By Colorado Review Editorial Assistant Nicholas Maistros
In a recent online interview with the Paris Review, novelist Michael Cunningham had this to say in response to the ongoing debate over the necessity of MFA programs: “Few people question artists going to art school, or musicians going to music school. There’s some strange romance about the writer as a Bunyanesque figure who goes untutored and unaccompanied into the mountains and returns years later with a newborn novel in his hands.”
So here I am, at the end of my MFA experience, and I find myself wondering what it is that I have to offer, as opposed to what the workshop has offered me. With the growing stigma being placed on MFA programs, namely that there are so many, cranking out writer after writer (a good number of whom should not, some might say, actually be writers) like little writer factories, I’m almost embarrassed to put it down on my cover letter. Will my words seem somehow less legitimate to whichever editor? Will I be simply, horror of horrors, among the masses? Just another wannabe-writer . . . just another workshop story?
Indeed, many of my fellow students will debate the benefits of the MFA experience, using the phrase “workshop story,” usually while shaking their heads and displaying a tortured half-smile, a click of the tongue. We are taught not to produce original works, they seem to say, but rather to emulate. To follow “the formula.” I was used to such criticisms from my peers, but when I read what literary agent Jeff Kleinman had to say in Poets & Writers on the subject—“I think there’s so much MFA stuff with such a standard voice and such a standard protocol”—my knees started shaking. You mean people in the real world recognize the workshop story? This wasn’t just an attitude problem in my class of twelve, in my one-of-a-kind university, my own private three-year writing retreat? As a reader for Colorado Review and as the editor of Palooka, I’ve actually found myself on the other end of the spectrum, recognizing “the formula” in many of the submissions we read, those stories that follow all the rules.
Sure, there are a ton of MFA programs, and, sure, they are spitting out hundreds (thousands?) of new writers a year. But I think the real issue is not the accessibility of such programs, or even the way creative writing is taught—for how do you teach such a thing without depending somewhat on the stories that have succeeded before? The real problem is that we, as new writers, are all champing at the bit to get discovered, acknowledged, published in the Atlantic, our two-book deals and book tours and fan letters, fame! And in order to get noticed fast, we must do the things we know will work. We must replicate. Give the editors what they’ve already got.
I was talking to a writer/mentor recently about “the business,” asking how one really goes about getting published. “The truth is,” he said, “you gotta know somebody.” While I appreciate that the sentiment did come from experience, I have a hard time buying it. Is it that I’m so terribly naïve, fresh from my writer factory and ready to get started? Partly. But I can’t help but notice how disagreeable so many find the advances of fiction to be these days. I can’t help but notice, as an editorial assistant at Colorado Review and as a publisher myself, the genuine thrill of discovery, of finding something out of the unsolicited pile from a writer no one’s ever heard of before, and it’s fabulous, it’s fresh, and we hope more than anything that some other journal hasn’t snagged it first.
It’s a business, yes, but it’s a business of passion, of art, of literary fervor. It’s a business in which literary agents like Jeff Kleinman say, Down with formula and redundancy—we want what’s new and interesting, we want what we can’t put down! Editors want to be on fire for the things they publish, and accordingly want to cater to (here’s where the business part comes in) the readers who are equally passionate about the things they buy and read. If readers don’t want formula and repetition, surely editors don’t.
The MFA program gave me a lot—confidence, things to read that I’d never read before, new ways to look at and examine the process of writing, time to write, and, as Cunningham puts it, a community: “A writing program, even if it teaches students relatively little in the literal sense, provides them with a body of other writers who will, in fact, argue into the night about semicolons and other writerly matters.” And all of these things, for me, were utter necessities. But the MFA did not make me a writer. I was a writer before the MFA, before I sold a single story, and I’m still one now. My duty to myself, and the literary conversation to which I hope to contribute, is to slow down, take it one sentence at a time. To make sure they are my sentences, not the workshop’s. To write not because I need or want the recognition (though, let’s be honest, we all want that!), but because there are things I have to write about. With my own voice, and my own set of rules.