Iowa Writer's Workshop superstar Kurt vonnegut, Jr. in the cinematic classic Back to School.
If you want to write highbrow fiction today, you’ve probably at least considered getting a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Even though they are about the most impractical graduate degree you could ever have, MFAs are growing in popularity. Fewer and fewer people read any fiction that isn’t about sexy vampires, but more and more people are willing to pay to learn how to write it, and universities have realized that there’s money to be made. There are currently over 100 MFA programs in the United States, most of which have sprung up in the past few decades. The result of this massive growth is that the American literary scene has become intertwined with the MFA system. Writers of literary fiction can't earn a decent living from their books, so they teach in MFA programs to pay the bills and so the cycle continues on indefinitely.
The University of Iowa was the first to offer a graduate degree in creative writing, in 1936. Graduates of what came to be called the Iowa Writer’s Workshop spread the teaching technique that was developed there around the country. Most writing programs today are run on this “workshop” model, and Iowa's program itself is still the gold standard.
The Iowa model is pretty simple. There’s a workshop held once a week where writers sit around a table and critique their fellow students’ work. Students are usually encouraged to attend some other seminars, but basically they have two years with no other responsibilities than to write and think critically about other people’s writing.
We wanted to find out what it was like on the inside, so we talked to some newly minted MFAs and a couple old-timers. Here’s what they each had to say.
MFAs on... Why They Applied
Sarah Balcomb, Columbia University School of the Arts, 2005: The driving force for me to apply to Columbia was that I was about to turn 30. I was assessing my life and I didn't want to hit 30 without some sort of advanced degree. So I went and spent a shitload of money for not as much reward as I was looking for. I thought I would get out and have an agent and a two-book deal and suddenly be working as a writer, but that only happened for one person in my class.
Chris Ofutt, Iowa Writer’s Workshop, 1990: I was 29, living in New York City and running a secondhand shop. I got mugged, and then I got married and moved back to Kentucky, where I had grown up. That didn’t really work out, and my wife suggested that I apply to get an MFA. I'd always written, but I had never sent anything out, or taken a class, or really shown it to anyone. I didn't even know that you could get a degree in writing. But I was too old to join the Army, and the Peace Corps didn't want me, so I applied to a bunch of schools. At the time, all of the schools cost 20 bucks to apply to, but Iowa only cost 10. That's why I included it, because it seemed like a bargain. I had no idea it was a fancy school. When I got the letter saying you can come here, I called to make sure it wasn't a mistake. I just couldn't believe that anybody would want me.
Tom Spanbauer, Columbia University School of the Arts, 1986: In 1982, I was living in New York City. I was 33 years old, and a waiter at a fancy restaurant, making quite a bit of money and writing a little on the side. I always told everybody that I was a writer, but I was doing way too many drugs and drinking and staying up way too late to be a good writer. Through a series of synchronistic things, I ended up getting accepted to the Columbia MFA program. I was now paying $25,000 for an education, so I figured I’d better get serious.
MFAs on... Their Teachers
Mark Dintentfass, Iowa Writer’s Workshop, 1968: Richard Yates, who wrote Revolutionary Road, was my teacher for my first year. He was pretty straitlaced, aside from his drinking problem; pretty old-fashioned in his values. He was very, very generous with writers whom he liked, and he was very adept at pointing out what was good. We would have these individual conferences, and I remember bringing him three stories. He said, "This one is crap and this one is crap, but this one—this is what you should be doing." The first two were pretentious and full of too much graduate school, which can be deadly for a writer. The third one was just a little modest story about Brooklyn when I was a kid and making model airplanes. I thought it was almost too easy to do that. But he convinced me that that was good writing, because the people were real and it wasn’t about ideas, it was about people.
In my second year, Yates left, and I had workshop with Vance Bourjaily, who at that time was probably the most famous writer there. At this point his reputation has kind of gone… somewhere. But back then his books were bestsellers. Ernest Hemingway had praised him as the best young writer of his generation in 1948, and that had really got his career off the ground.
