side of the issue got to summarize.

And man, if a writer can objectively show the reader something and then recontextualizes what actually happened with the information learned throughout the story? Shut up and take my money.

But telling the reader what they need to know in the beginning of the story through dialogue and exposition is never going to be as effective a scene as figuring out how to show the reader what they need to see through the character’s actions. And if your MFA program doesn’t understand that, it may be time to find a different MFA program.

And here’s the thing. I know stories can be told very well through exposition, dialogue and description without conflict, tension or any sort of pace at all. As an editor, I have my pick of the very best examples from some very well-published writers. Even get noticed from the pile of stories in which characters mostly act through the conversations they have is a feat.

To get noticed from the pile of stories about a character who wants something that matters to them and has to change something about themselves in a way that resonates with the reader so that they can forget everything about the story but still remember how the story made them feel is extremely easy. You just need to have all those elements in place, be it a story about trying to save a wedding or the world.

And you don’t learn how to write at that level by learning exceptions disprove the need for structure.

If you’re the writer who started producing work that effortlessly moved the reader without ever learning how an MFA program is for you. But it will be an MFA program designed to teach MFA instructors how to teach an MFA program. Some writers just know how to use theme and structure with prose and character and create something that matters intuitively. It is not a program designed to teach writers how to improve their weaknesses.

I just know at any point of my development of a writer, if I’d been told by someone I respected that the shortcuts worked because masterpieces of English literature could do the same thing, I would never have seen all the different ways I tried not to show the exciting parts I thought I was telling on purpose. We could argue about empathetic main characters or if characters truly need to change, but a story told through dialogue is never going to be as effective as a story told through the character’s actions trying to accomplish something that’s important to them in a way that the growth they show resonates with its ideal reader.

Even if it’s told through dialogue very well. Lots of writers can tell their story well. You’ve gone to school to learn how to do what you can’t do very well.

And never trust a program that can only teach by naming exceptions to the structural support they should be teaching you how to smash yourself.

Am I painting all MFAs with the UBC brush? No. I haven’t taken all MFAs, I’ve taken this one. But this one, I’m assured, is a perfectly good example of an MFA program. Which should worry any writer trying to learn how to publish in such a competitive field as commercial fiction. There are sweet lies and hard truths in this business, and the sweet lie everyone wants to believe is they have nothing left to learn.

But I wouldn’t have grown as a writer if I hadn’t sat down with myself and asked how it was that if I already knew so much about writing why are my stories only the odd hit in a whole lot of misses? Only when I considered that I might be wrong about how much I thought I knew did I realize how wrong I was about almost everything.

Creative writing is a weird world. Painters can get good enough or just be talented enough that they can break colour theory over their knee, but they don’t deny that the same amount of yellow and purple don’t look great together. My program couldn’t even take a stand that this Yet Another YA Dystopian Science Fiction Novel (YAYADSFN) actually needs things to happen that mattered to the character.

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