I Loved My MFA But Did It Make Me Hate Everything Else?

As writers, we need to be aware of the ways in which our work can be read; weeding out the useful from the non-useful is an important skill, as is reading closely for what might be improved. But it can be a slippery slope.
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The other day, in the car with my father, I asked him about a novel I knew he'd read and liked and that I'd just finished.

"So, you liked that book?" I said.

"Yeah," he replied. "I loved it."

"What did you like about it?" My tone was skeptical. He hesitated, more concerned with oncoming traffic than my attempted literary discussion. I tried prompting. "The writing?"

"Yeah," he said. "I thought the writing was great. And the characters -- I thought they were really well-developed. I cared about them."

That's when my Inner Writer Snob really emerged.

"Really?" I said. "But I thought they were so un-relatable! I mean, having three different protagonists made me not feel that connected to any of them..." My father swerved double parked cars and pedestrians on Coney Island Avenue as I droned on.

Thing is, my dad was not the only person to like this book, which, I may as well tell you, is Jeffrey Eugenides' recent novel, The Marriage Plot: his company includes critics at most American media and the larger part of the literary world. And, hell, I liked it too. I laughed, I connected, I read it on the beach and the subway without losing focus. Is it flawed? Of course. But is it well written, perfectly readable, "good" fiction? Totally.

So, why was I so determined to rip it apart?

I'm sure there was some jealousy involved -- the same toxic motive that makes me watch Girls with a straight back and a scowl, while my stockbroker brother literally slaps his middle-aged knee from laughing so hard. I wish I had Eugenides' success and talent, just as I wish I had Dunham's, and that covetous reflex can make me less inclined to appreciate their work.

But, two months after receiving my MFA in Creative Writing, I suspect another ingredient: a habit formed during my three years of graduate education, a habit that, if one wanted to be really pretentious (who, me?) and label, one might call Chronic Negativity Syndrome.

I want to tell you, before I go on, that my overall MFA experience was positive: I feel firmly that these three past years have been, for the most part, well spent. (Though, of course, that doesn't mean I couldn't deliver a lengthy list of complaints we've all heard a hundred times before: the lack of focus on book-length work, the inter-faculty drama, the minimal discussion of publishing industry realities. Etc.)

But I'm also starting to recognize another, more fundamental problem with the MFA culture. The point of the workshop is critique: to look at a piece of art and enumerate all the things wrong with it, all the things that could be done differently, all the ways in which it falls short. Sure, most workshops start out with a few minutes of positive reinforcement, the requisite comments about what character "really resonated" or what language was "really beautiful." But the raison d'etre of the whole exercise is to tear the thing apart, such that we find ourselves manufacturing criticism for work to which, in a different context, we might have an entirely favorable response.

There's some good in that: as writers, we need to be aware of the myriad ways in which our work can be read; weeding out the useful from the non-useful is an important skill, as is reading closely for what might be improved.

But it can be a slippery slope.

Recently, I had a conversation with a colleague from my program; one of those incredulous chats about the ceaseless stream of rejections that literary magazines send our way.

"I don't understand," I said. "I see stuff published all the time that I don't think is as good as yours."

I know. Easy for me to say: I like my friend, and her work, and my totally subjective opinion is just that: totally subjective. As, of course, are those of the people who read slush at literary magazines. I know because, like many MFA students, I was one of them: most publications are edited by students, and often, the people reading through those slush piles are a mix of graduates and undergraduates, people with a wide range of talent and experience reading and writing literature.

And, as students of creative writing, people who have an engrained eye to look for flaws.

Again, it's necessary: magazines can't publish all the pages they receive, you need some way to winnow the stuff, and inevitably, finding what's wrong figures in.

But so often, students -- myself included -- would wade into such extensive discussion of a story or essay or poem's technical woes, we'd lose sight of the work's emotional power. It sometimes felt as though we were holding submissions to an impossible standard, a standard of perfection.

And as we know, when it comes to art, there's no such thing. We don't strive to be perfect, we strive to connect, to provoke, to raise difficult questions without offering simple answers, to make something beautiful that matters to someone besides ourselves.

What makes art "successful" isn't a uniformly positive response: it's the ability to do any one of those things. I think my MFA helped move me closer to those goals as a writer. But as a reader, I fear, it's moved me farther away from the ability to recognize their achievement.

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