The Iowa program was split into fiction writers and poets—there was very little interaction between the two. Vance had the idea of a class where we would all read each other’s stuff. It was an experiment that didn’t work out very well. Fiction in those days had to be readable. You had to tell a story. Poetry, even in those days—and I think it’s gotten worse now—was about words for their own sake. When poetry was being discussed, the fiction writers would sort of sit there and not really be able to respond to it. And when fiction was being discussed, the poetry writers just didn’t seem interested. They were very snobbish—they thought poetry was a higher calling than fiction, I suspect. On top of that, Vance Bourjaily wasn’t nearly as good a teacher as Dick Yates had been, and so the experiment didn’t work.
Tom Spanbauer: What was really important for me was running into Gordon Lish. He took my head out of theory and put my nose into my sentences, really changed everything. I learned the theory of hydrology from the other courses, and then I got a plumbing degree from Lish—how to fix your pipes. Still, I’m as happy to have gotten away from him as I was to have found him. He’s a pill, a problem guy. But he gave me the permission to treat my prose like I was treating my poetry.
Lish’s workshop met once a week, and there were maybe 120 people in his class. Instead of being theoretical, it was all, What does this sentence sound like? How to create a voice, and to get authority of voice by “saying it wrong”—what he called “burnt tongue.” It’s a way of writing as if you were speaking, of making your prose sound raw or strange or off or wrong or weird. Basically of fucking up your syntax.
In Lish’s class, you read aloud. You started your piece, and if he didn’t like a sentence he stopped you and criticized you and you couldn’t read any more. So he would follow your first sentence, how it moved to the second sentence, how it moved to the third sentence, and as soon as any sentence didn’t work, you had to shut up and he would criticize you. It was tough going to his class. There was a lot of tension in the room, because of his personality. He had no qualms making you feel like a fool. “Oh, no, no, that’s enough, you’re way off line there, next!”
There were these two women who were very good friends, and for six weeks he would say “Oh, Mary, Mary, you’re really, really great, that’s a great story, you’re fantastic." And then he’d turn to Mary’s friend Joan right next to her and say, “Joan, what’s wrong with you? How come you’re not writing like Mary?” Then, halfway through the semester, Joan would start reading and he’d say “Oh, Joan, Joan, Joan, fantastic,” and, “Mary, you’re losing your grip.” People wanted to throw themselves out the window. It was just sick, sick shit. So I got myself out of there.
Who knows why he acted that way? There’s all kinds of ways that people try to figure Lish out. My feeling is he just wanted that control. Threatening to take away his approval was a way of having a hold on people. You’re a writer and coming up in the world, and here’s this guy who calls himself Captain Fiction. He was Raymond Carver’s editor—everybody wanted to be Raymond Carver at the time—he had been the fiction editor at Esquire, he was an editor at Knopf, he had his own literary magazine, The Quarterly. And so here was this guy who was, like, It, and you got to meet him. Wow, he’s talking to me, he’s going to read my stuff. Wow, he’s commenting on my stuff, wow he likes me! Uh oh… now he doesn’t like me… You know? It’s just natural.
He did have a magnetism though, and a lot of power. He told me that he was going to publish my first book, Faraway Places. He called me up on the phone, and he knew I was gay, so he made a big deal of himself being in the bathtub. Like, “I am in the bathtub naked, Tom, talking to you, and I am going to buy your book.” It was pretty icky. “We’re going to publish this fucker, Spanbauer, we’re going to publish this fucker. I’ve really got a hard-on for ya.” He’s a culprit and a manipulator.
I know it sounds like all I’m doing is dissing Lish. He’s a prick for sure, but he did something very particular for me. He gave me the permission to do something that I wouldn’t have got from anywhere else, and I have to be thankful for him.
Chris Offut: My teachers were Frank Conroy, James Salter, and James Allen McPherson. It’s hard to compare their styles of teaching. McPherson's was like a Zen approach: He'd look into a story to see what's underneath the plot, and then what's underneath that. McPherson once told me, “Write from within, for without.” I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. It was like a koan. But I finally realized, you write from within yourself, with the foreknowledge that there are apprehenders of the work who are outside of yourself.
