Monday, 14 March 2011

Creative Writing MAs and MFAs

The latest edition of the Paris Review has been lying unread on my desk for a couple of months and yesterday I decided to finally find the time to read it. I was particularly interested in the interview with Jonathan Franzen, especially after my post yesterday about the creative writing MA I’m taking. Franzen says he very nearly took a creative writing MFA himself but didn’t in the end, mainly due to financial considerations.

However, he and his then-wife had their ‘own little round-the-clock MFA programme’ (she was a writer, too). Franzen’s personal MFA programme lasted six years, three times longer than the usual programme. During this time, as well as writing, he says he read fiction four or five hours a night every night for five years. Plus, he didn’t have to deal with ‘all the stupid responses to writing that workshops generate’.

I can certainly relate to that sentiment. There was a classic example of it at in my MA workshop last week. One of my fellow students had submitted a short story that was pretty much perfect – well-rounded characters, interesting story, great pace, an inevitable-yet-surprising ending – and yet because we had 40 minutes set aside to discuss it people began to get picky over minor plot points in the story and by the end of the session they were suggesting some major rewrites.

Perhaps she shouldn’t have brought such a polished piece of work to the workshop, but I do think the whole episode is indicative of what can be a downside of the dreaded workshop. Billy Collins got it spot-on, I think. It may even be indicative of the MA as a whole.

Jonathan Franzen says that, in retrospect, he is now glad he didn’t take the MFA programme he was offered. It might have smoothed out of his work some of the kinks that were better not smoothed out. He says: ‘As a journalist, I’m always trying to become more professional, but as a fiction writer I’d rather remain an amateur.’


Eryl said...

That sounds like a really badly run workshop. On my M.Litt we weren't allowed to make suggestions at all, we were only allowed to ask neutral questions of the work such as: "when he looks out towards the garden what does he see, exactly?" Which helped the writer to think about what they were trying to do with the work. It was quite taxing for everyone, but extremely rewarding, and I now do exactly the same with my own students. I have to say it's much easier to form neutral questions when you see the work in advance so we all would email our pieces to each other a few days ahead.

Is Jonathan Franzen the chap who wites on a treadmill?

Paul said...

I think I'd rather be on one of your workshops..

Don't know if Jonathan Franzen writes on a treadmill - maybe I'll give it a try though!