MFA PROGRAMS: mixing it up

(Charles Kruger)

Recently Sean Labrador y Manzano, a 2007 graduate of the Mills College MFA program in Creative Writing and McSweeney’s columnist (Conversations At The Wartime Cafe), organized a reading at the Bollyhood bar in the Mission with readers from about half a dozen MFA programs in the Bay Area. Pointing out that at any given time there are approximately 500 MFA creative writing students actively enrolled in Bay Area writing programs, Mr. Labrador y Manzano organized the event because he feels this pool of talent is too often isolated in tiny workshops, never knowing each other or leaving their campuses to participate in the larger writing community. I attended, and it was quite an evening. I left with a lot to think about.

When I sat down to write this article, I began by googling “MFA Creative Writing.” This produced an astonishing 148,000 results! In an effort to put that number in context, I randomly searched several other graduate school subjects. My unscientific sample revealed about 500,000 results for nursing school and about 125,000 graduate programs in anthropology. Other programs seemed to fall mostly between these two numbers.

My conclusion? An awful lot of schools are able to support graduate programs in creative writing. That’s a lot of the green stuff for a lot of student loan providers, colleges, universities, professors, adjunct professors, administrators, and fellowship recipients. And a bit of change for plenty of late night coffee houses and bars, I imagine.

It also suggests that there are a lot of hopeful young people who want to be writers and think that an MFA program can help. One wonders, “help how?” Can the workshop process turn somebody into a writer? Does a degree increase one’s chance of publication and the ability to earn a living as a creative writer? Does it bring the promise of a secure teaching position? What are all these folk thinking?

I suppose writers have always shared their work with other writers, in seminars, workshops, whatnot. Easy to imagine the ancient Greek playwrights quaffing a few outside the Olympic stadium and tearing into each other’s efforts. Or Shakespeare and Marlowe arguing about the relative merits of The Jew of Malta and Merchant of Venice. Why not? We know about Melville and Hawthorne, Thoreau and Emerson, Dickens and Collins. You get the point.

From what I can gather in my research, the modern “writers’ workshop,” which is the core of every MFA program, grew out of the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It would be difficult to fault the history of that august institution. It has unarguably produced some great writers. And provided patronage to many others, great and not so great. On the other hand, there are an awful lot of programs nowadays, and naysayers have had their nay-say. A typical analysis appeared in a mid-90s issue of The Richmond Review from Russell Celyn Jones, who remarked:

Anyone who has ever attended such a course can tell you that the America writers’ workshop is a party. The problem sets in when the party never ends. Some students go from three years of undergraduate workshops onto a two year MA course,¬† followed by a year hopping around colonies, capping it all with a tenured position teaching creative writing, without publishing anything at all. That is taking a good thing too far.

Whatever the criticisms, it seems unlikely that the MFA program will go away any time soon. For young creative writers, it is the primary source of patronage. How else can a young person, who is not independently wealthy, access the resources necessary for an extended period of time to focus entirely on her art? And beyond those initial years of fellowship and classes, the MFA seems to be the primary conduit into the world of funded writing colonies and teaching opportunities for new generations of students.

In the Bay Area, the many active MFA programs are an important point of entry into the writing community and a source of income and social support for many of our established novelists and writers of non-fiction.

What they do, who they are and what they produce must be of interest to the Bay Area literary community, and certainly attracts the attention of Litseen.

With this in mind, we will be profiling several Bay Area creative writing programs and writing communities (MFAs and others) in the coming months in the hope of helping to link these sometimes isolated communities with one another and with the larger literary scene.

It is a commonplace to observe that in order to be a writer one must have something to say. And no doubt, one must have a desire to work at it. I would suggest a third essential: writers need an audience to address.

This concept of audience is a broad one and can include an imaginary crowd or posterity or canonical writers living or dead. For a great many of us, the audience that keeps us engaged with our work is an attentive community of listening peers, such as MFA programs and other writing groups strive to be.

What follows are the videos recorded at Bollyhood. They represent an interesting cross section of enthusiastic writers currently engaged in local MFA programs. We believe it behooves us all to pay attention.

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Leslie Johnston, California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS)

Katrina Greco – St. Mary’s

Scott Lambridis, San Francisco State University (SFSU)

Michelle Wallace, Mills College

Kuukua Yomekpe, CIIS

Linda Alvarez, California College of the Arts (CCA)

Ben Black, SFSU

Gillian Hamel, St. Mary’s

Molly Daniels, Mills College

Allison Ruth Barry, CIIS

Fia Maxwell, CCA

Hollie Hardy, SFSU

Peter Burghadt, St. Mary’s

Erin Furstnau, CCA