Frank Conroy's was the opposite approach, in a way. It was all centered on the surface. Sentence by sentence, the right word, the right sentence—everything needed to be clear. It had to have meaning, no tricks, no gimmicks, no shortcuts.
And Salter's was a completely different approach. It was one of the few times that Salter has ever taught, and I was lucky enough to be one of his students. It was phenomenal. There was a sense that anything he said was advice from a master. He would zero in on small things, say a piece of description, and talk about why it was helpful or why it wasn't. For example, he would show that maybe there’s a way to describe a single feature in a person that would conjure up the entire individual. I had never even thought about. Some people would start at the head and go to the toes in their description. But his idea was that you didn't need to do that. So, these three guys were very influential for me. Later, when I was a teacher at Iowa, I tried to emulate them as best I could. I wanted to be the teacher that, 20 years later, there would be anecdotes like this about.
Sarah Balcomb: I took one class that was about the teaching of writing, about the MFA programs themselves. There were all these comments by writers who had taught in the Columbia program saying that they were afraid to give negative feedback to people who were spending all this money on their education. Once you’ve read that statement, you can never read a positive comment without thinking, “Oh, they’re just saying that because I’m paying money.”
MFAs on... Socializing
Kristin McGonigle, The New School, 2004: I think a lot of the time, MFA programs are just like big social meetups. At mine, a lot of people made friends and started sleeping with each other and everybody went out and got drunk every Wednesday, but nobody produced any great art in the end. You could tell who the serious people were, who was actually going to succeed. Then there were the people who were just using it as a way to meet people. I used to say that MFA stood for Mostly Fucked Around, which was often true.
Mark Dintentfass: The Workshop was a very masculine environment in my days. Women were pretty much token students, and there were no female teachers. So it was really competitive in class, then you’d go out drinking afterward. I wasn’t much of a drinker, but I’d be observing everything while other people were getting smashed. There were some people at the university who were doing drugs pretty heavily, but I think that in the Workshop the primary drug was booze. The writers you were trying to imitate at the time were still Faulkner and Fitzgerald and Hemingway, all drunkards, so a lot of people seemed to think that being drunk was part of the lifestyle.
Lee Klein, Iowa Writer’s Workshop, 2005: You get very close to the people in your year. For a lot of the students, they were the oddball in their group at college or wherever they lived, they didn’t have a community of writers, and now suddenly they’re in this small ocean of writers in the middle of nowhere. Everybody goes to this bar called the Fox Head. It’s really smoky and small and cheap. The first night you’re in the Fox Head, you look out the window and see this store called John’s across the street, and someone invariably asks, "You see those steps over there? When Raymond Carver was a student he would sit there with Cheever, when Cheever was teaching, and they’d wait for John’s to open so they could buy bottles of booze." And you’re like, no way! That’s right across the street! That’s one of the little legends that you hear pretty much immediately, all those famous drinking things. I lived right by the hospital in that story “Emergency” from Jesus' Son. There’s a giant sign across the hospital, EMERGENCY, and every time you see that, you think of Denis Johnson.
MFAs on... Awkward Moments
Lee Klein: The most uncomfortable moment I remember in workshop was when this guy who was kind of a lovable putz had written a story that involved a guy who had a love for fat strippers. At one point he had a simile where he compares this giant stripper’s labia to the wings of a manta ray. Frank Conroy said to him, "You’re just not talented enough to pull this off." And everybody was like, damn. The next day Frank Conroy had an interview on a Provincetown radio station where he said sometimes he takes a chance on a student and it just doesn’t work out. He reads admissions and sometimes he has high hopes for somebody who’s maybe on the borderline of getting in, and they come in and they just don’t work out. Basically he was talking about that student. Frank didn’t realize that it was 2004 and so the interview was going to be online, not just in Provincetown. Everybody in Iowa City heard it the next day.
