It’s possible I sorted these essays together one day when putting them away or they’ve surreptitiously found each other in the stack like long-lost frenemies: “The Limited Value of Master’s Programs in Creative Writing” by Jay Parini from The Chronicle of Higher Education (November 23, 1994) and “In Defense of Creative-Writing Classes” from the book The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo. In any case, they were not submitted by the same students. I only know this because “Robert/Ray” is handwritten on the Hugo essay and not on the Parini essay. So this must have been an essay argument occuring within the essay class while we were all working our ways through the $$$ Sarah Lawrence MFAs in Creative Writing. It doesn’t surprise me that the “Robert/Ray” packet was in support of MFAs as the Robert refers to Robert Fanning, the poet who would go on to become a creative-writing professor.
Both make their case. Let’s start with Parini:
“How does one learn to become a writer? The answer now put forward by many universities—and one that that I must question—is: Enroll in a masters-of-fine-arts program in creative writing. The old answer, of course, was that you learned the writing trade in the marketplace, under conditions that forced a certain economy of style and fostered self-discipline.”
Parini mentions journalists like Hemmingway, Steinbeck, Graham Greene, Updike. He also lists poets who had what we would think of as ordinary jobs: T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Frost, and poets who found “shelter in universities and colleges” -- Nabokov, Roethke, Saul Bellow, Malamud, Robert Penn Warren and Robert Lowell. (Every respectable literature department needed to boast a famous writer after all.)
He says there's “nothing intrinsically wrong” with the “tour d’ivoire.” He quotes Saul Bellow in saying defensively, “the university is no more an ivory tower than Time magazine, with its strangely artificial approach to the world.”
Parini talks about the incompatibility between literature departments and creative writing programs that live within them, “hermetically sealed” where students “sign up in droves.” They do.
Parini asks an important question, “Is what students demand actually being supplied? If not, should universities be held responsible for failing to practice truth in advertising? Given the extra time and expense of master’s programs, I doubt the M.F.A. degrees in creative writing are generally worth the investment.”
Now Hugo will go on to argue that students don’t get what they demand, but they do get something valuable. Like Tom Lux on our first day at Sarah Lawrence when he told us quite brutally that the best we could hope to get out of the program would be a circle of friends who would be our lifelong readers.
Parini argues for writing classes at the undergraduate level instead (as where he teaches). He says in undergraduate writing classes are like piano lessons are to music appreciation. “There is something about actually trying one’s hand at a sonnet, for instance, that makes one appreciate exactly why Shakespeare’s are great.”
“Let us assume (generously) that a hundred people in any generation become poets whom someone might want to read a hundred years from now. That leaves a lot of others writing poetry for their own ‘self-development,’ as we say…[however] few students enter such programs for spiritual nourishment. They hope to improve as writers, to be sure, but they also want to get a leg up in a the world of publishing and…acquire a credential that will be of some use when they apply for a job as a teacher of creative writing.”
“An M.F.A may help someone find a good job once in a blue moon, but I would never send one of my undergraduates on for the degree…so that he/she might wind up employed as a teacher of creative writing. Such advise would be tantamount to malpractice, since the chances of [them] finding employment in this field are minimal.”
And do the programs even produce good work? No, Parini says, they produce
“perfectly competent but essentially uninspired poems, stories and novels…often between hard covers…selected by prize committees established by the M.F.A. programs themselves, so that their graduates can have an outlet for their work…It may well be that graduate study in creative writing actually damages potentially good writers, making them too aware of what is fashionable and too fearful of developing in the idiosyncratic ways that make for genuine originality, if not greatness, in a writer.”
Learning to write, Parini says, “takes a lifetime, as it is always difficult, and the rewards are ultimately personal. All that matters in the end is that you find a language adequate to experience, and that is terribly hard to do.”
Next we move on to Richard Hugo’s chapter of defense in The Triggering Town. I think it’s mildly interesting that Richard and Ray thought to put their names on the essay but not Hugo’s. If you have The Triggering Town (which lots of poets do), I guess it’s considered self-explanatory.
Hugo says Ezra Pound successfully taught Eliot, Williams, Hemingway and Yeats and says it’s just a fact of life, “as long as people writer, there will be creative-writing teachers. It’s nice to be on the payroll again after a century or more of going unemployed.”
And like Parini, Hugo draws some stark differences between literature/English departments (which are so critical and expository) and creative writing classes. He says lit departments take good writing for granted and often produce theoretical papers with very poor writing (if you’re a nerdy member of JSTOR you know this for sure). “I’ve seen sentences that defy comprehension written by people with doctorates in English from our best universities.”
Good reading and good writing can be related, Hugo says, but are not always related. Creative writing “feeds off its own impulse….sometimes I talk about a triggering subject…the impulse to the poem” but there's also “a genuine impulse to write…so deep and volatile it needs no triggering device” (no reading to inspire its creativity), nothing but an “urge to search [that comes] from need, and that remains mysterious…”
Hugo sees actual “contempt for good writing among some scholars…common to hear a published scholar who wrote clearly referred to as a popularizer.” Writing, Hugo says, is not a “natural reward of study.” It takes work and practice.
