Good writing can’t (and shouldn’t) be assumed

A friend and I met yesterday to get some work done, but we got into chatting and it filled up the time. (Starved for adult companionship? Me?) She played for me the sample from George Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in the Rain.

I don’t want to disagree with the man but one thing he said really stuck out to me. He said that in his class made up of six writers out of hundreds of applicants, good writing should be assumed. And with those five words, I saw the problem in a stark light.

Good writing should never be assumed inside an MFA writing program. The work of the 1% of writers who could get into a class that only has six seats for the hundreds of applicants is not indicative of the average ability of the average MFA student, yet my progam was designed to assume all work in first draft form was finished prose to be polished.

You’d think, statistically, that the stories we read over my MFA program would be far superior to On Spec’s slush. The MFA student is a student who can afford to spend tens of thousands of after tax and living expenses dollars and weeks of spare time outside of work, family, sleep and a social life to get the classwork done. They’re even all educated and had been able to navigate the learning environment in their undergraduate degree to completion to fulfill the entry requirements.

From that group of students alone, you think they would have done far more with less than the average story written by a writer who might not even be finished high school or have an undergraduate degree. But the difference between the average story in the slush pile and the average work read in an MFA program did not fall in the MFA’s favour.

The slush pile stories mostly tried to capture a moment in a character’s life that mattered. Their success varied, but the intention was there to move a character through a moment usually existed even in the roughest of drafts submitted.

My MFA work was written by a vast majority of writers who didn’t think stories even needed a source of tension in commercial work. The difference between the few works that told a story that mattered to the protagonist vs. the majority of work that tried to tell a sequence of events the protagonist watched happen was staggering.

And yet, regardless if the author just wrote a story or a sequence of events, any actual discussion of craft was not permitted. This was despite the violation of academic freedom. But Andrew Serzi — the provost and VP of academics at the UBC — believes that if a student was exposed to any element of craft that challenged their preconceived notions of how unnecessary craft actually is, their head will explode like Harry Mudd’s androids when exposed to a contradiction in logic.

Or the learner might leave the program a less than steller evaluation that they actually had to learn something in their masters.

Either way, it was too great a risk.

“Good writing” by my MFA standard was nicely written description. Most of them would have had to go through an extremely tight revision to get up to the 70/30 split between time spent building the world and time spent building the story. Some work had to be rounded up to hit 90/10.

A prestigious MFA program shouldn’t count their success stories in the 1% of hundreds of applicants who can show why good writing should be assumed before they even enrolled in their degree. It should count the success stories in the 99% percent of students who came to the program to learn how to write and walked out being able to produce good writing outside of the strengths they brought with them.

It seems particularly ironic that a program like the University of British Columbia requires its learners to at least attempt several genres outside of their main interest but has no problem with a uniformity of feedback that only allows for appreciating the existing prose and discussing polishing techniques to finish it.

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