Monday, September 30, 2013

A Creative Writing Program Won’t Teach You to Write

During the pursuit of an MFA you might learn to create more engaging dialogue.  A creative writing program could teach you to craft more intricate characters and present beautiful or terrifying environments. It can point out common plot holes, banal prose, or uncomplicated themes.  It will put you in community with a group of people who will help you improve each of the elements that make for good writing, but an MFA will not teach you to write.

This community blog has already addressed balancing writing life with student/teaching/”real” life, by people who suck less than I do, so if you were hoping for some advice on that, look elsewhere.  I am mostly here to admit defeat and failure. I haven’t even taught or taken a class for months and I still don’t get my writing in nearly enough.  I have great reasons for this. By “great” I don’t only mean that they are effective reasons, but that they are sensible, believable, and genuinely time consuming.  These reasons are also positive life events. They are mundane, even typical for a person in his early 30s, but still, congratulations are in order at this point in my life.  This list of good reasons is especially useful to me, because it allows me to do several of my favorite things simultaneously: complain, brag, and make excuses.

Sometimes, grad students complain that we don’t have enough time to do everything: teach, grade, write, read, and attend class.  Mostly, we are empathetic (and complicit) with each other, even when 10 minutes earlier/later someone talks about marathoning all of the back episodes of Breaking Bad over the weekend.  As the primary caregiver (aka, stay-at-home-dad) for 3 children under 4, there is sometimes an extra level of sympathy (to my face, at least).  Almost no one is willing to call me out. And then there is this guy: “Write 500 of the shittiest words you can think of” every day; there are no such thing as good reasons, only bad excuses. I’ve heard similar advice before, but for some reason (probably the humor) it clicked this time.

For some of us, there is no balancing writing with life.  There is only shoehorning writing somewhere into your day or there is admitting defeat. Lose sleep. Miss a meal. Skip the gym. Hand back papers late. Skim your class reading. Be late to pick up your son from pre-school, which I currently am, but at least, for today, I am a writer.

There will always be priorities that outrank writing in practical standing. Being a writer is impractical.  Getting an MFA makes it seem and feel more practical.  There is an end game, something for people to congratulate you for, deadlines to hide behind, and an advanced degree on which to hang your authorial identity. An MFA can be useful when explaining yourself to friends, family, strangers and yourself, but an MFA won’t teach you to write.

Phil Mazzeo chose to pursue a career writing and teaching full-time after retiring from the corporate world after 3 long years.  After 3 short years of writing and teaching, he is now primarily an executive domestic administrator and writes while his oldest son sits on his head and the toddler tries to feed the baby a 4-day-stale Oreo he found under the couch 12 seconds ago.

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