“We creative writers are privileged because we can write declarative sentences and we can write declarative sentences because we are less interested inbeing irrefutably right than we are in the dignity of language itself…to use language well requires self-sacrifice, even giving up pet ideas.” We are “cavalier intellectuals” and “scholars look for final truths they will never find. Creative writers concern themselves with possibilities that are always there to the receptive.”
In direct contradiction of Parini, Hugo says he has about 40 ex-students “now publishing” and that many teachers can list more than that.
Hugo is a bit worried though: “I’m not sure the sudden popularity of creative-writing courses is a privilege. It may be our ruination. It is becoming a sore point in English departments. The enrollment in creative writing increases and the enrollment in literature courses is going down. I‘m not sure why and I’m not sure the trend is healthy.”
He says many theorize this is due to “the narcissism of students, the egocentric disregard of knowledge, the laziness, the easy good grades to be had in the writing courses.”
“If I had to limit myself to one criticism of academics it would be this: they distrust their responses. They feel that if a response can’t be defended intellectually, it lacks validity. One literature professor I know was asked as he left a movie theater if he had liked the movie, and he replied, ‘I’m going to have to go home and think about it.’ What he was going to think about is not whether he liked the movie, but whether he could defend his response to it. If he decided he couldn’t, presumably he’d hide his feelings or lie about them. Academics like these, and fortunately they are far from all the academics, give students the impression that there’s nothing in literature that could be of meaningful personal interest….
I still consider academic professors indispensable to an English department. Whatever the curses of creative writing, it is still a luxury. If there’s a choice between dropping Shakespeare studies or advanced poetry writing, I would not defend retention of the writing course.”
He then lists problems of graduate writing programs, including how to judge students for acceptance, “I think Yeats was right when he observed that what comes easy for the bad poet comes with great difficulty for the good” and that “a piece of writing is a hard thing to judge” and “most writers haven’t learned to submit to their obsessions” at that level.
And here is the meat of his argument where he explains what programs can do: “A good creative-writing teacher can save a good writer a lot of time. Writing is tough, and many wrong paths can be taken…we teach writers to teach themselves how to write.”
One of my favorite paragraphs was this:
“It is a small thing, but it is also small and wrong to forget or ignore lives that can use a single microscopic moment of personal triumph. Just once the kid with the bad eyes hit a home run in an obscure sandlot game. You may ridicule the affectionate way he takes that day through a life drab enough to need it, but please stay the hell away from me.”
He then makes a good case for narcissism (at least against a dehumanizing system):
“You are someone and you have a right to your life. Too simple? Already covered by the Constitution? Try to find someone who teaches it. Try to find a student who knows it so well he or she doesn’t need it confirmed.”
“In the thirty-eight years…I’ve seen the world tell us with wars and real estate developments and bad politics and odd court decisions that our lives don’t matter [This was published in 1979]…modern life says that with so many of us we can best survive by ignoring identity and acting as if individual differences do not exsit. Maybe the narcissism academics condemn in creative writers is but a last reaching for a kind of personal survival. Anyway, as a sound psychoanalyst once remarked to me dryly, narcissism is difficult to avoid. When we are told in dozens of insidious ways that our lives don’t matter, we may be forced to insist, often far too loudly, that they do. A creative-writing class may be one of the last places you can go where your life still matters. Your life matters, all right. It is all you’ve got for sure, and without it you are dead…Oblivion needs no help from us.”
I will pay off my 30k Sarah Lawrence creative writing MFA shortly. But then I chose Sarah Lawrence for its proximity to New York City. Was it worth it? Possibly. It did change my life in ways that are still unfolding. Do I wish it had been cheaper? Definitely but then I haven’t exactly had to starve myself paying it off. Are my parents disappointed in my creative writing MFA (that I paid for) and the much cheaper English BA (they paid for). They unfortunately are.
But here is where I would quote Philip Levine (who I’m in the middle of a long journey through) from his essay “Class With No Class.” He talks about not following the family business like his twin brother did and his mother’s joking admonitions that his life has proven the case for social mobility (in a downward sense). I agree with Levine whole-heartedly, especially where he talks about ‘blessed time.’
“I am pleased I did not fulfill the expectations of my class…my years in the working class were merely a means of supporting my own. My life in the working class was intolerable only when I considered the future and what would become of me if nothing were to come of my writing. In once sense I was never working-class, for I owned the means of production, since what I hoped to produce were poems and fictions. In spite of my finances I believe I was then freer than anyone else in this chronicle.
In order to marry and plunder a beautiful and wealthy woman I did not have to deny I was a Jew; for the sake of my self-esteem I did not have to reign like a chancellor over my family and my servants; in order to maintain my empire I did not have to fuel it with years of stifling work; in order to insure my legacy I did not have to drive my sons into the hopelessness of imitating my life.
Of course it meant years of living badly, without security or certainty, what I have called elsewhere ‘living in the wind,’ but it also meant I could take my time, I could take what Sterling Brown called my ‘blessed time,’ because after all, along with myself, it was the only thing I had.”
Creative writing programs are, in no small sense, buying time. And I’m often saying I value this blessed writing time above money, so much so that it’s the only thing I’ve ever stolen.