Tuesday, November 16, 2010

In Defense of the MFA

Poets and Writers magazine features their second annual ranking of the top MFA programs in the country, and “new for 2011’ a list of the ten best low residency programs. My school, Vermont College of the Fine Arts, is ranked number one among them, beating such distinguished competition as Goddard, Bennington and Warren Wilson College.

The issue hits the newsstands in the midst of an impressive anti-MFA backlash. This form of graduate education produces a blandly competent but uninspired, academically homogenized prose that just kind of sucks the life out of you – that’s the consensus of articles I’ve been skimming lately. From Anis Shivani writing on the Huffington Post about overrated writers, to one of his prime targets, Juno Diaz, everyone is piling on the poor old Master of Fine Arts degree. Publishable prose simply can’t be drilled or cajoled out of the untalented, that’s the gist of it.

John Fowles compared the teaching of writing to equipping a fisherman – you can have all the best gear, a state of the art rod and fresh bait, but none of that helps if you’re standing in the middle of a cornfield. “What matters is having a river to fish in,” Fowles pointed out.

Well, true enough. But knowing a bit about fishing can’t hurt; and especially if you have a good trout stream in front of you. Sloshing around in the shallows grabbing at them bare-handed just doesn’t work very well.

Trust me, I’ve tried it.

Still, the idea of going to school, particularly graduate school, just to get an education seems increasingly quaint and eccentric. My own original plan was relatively pragmatic: get the degree, publish a book (the most minor publication would suffice), and then take those letters after my name and the ISBN number after the title of my book and get myself a college teaching job. The first part was relatively easy. I got the degree, but I remain unpublished as of this writing. Nor is this a unique predicament. As the nay-sayers will tell happily tell you, few MFA graduates ever achieve substantial literary success. In a world where you read about six-year-old kids getting book deals, this can be mildly disheartening. One of my own professors, Douglas Glover, put it best, in the first lecture I ever heard him deliver:

Now more than ever, it is possible to get a doctorate in creative writing, and it is possible to get degrees in non-fiction writing, editing, playwriting and screenwriting. And, sad to say, it is possible to obtain one of these degrees without writing a publishable sentence, paragraph, story, novel or essay.

Going to writing school has become a bit like take piano and water color lessons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a popular outward sign of bourgeois cultural accomplishment, a commercially available testimonial of creativity, the public stamp of approval. You know how, in The Wizard of Oz, at the end, the scarecrow gets a diploma. Well, here’s your diploma, you are a licensed creator, the equal of Joyce and Homer. But it doesn’t mean you can write a book that is publishable, let alone a work of art or, dare we say it, a masterpiece, a classic, that you read with intensity and wisdom, that you love your tools as if they were your children.

Ironically, it was this lecture that convinced me to attend Vermont College in the first place. Regardless of the statistics and the glum professional forecasts for Master of Fine Arts graduates, I wanted to work with Glover. I was sure I could learn some valuable things from him. Indeed, I already had, just at that first lecture. The bulk of it concerned the use of verbs, and the dangers one verb in particular, the ever-present “To be”, that ghastly centerpiece of the passive voice. Why did Bush Attorney General Alberto Gonzales say “Mistakes were made”? Because if he given up the passive voice and introduced a real verb into his sentence, he would have had to acknowledge who exactly made those mistakes. “I made mistakes,” for instance: a much stronger sentence, but not nearly as cunning and vague. Doug called this lecture “Attack of the Copula Spiders” – referring to his habit of putting a dot in the middle of a page and drawing lines to all the ‘to be’ formulations, covering student papers with giant spider diagrams.

Doug is obsessed with verbs. He counts them in sentences and paragraphs, balances them against the articles and nouns, cherishes them, collects them, celebrates them. As F. Scott Fitzgerald pointed out (in a letter to his daughter that Doug quoted in the course of the lecture) verbs carry sentences. An inert sentence like “The rabbit was on the lawn” can become something beautiful in the hands of a great writer. Fitzgerald says:

Probably the finest technical poem in English is Keats’ “Eve of St. Agnes”. A line like “The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass” is so alive you race through it, scarcely noticing it, yet it has colored the whole poem with its movement – the limping, trembling and freezing are going on before your own eyes.

When I say Glover counts the verbs, I mean that literally. He has made a science of it. In the lecture he discusses this text from Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart:

“That morning’s ice, no more than a brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments. These tapped together, or, parting, left channels of dark water, down which swans in slow indignation swam. The islands stood in frozen woody brown dusk: it was now between three and four in the afternoon. A sort of breath from the clay, from the city outside the park, condensing, made the air unclear; through this the trees around the lake soared frigidly up. Bronze cold of January bound the sky and the landscape; the sky was shut to the sun – but the swans, the rims of ice, the pallid withdrawn Regency terraces had an unnatural burnish, as though cold were light. There is something momentous about the height of winter. Steps rang on the bridges, and along the black walks. This weather had set in; it would freeze harder tonight.

