Staging My Own MFA Reformation: Suggestions for Strengthening Our Program
Oct 03, 2017
I love the MFA program at Colorado State. I’ve been here nearly three years, a fact that I’m still trying to grasp. It’s been a fruitful time and one of the best in my life. I’ve learned different philosophies about what it means to write, and how to tackle the short story. The faculty have given me their time and feedback, trying to help me strengthen my work. I’ve had the benefit of workshops and peer feedback as well. This collective experience has helped me develop my voice as an author and gain confidence.
I’ve learned a great deal from reading fiction submissions at the Colorado Review. I’ve also learned what NOT to do from reading some of the more far-fetched but entertaining submissions. Full disclosure: Vampire stories are among them.
That said there are always things that can be improved about the MFA program, the oldest in the state of Colorado, and among the oldest, nationwide. I address these not to be a Debbie Downer, but because I believe wholeheartedly in the power of the MFA. MFAs have much to offer, such as a pool of connections, and helping us develop our voices and sensibilities. I hope that these ideas can spark up a conversation about MFAs and how they can benefit us writers to the fullest. As I prepare to leave, I want the next generation of MFA students to make the most of their experience, and have the best possible time. Here are some suggestions for reforming our MFA program and those nationwide:
1. More cross-pollination.
Seriously. Having fiction students take poetry classes and vice versa would be beneficial for personal growth. We exist in our own spheres, our own bubbles. As talented as we are as writers, it’s hurting us. Writing is a process of inherent growth, and we need to learn to develop our skills across the board and become well-rounded authors and thinkers. Also, fiction and poetry aren’t ions apart, contrary to what some might think. I think they rather have a symbiotic relationship. Case in point: Nabokov’s Lolita. It might be a commanding work of fiction, narrated by an eloquent, multilingual pedophile, but its power derives from numerous poetic devices, including a delightful dose of damned old alliteration.
The powers that be in the program can rectify this by encouraging or even requiring us to take classes outside our genre. Confession: I always wanted to take a poetry class, but felt that I was impeded by a gentleperson’s agreement of sorts, a sense that fiction and poetry had their own “turf.” Again, fostering the right environment is key. The program has so much to offer. Let’s expand our neurons, blur lines a little, poke bears, and have some fun.
2. Further encouragement of pursuing different aesthetics.
It can seem like every program has its own aesthetic. And I’m not saying students are discouraged from experimentation in any way. It simply seems to me that there’s a dominating aesthetic that exists on a very subconscious level. I can’t speak for CSU poets, but with the fiction cohort, I would characterize the aesthetic as “divorce in the suburbs.” Confession: I write plenty of divorce in the suburbs.
I think we can further encourage and nurture a wide array of styles and philosophical attitudes towards writing. We can foster an even broader dialogue within the program. Certainly a wide array of styles can lead to tensions, but it can also be the spice we need.
3. More interactions with our fellow MFA brothers and sisters.
We at Colorado State have the unique advantage of being close to three other MFA programs: CU-Boulder, Naropa, and the University of Wyoming. It seems a real shame not to have more collaborative events with our comrades. There’s much we can learn from each other, from one another’s practices, and own particular methods. And if nothing else, it would be good to share a beer with them.
4. More diversity.
Bringing in more international students and minorities would allow for a wider array of worldviews and viewpoints in the writing conversation. We want our writing and worldviews to be expanded significantly during our time. In an era when the value of diversity is being questioned by the powers that be, we need to affirm it firmly. We should not only bring in a wider diversity of students, but expand our writing to address broader themes. We have ethical obligations.
5. More discussion of real-world application.
MFA workshops by their very nature are meant to expose us to the critiques of our peers. And once we go out into the world, we’ll be experiencing a great deal of this, from editors, agents, etc. So, let’s have a conversation about this in class. Let’s encourage or even require students to submit their work for publication. Let’s talk about the broader purposes of writing, in addition to craft and technique.
These are just my thoughts. I admit that I’d love to stay in the program forever. But going out into the world, I can at least pass a torch and try to better our program for a new generation of students.