This Week’s Column:


... a MobyLives guest column

by Elizabeth Clementson

20 JUNE 2005 — During my junior year of college, I locked myself in my apartment during spring break and wrote a short story about my father and my glory days on the swim team. I submitted the story to the Seventeen Magazine Fiction Contest and won second place. I had always wanted to be a writer, but now it was official. My plans to do graduate work in cultural studies were quickly forgotten as I decided pull a Sylvia Plath—move to New York and get a job in publishing.

As I moved within New York literary circles while working in publishing, it came to my attention that I couldn't be classified as a literary writer unless I had an MFA in Creative Writing. Unlike most aspiring writers, I didn't need to enroll in an MFA program in order to find an agent or a publisher, as I had already made numerous contacts inside the publishing community. What I wanted was to develop some discipline in my writing habits and perhaps, bond with fellow writers in a like–minded literary community. An MFA degree seemed like a good method to achieve these goals.

I was admitted to a prestigious program in the Northeast. On the first day of my workshop class, the instructor asked us one question. "What goals do you hope to obtain with your writing?" One by one, seated at the round table, my fellow writers spoke. "I want a big book deal." "I'm sick and tired of being poor." "When do I get my million dollars?"

I was dismayed. My experience in publishing had taught me that writing literary fiction did not lead to great financial wealth. While there are a few literary fiction writers who are rewarded with huge book deals, most are lucky if they receive a small advance and are able supplement their income teaching. The odds are extremely slim that you will get a big book deal, and if you are one of the lucky few to win that large advance, your book better sell real well, or you will be dropped by your publisher.

In addition to being disheartened by my fellow writers' "show me the money" attitude, over time it became increasingly clear to me that the core of the MFA experience, the workshop, was distorting the creative process.

In the workshop, the students critique each other's writing and as the comments are bandied about, a "consensus" develops about what does and doesn't "work" in a story. The writer then meshes the "popular" opinions of the group into his or her work, slowly removing the unpopular parts, until the work is readable and accessible to all. More often than not, this process destroys the writer's initial vision, leaving behind a work that is void of passion and anything that is different, new, or creative.

Many of world's greatest novels would have never made it through the workshop process. Picture James Joyce being told that Ulysses is "too ambitious." Or Harper Lee being told that that Boo Radley character needs further development. Or Gertrude Stein being told, "Gertrude, The Making of Americans, is inaccessible. You need to cut the fat out and rework these sentences."

However, workshop fiction is encouraged by the big publishing world and the academic institutions that support it.

Since the University of Iowa started the first MFA program in 1936, more than 250 programs certified by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs have sprung up. With tuition costing as much as $70,000 for a two–year program, the schools have every reason to foster the attitude that students can pay off their big–time debt with their forthcoming book deal. In turn, the big publishing world relies on MFA programs to produce "accredited" writers. Desperate for literary plot lines that will sell, editors are on an eternal quest to find the next big young thing. This is big business and like any corporate job, editors are pushed for time and pressured to find books that sell. Just like authors, they too are judged on their book's sales figures.

As a result of this relationship, students in MFA programs are hen–pecked and criticized until they deliver the "sellable" plot line that publishers want. And, instead of rejecting the forces that corrupt them, many young writers turn on each other, reinforcing the rules learned in workshop, rejecting anything—or anyone—that challenges the status quo and threatens their carefully crafted world. Thus, anything created outside of the workshop environment is treated with contempt, and outsider voices are ignored.

Despite what they try and tell you in MFA programs, there isn't an established career path for writers. It isn't something you can learn in a classroom.

So here's my advice—if have any aspirations for a place in literary history, don't attend an MFA program. It won't inspire you to great literature and you won't be able to pay back that enormous tuition bill unless you write the carefully crafted plot line that everyone wants, but nobody wants to read.

Perhaps that is enough these days for many writers. But, in the end, literature created by committee usually does not find the audience that it is calculated to find, and is quickly forgotten.

Elizabeth Clementson is an MFA dropout and the co–owner of Ig Publishing, an independent press dedicated to publishing outsider voices.

©2005 Elizabeth Clementson

Previous columns:

TELEVISION WITHOUT PITY . . . Tired of the short story writer's life, guest columnist Steve Almond explains why he's now writing television shows such as "Blog and Order."

READING TO CHAIRS . . . When Quinn Dalton showed up at a bookstore to read from her new book, she was greeted by . . . empty chairs. In a guest column, she asks herself, "Why bother?"

THE KILLER POET . . . When a big haired poet asks the literary gumshoe to whack a librarian, he feels the weight of the whole world of poetry on his shoulder. Will he do the right thing?

WHERE THE NOVEL'S HEADED . . . Jonathan Safran Foer's new book has a lot of people talking about post–modernism and the novel. But David Barringer thinks the novel is going in another direction — inside.

BOOKS IN GROCERY STORES: A TESTIMONIAL . . . After his mainstream publisher didn't want his second novel, Larry Baker got an idea about how to sell his second book himself when a flash of inspiration came to him in the local grocery store.


All material not otherwise attributed ©2000 – 2005 Dennis Loy Johnson.