This is a landscape opening that also tells the reader where and when the novel starts and what the weather was like which, in turn, establishes a certain atmosphere… astir with life and movement. How is it done? Well, there asre eight sentences, one hundred and forty seven words and twenty-three verbs, verbal adjectives or verbal nouns (Note the one deft use of the passive voice.) You can express this again as a ratio: in this passage, Bowen writes a 23/8 verb to sentence ratio, three verbs per sentence … simple ratios don’t tell the whole rhetorical story, but they begin to tell you about verbs. Beyond the ratio you should immediately notice the quality of the verbs: three copulas (“was,” “is,” “were”), one passive voice (“was shut”), three generics (“left,” “had,””made”) and one slightly abstract verb (“set in”) against fifteen precise, concrete action.

This was a revelation to me. I started counting verbs myself doing it everywhere, even at breakfast. One day, I was reading the cereal box and the milk carton in front of me as I wolfed my morning meal: Alpen and Stoneyfield Farms. It occurred to me that the milk was much more engrossing, so I turned to statistics. Alpen: “Organic rolled oats and crispy whole wheat flakes containing all the bran and wheat germ are combined with toasted hazelnuts and roasted almonds for a rich, hearty taste.” 28 words, one copula (in the passive voice), two verbal adjectives … two verbs.

Stoneyfield: “We started Stoneyfield Farm milking cows and making quarts of yogurt at our little hilltop organic farming school in 1983” 21 words. Three verbs and a gerund.

28/2 vs. 21/3: Case closed.

I know this sounds suffocatingly technical and abstract. In fact, it’s vital – even visceral. But at first this raised consciousness simply paralyzed me, as learning to drive with a stick shift had done, so many years ago – lots of stalling and flooding. Still, I eventually internalized Glover’s analytical perspective, and started to enjoy driving my own prose, down-shifting through its twists and turns, finally starting to take control.

So I applied to the school, got in and followed my girlfriend into the most rewarding and exciting two years of my whole catch-as-catch can educational life. I worked with Chris Noel, author of the beautiful and moving grief memoir In the Unlikely Event of a Water Landing; with crime fiction maestro Domenic Stansberry and with short story writer and political activist Diane Lefer. I went to dozens of lectures during the ten day residencies, worked and got worked over in the workshops, found brilliant poets like Brendan Constantine, extraordinary memoirists like Andrew Hood, word-slinging jazz-riffing novelists like Barry Wightman.

The residencies reminded me of those British holiday camps, sometimes: you never had a moment yourself. The days were packed: the longer you’d been there the more people whose final lectures and readings you had to attend. Not to mention the faculty readings, visiting writer readings, student readings and of course the renegade reading, late at night in Noble Hall, where you could try out anything if you didn’t mind being pelted by ping-pong balls. The sense of community thrilled me. You could sit at any table in the Dewey dining hall and start a conversation with anyone – you all had the same things on your minds, had just been to the same lectures, just worked with the same professors.

Finally, in my last semester, I took the leap and signed up to work with Doug Glover. Here’s what I wrote in my final evaluation:

Doug’s approach can best be described as surgical rigor. His first move was to throw out my original lecture plans, assign me a pile of books and explain the new lecture: read these books, figure how the authors did what you’re trying to do, and write about it. As I worked through draft after draft I was always impressed and inspired by the painstaking relentless devotion to clarity and intelligent analysis his comments revealed.

The same is true for the difficult fiction project I was attempting – a group of related stories actually ‘written’ by the various characters in the novel. As Doug pointed out, first things first: learn how to write one publishable short story, learn the basics of story construction, start from scratch. Doing seven stories in seven different styles and voices will have to wait. So that’s what we worked on: conflict, inciting incidents, image patterning, plot structure. Am I an expert craftsman of the short story now? No, but at least I know what I need to work on, and I have a direction to follow in the years ahead. I think I’ll have Doug’s sharp-witted jovial acidic voice in my mind for the rest of my writing life. If it ever starts to fade, I have the lectures on tape!

In other topics, Doug was always supernaturally prompt with his detailed critiques and we spoke often on the phone, as well as e-mailing at various times. He couldn’t have been more accessible or cooperative.

The faint of heart had warned me about Doug, but the nickname ‘shredder’ reflects a basic misunderstanding of Doug’s methods. That would be like calling me “Chaos man” when I help my kids clean their rooms. We invariably start out by making the mess worse, emptying the jumbled drawers and pulling all the clothes, games, old ipods and Dreyer horses out of the closet, retrieving the food, books, mismatched shoes and long-lost band instruments from under the beds. That’s the chaos part, and it’s essential if you ever want to get organized. Doug works the same way – hey, the Marines work the same way. You have to break down the old bad habits and clarify the problems if you ever want to fix things.

Is this fun? No. Is it an ego-boost? Hardly.

But the truth is I entered for the program for the chance to work with Glover, and I’m glad I took it. I said to someone, doing anything else would be like going to the Labyrinth and not bothering to meet the Minotaur. So: a great semester; a great teacher. I emerge battered and humbled but more enthusiastic than ever about the work at hand; and more prepared than ever before to actually succeed at it.

Since I graduated, the first question everyone asks me is how the degree has affected my finances. Did I get a teaching job? Did I sell a book? Do I have anything – anything at all – concrete to show for the time and money I spent? Well, I did write a much better book than I could have written before, and I did find an agent for it. That’s a start. But my real answer to the question of what I got out of Vermont College remains the stubbornly quaint and eccentric one: I got an education.

I highly recommend it.

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