As someone who has just completed an MFA program, I have one word of advice for anyone attempting to grow as a writer, particularly those studying creative writing at the graduate level. That word is humility. You’ve heard the expression that the military “breaks a person down in order to build them back up?” Well I’m here to tell you that, if you’re lucky, an MFA program does the same thing.
In my very first workshop at U.N.O, I turned in the first few unpolished chapters of a fantasy novel. My teacher, novelist Amanda Boyden, had given us very clear instructions on what was and was not acceptable for submission. No genre of any kind. No novel chapters. Nothing that was closer to rough draft than what we had edited to the best of our ability. I used to say that Amanda did not merely critique my story; she eviscerated it. She flayed it, (and thus, me) before my own disbelieving eyes. But this is the wrong word. Eviscerate implies that she intended to cause me pain, but more importantly, implies that she damaged something that was once alive. In re-reading those chapters recently, I realized the actual term I should use is autopsy. Yes, she cut those chapters to pieces, but she laid out in clear and concise language exactly how my fiction proved each of her points about genre or chapters or rough drafts in the study of craft. I’d gotten harsh commentary on my fiction before, but not until the MFA program had it been such a humbling, and enlightening, experience.
Unlike the military, however, this part of the writing program is not (as is often criticized) designed to make a cookie cutter automaton of a writer. Rather, by breaking a young writer’s preconceptions that they are already as skilled as they need to be, it allows a person to approach the study of writing in a particular way. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell presents the argument that it takes about 10,000 hours, or 10 years, of rigorous, focused study in order to become “expert” at something. This applies to any form of learned skill, whether it’s repairing a car, playing a musical instrument, hitting a baseball, or crafting a piece of creative writing. My father – an HVAC technician who worked his way up from an apprentice pipe-fitter who changed the evaporation coils of residential air-conditioning units to a Master technician who works on the industrial chillers inside chemical plants – once told me that he never stops anyone from telling him how to do something just because he thinks he already knows how to do it. Even with his experience in and knowledge of his field, he approaches his work with the humble, always learning eye of the craftsman.
With a humble attitude towards their own level of learning, a MFA student is free to approach their writing free of the illusions of perfection or imminent commercial success. Students become apprentice craftsmen, learning the joins and seams of creative writing, and the nuanced tools that a lay-person would be unlikely to come across on their own. This stage is one of the incredible strengths of graduate study, as despite their names, there is no Guild or Union for writers that offer as deep and as craft based a period of instruction for their apprentices as does an MFA creative writing program.
And so I say again to any student of the craft, particularly those just beginning their time in graduate school, be humble. Recognize that the journey from apprentice to master is a long one and that no one ever stops learning. Incidentally, my original article on this topic was well over 1700 words long. I learned, after writing it, that my limit was 750 words. Out of everything I learned in the MFA program, editing skills and condensation of language, when it came time to shorten this piece to what my editor wanted, I’ll give you one guess what I needed most.