Mark Dintentfass: The weirdest thing that I’ve ever seen happen in a class happened later when I was teaching at Lawrence in the early 70s. This student—who was brilliant, actually, a very good writer—we were set to work on his story in class one day, and he came in with a briefcase. We were sitting around the table, and he sat down, opened the briefcase, took out a pistol, put it on the table, looked at us and said, “Go ahead. Discuss.” I made him put the gun away.
Chris Offut: That first critique, I had never experienced anything like that before. I had never shown my work to anybody, let alone in a formal environment. The other students had been through it before, either the previous year or as undergraduates. They had a language for talking about fiction that I didn't know at all. So half the time, I was in the dark about what was actually being discussed, because I didn't know the terminology. One woman began talking about an “unearned epiphany” in my story, and I was like, Aw fuck, I don't know what that means. I went home and looked it up, and the dictionary definition said that an epiphany was a visitation from Christ. I read that, and I said to myself, I'm in over my head. Either they see something that's not there, or I wrote some religious story that I didn't even know I was writing.
Kristin McGonigle: There was one guy in my class who was sort of weird and reclusive. He was a heavy metal guy, long hair, always dressed in black. He never talked in workshop. He wrote this really violent story about people working in a morgue and having sex with corpses, and the professor came in and said, “I don’t feel comfortable workshopping this story. It’s not a serious piece of writing, but I’ll leave it up to the class.” The class was basically like, we don’t want to talk about it either, it’s really gross. The professor turned to him and said, “How do you feel about this?” This guy had never said a word in class before. He goes and reaches in his bag, and then stands up and goes this whole tirade about how he just wanted to show that real people think like this, it’s just a hole and I just want to fuck a hole. He was really angry. When he went down to reach into his bag, I thought, Oh no, he’s reaching for a gun. We all walked out of the class and were gathered around when suddenly the professor came out and was freaking out. He had been at Iowa when they had that shooting back in 1991, so he was picturing this massacre in his classroom because of a creative writing class. Five years after we graduated the metal guy killed himself in some very mysterious way.
Anyways, there’s always your awkward person in class. The Ally Sheedy character from Breakfast Club. I guess all writers are Ally Sheedy, but most are like Ally Sheedy after she gets cleaned up at the end. There are varying degrees of Ally Sheedy in writing programs.
MFAs on... Lessons Learned
Stephen Elliot, Stegner Fellowship, Stanford University, 2001-2003: I probably learned a lot more than anybody else who was there for those two years, because I was the only one who hadn’t studied creative writing before. So I was learning from them, sucking them dry of all the information they had accumulated. Like, “Oh, yeah that’s how you make something move faster, that’s how you do dialogue,” stuff like that. I got more out of it because I had more to learn, further to go.
I also learned from things I disagreed with, which is key. If you’re going to stand out as a writer, you can’t just write the way everybody wants you to write. Everybody kept saying "Why, why did this character do this, what’s the motivation here?" But the idea that I was going to explain the motivation of my character just didn’t resonate with me. You know, the quickest way to be wrong about anybody is to assume their motivations. Motivations are a combination of so many different things—the weather, how much the person slept the night before. People make these consequential decisions based on tiny factors. I felt like it's something people in workshops say when they don’t have anything real to add, but feel like they should participate. So they go, “Why does this character do this?” When I saw people trying to compensate for that, over-explaining their character’s actions, it usually slowed down the story. It was just boring. So I decided I wasn’t going to tell the motivations and I wasn’t going to have any backstory.
Sarah Balcomb: You get in the habit of going over and over something again and again. I have a bunch of short stories that I workshopped that have been sitting on my hard drive for years now. I’m still waiting for someone to tell me they’re done. Maybe before I got my MFA I would have finished and sent them out to try to get them published, but I got into this mindset of needing the approval of ten people. And what feedback I did get was contradictory—this person is telling me to make it weirder, and this other person is telling me to make it normaller, and you forget to trust yourself. So you write it one way and then write it another way, and it’s fucked.
