Academia vs Creative Writing: Adversaries or Bedfellows?


Should I pursue an MFA?

When I met Orson Scott Card, he told me:

If you want to be a writer, don’t major in English.

Although the quote has stuck with me for many years, I don’t remember the exact rationale behind it.

More recent guidance from one of Brandon Sanderson’s podcasts explored the question of whether a writer needs writing classes or degrees to be successful. He and two other writers all agreed:

Acedemic degrees related to writing are not a required for success as a writer. Furthermore, all three writers in the podcast acknowledged that many “English and Literature” programs will try to breed genre fiction out of the creative writer. There are still some stuffed shirts who believe that science fiction isn’t “serious”. (Crappy movies on the sci fi channel don’t help.) I myself had a devil of a time in undergraduate studies trying to convince my professors and fellow students that it was science fiction which introduced me to philosophy, because science fiction writers (good ones) are always trying to address deeper questions of philosophy, theology, anthropology, epistemology, and ontology.

A recent bar discourse with an undergraduate in English revealed his disdain for MFA and other “creative writing” focused programs. This is someone within the English field of study who is of the opinion that serious writers ought to first study serious writers — therefore study literature — because by diving straightaway into workshopping, they end up being 30 writers who don’t know much about writing all critiquing each other without much to go on.

The catch-22 there is that no writer wants to be a Hemingway 2.0 or a Dickens 2.0 or even a Shakespeare 2.0. In first place, such an aspiration would be insulting to the greats we ought to honor; they are unique and their work cannot be replicated. In the second place, we want to similar unique and irreplacable in our own way. It is entirely arguable whether immersing oneself in the canon of great literature is more likely to produce one result or the other.

Furthermore, many of the methods previously employed, for all their recognized genius, are tired and dated both inside and beyond literary communities. My ideas for fiction would not work in iambic pentameter any more than Star Wars would have worked as a silent film. Our methods of storytelling have evolved (and I remind my readers that “evolved” is a value-neutral term).

But here’s the rub — I’ve tried the “outside the English-teaching community” method already. I have devoted my time to studying thinkers like Aquinas and Luther, Augustine and Plato and Kant, not to mention countless others. I can no longer fall into the trap of young writers who learn how to write, but don’t have any content to write about. I have been a soldier, a cop, a warehouse worker, pianist, event planner, disc jockey, singer, composer, dancer, worship leader, and philosopher.

What I have is real world experience. What I lack is writing experience:

1. Workshopping, a speedy method of constant rejection, revision, and resubmission.

2. Discipline created by deadlines of submitting work for credit

3. Interpersonal connections in the literary world.

The previously mentioned podcast identified one of the biggest examples of going the traditional route of “studying” writing is the contacts that were made in the programs, which led to agencies, book deals, and at minimum better word-of-mouth.

For these reasons, I have decided to at least consider pursuing an MFA. I will first wet my feet in a non-degree seeking status taking graduate level courses. That will let me evaluate without commitment how much of a fit such a program would be for me.

But I’m excited about the prospect and I expect to be pleased.

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  • Michelle

    I think it is a great idea to go back for your MFA. My families motto is “You can never go wrong investing in yourself,” and higher degrees and continuing education have always paid off in the long run.

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