Once upon a time there was a school whose graduates self-selected to go to their program. Say, it’s an expensive program and there is no lucrative career promised to you at the end of it. There’s not even the advantage of going from the tired teacher telling their kids what to do to the even more exhausted principal that handles almost everything else.
It’s just a piece of paper on the wall that if you publish enough, the fact that you have one will make it easier to find a job doing so on a very marginal basis. Marginal because there are enough published-well enough doctorates out there already applying for masters-level jobs. The better published you are, the more it doesn’t matter that you just have an MFA to the point of not even needing an MFA at all to teach.
It’s a very particular well-known but not quite well-known to pay the bills type of writer who can use an MFA for a reliable teaching gig. I know graduates of my program who have had a miserable time because they “only” have an MFA vs. a doctorate in an academic setting.
For everyone else, it’s what a student should be able to take to become that reliably selling if not quite well-paid writer who is the prime candidate for being an MFA instructor. The calibre of writers in the program means after two to three years of constant practice and feedback, most of them could learn an enormous amount of practical skills.
Instead, my program is built for the intuitive writers who didn’t need to learn how to do what they do and they are still able to do it. It’s mainly attended by concrete writers who think they’re intuitive. But while an intuitive writer can say little and have it do a lot, the concrete writer is still saying a lot that does very little.
The most common attitude I meet with underpublished writers is that they’re not even interested in improving at the structural level. The fact that exceptional work doesn’t need all the foundational structures to still tell a masterpiece is all the average learner needs to hear to think they don’t even need to learn the foundation structures. The intuitive learners will be right. The concrete learners never have to consider they might not be.
The concrete learner just doing what an intuitive learner does creates first drafts with page after page of characters looking at interesting scenery while talking. But the concrete learner is also as certain as the intuitive learner is that any “formulaic” addition of structure would ruin it.
I didn’t think it was possible to leave out a structural foundation and still have an effective story that can compete in today’s market before I was asked to edit a brilliant short story by a very good literary author. It had no stakes at all. Zero. It didn’t matter at any point if any character quit. In fact, I think suggested making it even more obvious that it doesn’t matter if they all quit, so that when they all decide to continue with it, it’s an active choice and not a social obligation.
At no point would adding stakes have made that story better. It was better for having a complete lack of them. Nothing would be gained or lost if they still decided to do the thing. So deciding to do it was the thing that mattered.
So it’s not that I think every rule needs to be followed completely. I believe every foundational structure should be altered for a reason that serves the story.
I don’t remember the conversation clearly because it wasn’t an unusual conversation I have with most of the people I edit their work for (except in my MFA, naturally. No one wants to hear about structure so would I please just shut up about it sums up my experience politely.)
I want to say that she hadn’t considered that the point that they wanted to continue the thing was the reason for the story. I showed her places where she could really demonstrate the theme and that the first page needed a human POV in it because it was all description.
This had been during my MFA and I’d just been told if I could just be a little less craft-focused than the little bit of craft-focused that I was at that point, everyone would feel just so much more comfortable. (See: provost’s “gentle” pedagogy.)
No one, not a Dean, not a Provost, not a President saw the damage of basing their program’s success on the success of their graduates without taking into consideration the skill their success stories brought with them into the program.
A creative writing MFA class could not be more self-selected. It is filled with people who already have a bachelors in another subject, so you know they can succeed in a classroom dynamic. It’s a job that doesn’t have immediate benefits to it like an M. Ed for a principalship or an M.B.A from a university with the prestigous as the UBC to add to the top of a resume, so the person either has the credit or the savings to take 30-50,000 dollars from their household budget over 2-3 years and not have that financially destroy them. So they have the success of a person who has that kind of credit history.
We’re already talking the cream of the crop when it comes to the calibre of writing. And yet, the average graduate can’t rewrite a story to craft a better reader’s experience. But they know structural rewrites are not part of the writing process. They walk out with more finishing techniques than they knew before they started but without any new skillsets because of the deliberate design of the program.
The only reason why they know that structural edits have no value is because they took their MFA program through the UBC. Before they started the program, they’d only thought they were right to think so. But then a university backed up their confirmation bias that the only thing between them and their publishing dreams are the “gatekeepers” of the publishing industry.
It can’t be that they can do what everyone in their class already could do well, but not any better than most of them. There is an entire clot of writers who believe that having the static, descriptive skills of a professional writer is the skill that matters most. And because the students who believe that are the majority, they have convinced themselves they are all right to think so.
Readers care about the author’s ability to manipulate the character, plot and story through a thematic question that leaves the reader always remembering how they felt while reading the work. Description, nice or not, should only be seen through the emotional state of the point of view (POV) character.
Yet still, ask any underpublished writer and they will tell you that “dispassionate” is a perfectly fine voice to have. If the only emotion a POV character has needs “mildly” to modify it, everything described by the character is by definition dispassionate in nature.
That dispassionate nature is boring if nothing else is happening in the story. If something is happening that matters to the character, it sticks out as being more of a problem. Edited to add: And the problem in reverse — when the emotional state of the character doesn’t match the events happening around them — like they’re furious when they should be mildly annoyed, that discordance between the emotional state and the events of the story is twice as loud. It had better be for a very good reason.
It usually isn’t.
Stories should be about characters in their greatest moments of change. Yet the vast majority of underpublished work couldn’t be written from a more dispassionate voice. Learning to create a character that is emotionally engaged in the events of the story to the point where it colours their POV starts with a basic conflict a character wants to try to get over but can’t is a basic skill of storytelling that was taught as completely unnecessary in my MFA program.
This MFA program teaches that authors no story, commercial-market aimed or not, needs anything that keeps a character from what they want. That is the literary definition of what conflict is. All Masters programs in Canada must use leading edge industry knowledge. This program doesn’t just not try to teach the learner. It teaches the learner that they don’t even need to learn.
I couldn’t convince an entire university that their program’s success lies more in the quality of the student who can afford the time and money to invest in a graduate degree that has no immediate financial benefit to them. Students who learn nothing in the program but can still craft an emotionally engaging tale certainly aren’t the average learner in the program, but the methodology only “works” on those exceptional students.
And it has to crush academic freedom to do so. There couldn’t have been a more perfect storm of people just doing their job even if it means ignoring their duties to an institution, egotists who would rather abuse their power than be correct, and a system that hadn’t been stress-tested in so long that no one knew what to do when asked to do it because their boss told them not to do the right thing.
The UBC is student evaluations being more important than their achievements. It’s a provost who doesn’t want students to feel bad in their program, even if it means confirming structural edits aren’t ever needed. It’s Academic Freedom burning up as it is used.
The UBC won’t teach industry standards because evaluations matter more than their graduates learning the tools necessary to write to industry standards. The University Act may have given them permission to teach whatever they want, but they do not have the right to teach a program that needs to crush academic freedom to “work.”