Mark Dintentfass: I remember going to a party at Vance Bourjaily’s house and he stood there and told a whole bunch of us that if you want to write, you really have to learn about bullfighting. It was bullshit. That was not the kind of thing that Dick Yates would ever dream of saying. It was pretentious and stupid. It really felt like you had a choice between the Hemingway way of doing things and the Fitzgerald way of doing things, and Yates was more the Fitzgerald type. It’s about modesty within your writing. Hemingway was all about his own personal need to swagger and be macho, and Fitzgerald was all about making the piece of work right. Hemingway believed that you have to go off to war if you want to be a writer, but Fitzgerald stayed in New Jersey and managed to do perfectly OK.
Lee Klein: After I was done at the workshop I spent six weeks in Iowa City, living in someone’s attic. I walked like ten miles a day and read Underworld, some Philip Roth books, things like that. Going back and reading the things I really love, you know, and seeing how it was totally unworkshoppable, totally its own individual thing that could not be broken down. I think that was probably the best lesson I had during the whole workshop—the six weeks of reading afterwards.
MFAs on... Those Who Would Follow in Their Footsteps
Mark Dintentfass: Today, the model of Iowa has been adopted by dozens and dozens of universities. There’s a whole workshop culture that’s nationwide now. It means that a lot of writers end up writing for that culture. Workshops are grinding out MFAs whose goal is to teach more than to write. And that, I think, has been extremely detrimental to American literature as a whole.
I shouldn’t complain, because I’ve made my living teaching undergraduates fiction writing, but I don’t think it’s a good thing for all those people to be writing fiction, and even worse, getting praise for it. Because it’s getting harder and harder nowadays to tell students they stink—it’s politically incorrect. So you have all this mediocre writing going on and all of these people sitting around being nice to each other about how good their mediocre writing is.
In my time there was Iowa and Stanford, there were 200 or 300 people in the country getting MFAs, and those people were pretty carefully selected. But even then, maybe 15 to 20 percent of them would end up publishing novels, so you still had a lot of people who were going to be frustrated in their lives. Now we’ve got thousands and thousands. And it sure hasn’t improved American fiction any. If you write serious fiction now, you’re doomed to publish in little magazines and be read only by other people who are trying to write fiction and get into little magazines. I’m sorry to sound so negative, but I’m old.
Tom Spanbauer: The hardline view is, it’s really a business for the college, they’re trying to make some money. I think that’s the first thing you need to recognize about it. For me, it was a turning point in my life, and I really needed to do it. But I had gone to the Peace Corps, I had worked as a laborer, been married for seven years, then left my wife and come out of the closet. I lived an entire life before I went to an MFA program. I think I’d caution somebody against coming right out of college and going into an MFA. Get a job, pay the rent, live a little bit. Get a trade that isn’t going to interrupt your writing. Don’t get a job as a line editor or a technical writer—any job that’s going to use that part of your brain. Become a hairdresser, a plumber, dig ditches, whatever you’ve gotta do. Give yourself four or five years, and then think about it.
Stephen Elliot: Nobody should pay that kind of money to study creative writing. If you want to spend $80,000 on being a creative writer, you should send it to me and I’ll give you one-on-one classes for two years. It’s not something you should pay for, especially if you don’t have the money. You should never go into debt to study creative writing. Because real writing, to be an artist, and really write meaningful creative fiction or non-fiction? That doesn’t pay anything. I’m publishing my seventh book next year, and I’m living on $30,000 a year. And I think I’m towards the high end of that spectrum—most people are not that fortunate.
People go to MFA programs and they think they’re gonna be connected. That’s not going to help you publish. It’s a myth. Writing’s not about connections, writing’s about writing. If you work on your writing, everything else will follow. You’ll do fine. There’s editors at publishing houses all over the place looking for good books. It’s hard to get paid, it’s hard to make a living, but it’s not hard to publish a good book. So you don’t need to put yourself into debt to get an MFA. And if it’s not going to put you into debt, because you have enough money that you can get an MFA and not really worry about spending $80,000, then I think maybe you should take a hard look at yourself and where you came from and give some of that money back to the people.
INTERVIEWS BY BEN WHITE
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