What I Remember from Getting an MFA in Creative Writing
On my first day in the dorms I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth and saw reflected in the mirror an older woman naked in a bathtub behind me. I’d heard the dorms at my school were haunted, having been built in the late 1800s or something, but when...
There’s a long-running argument about the benefits and bullshit of getting an MFA in creative writing. Some people say it turns you into a cookie-cutter fuckboy, others say it helps you get a job. After I finished undergrad and realized I wanted to write instead of joining the real world, I devoted all of my time and energy toward staying in college, which meant I’d get an MFA whether I needed one or not. In hindsight, the whole experience kind of bleeds together into a mass of time I look back on not unfondly, but I’m also curious as to what exactly I got out of spending two more years on education instead of becoming a functioning member of the American workforce. For better or worse, that time is gone. Here’s what I remember.
1. On my first day in the dorms I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth and saw reflected in the mirror an older woman naked in a bathtub behind me. I’d heard the dorms at my school were haunted, having been built in the late 1800s or something, but when I turned around she was still there. There was actually a bathtub in the public showering area. It was a co-ed bathroom, and she was sitting in it buck naked washing without the curtain closed. She loudly introduced herself as one of my classmates and said she was from Milledgeville, Georgia, home of Flannery O’Connor. It feels appropriate that my earliest memory from getting an MFA is checking out a granny’s boobs in a public toilet.
2. People said the room next to mine was famous because Bob Dylan screwed the student who lived there when he came to play the school in the 60s. Whoever was staying in it while I lived next door apparently decided to keep that spirit alive, because many nights I could hear the sex noises… or maybe that was sexual ghosts.
3. A lot of people rarely seemed to do their work. Many people complained about writing like it was a job they were actually getting paid to do, or as if coming to college were just a really expensive party with a shitty required costume. In general, I would not recommend anyone get an MFA unless you get funding. That way you can feel less bad about fucking off.
4. One of the major arguments about an MFA is whether or not it turns you into a manufactured writer, forced to ape John Cheever and Raymond Carver. I had never heard these things before I went to the program, somehow, and once I was there I heard it a lot. A lot of people thought that was good, and liked Cheever and Carver, and didn’t see a problem with turning out that way. But honestly, I don’t think you have a choice. If you are the kind of person who can be made to mimick something else by mere suggestion, you are probably fucked in the long run anyway, as far as doing anything interesting is concerned.
5. I got drunk for the first time. I had been straightedge my entire life (without the X's and bad clothes), but realized by my mid-20s I was only doing it to defy friends who wanted me to get drunk. It was much easier to try something where no one knew me. Also, being around a bunch of writers talking about writing will make you want to drink. Although I often wish I could go back to who I was before that.
6. I don’t really like readings. I had never been to a reading or read my work aloud before coming to the school. As a new class, we were supposed to have readings where anyone could come and share their work. You were supposed to read for three to five minutes and be done. If you went over, another student would ring a bell. I didn’t want to read aloud because I didn’t see the point, so I took the job with the bell. That first night a guy read up to his five minutes and then kept going. I gave him an extra minute, then dinged the bell. He pretended not to hear it. I rang the bell once a minute for the next five to six minutes, feeling somehow like a dick even though it was my job. Finally—15 minutes in, three times past the allotted time—the guy stopped and asked if he could keep going, to finish his story. No one said no, and he smiled at me briefly as to say, “Fuck your bell,” and then read for another ten minutes. The story was about lightning bugs. I understood then that readings are an unnecessary and awkward tradition writers use to try to find a way to share their work aside from begging people to buy their books.
7. Later in that residency, Christine Schutt read in a barn. She read a story called “The Blood Jet” about an abusive relationship, told in a way I don’t think I’d ever heard someone talk. I can still remember the look on her face and the weird firm waver in her voice. I remember how no one in the room seemed to want to move. For every 100 readings that blow balls, there is sometimes one that makes the experience worth sitting through.
8. Workshops are really funny. If you approach them like a game show, or like a one-act play arranged just for you, it can be pretty fun to sit there and listen to people try to explain what they do or do not like about someone’s work.
9. Out of all the talking that went on in the workshops, I only remember two pieces of advice:
9a. In regards to writing, I remember Amy Hempel said, “The more literal you are, the more metaphorical people will think you are being.” Every year I figure out additional ways that this is true, or how bending this idea against itself is also true.
9b. In regards to reading, Lynne Sharon Schwartz said, "We are going to trust that the text is right and you are wrong until it forces you to accept otherwise." In most workshops, the practice is to find one good thing to say and one bad thing to say about each work that you look at. This induces the idea that there’s something good about everything, and something wrong with everything, and causes people to kind of read while looking for ways to make it more like them. Lynne shut all that down by finally bringing out the idea that sometimes what seems a flaw is what makes the object most itself; that the inconsistencies or strange logics in a piece might come from somewhere different than where you wanted.
10. Another time, in a personal conference, Lynne commented on how dark my writing was—always so dark. She suggested there be more lightness at times, to contrast the darkness. I told her I thought that there were different kinds of dark, and the lightest moment in a work might seem really dark in comparison to what was outside it, but within itself it was actually a kind of light. I also think I told her I didn’t see the point in relenting, that as a reader I wanted to be forced against my will. A presumptuous response, yes, but Lynne smiled at me. I remember getting the feeling she understood, even if my idea of how to do things was different than what she would do. I remember feeling like Lynne’s understanding right then was a kind of doorway.
11. The first story of my own that I submitted was about an overweight guy climbing the stairs at a hotel to get to his mom’s room, where he has learned she is trying to OD on painkillers. It was a shitty chapter from a shitty novel I later burned, but the thing I remember most was my professor banging her first on the table over and over at me, saying she couldn’t picture one specific thing I had written. “I can’t see it!” she shouted at me, several times. I remember thinking then that I didn’t understand why you had to see it; I’d thought the whole idea of language was that it could produce effects the senses other mediums relied on could not. Though I now know the image was indeed badly written, I still think about how wrong it is to expect language to work like TV, to be something you have to see.
12. So many people in my classes didn’t want to be criticized. People would cry and some dropped out after getting reamed. To graduate we had to turn in a thesis of 120 pages of writing. Each thesis would be reviewed by your main professor, and a second professor also had to approve. Most of the second reviewers would just write a paragraph or something by way of reaction.
My second reader was Tom Bissell, a writer I admire and felt intimidated by. Instead of the usual half paragraph, Tom wrote me a 30-page letter, which began, “Blake, there’s a lot of good stuff here, but I didn’t come to praise you.” He then spent the next 30 pages absolutely shredding my literary asshole, picking apart almost everything I said, or so it felt. After two years of being given mostly sparing rejoinders for improvements, as well as being constantly encouraged in what I already did well, Tom had the balls to totally rearrange me, to press my face in where I was worst. This, as a lesson in creating, at least for someone like me who had been obsessed with innovation, is the greatest gift one can receive: not encouragement, but total excoriation of the places where you’re only limping.
14. I don’t know if I’d do my MFA again. It’s easy to say that now, hating any second I’m not in the midst of doing what I want when it comes to work. I could have gotten a business degree and been making a lot of money now, though I don’t know that that would have made me happy. I do know that, having stuck with writing, if I hadn’t gotten an MFA I might have continued doing the same things I already knew I liked and did well, and not been forced to really see what I did that was most uniquely mine. In the scope of the world, any opportunity to spend hours and hours working on something as existentially arbitrary as writing sentences seems valuable, a total luxury, even if in the end everything but just sitting at your desk and working is a punchline.
Previously by Blake Butler: Holes and Bodies and Skin and Death