‘Real Deal’, Real Degree

What is a Creative Writing degree for? In reading Ryan Boudinot’s recent listicle and Jennifer Down’s sharp rebuttal I had hoped that this very basic question would be answered. That it was only lightly touched on, in Down’s piece, perhaps indicates the extent to which the Creative Writing classroom is already enshrined as a self-evident figment of popular imagination.

God knows that pop culture – and pieces like Boudinot’s – perpetuates the idea of the writing classroom as AA meeting, a group of wide-eyed students sitting around discussing their feelings, occasionally taking a break for a quick cigarette or to scribble down a poem. A Creative Writing degree, in this context, is for self-indulgence.

I don’t know why the study of writing is so often characterised as an indulgent activity – people seem to take the importance of tertiary fine art or musical education at face value, and you don’t often hear people deride elite sports training because a person could run just as well as their local track. Writing gets a bad rap, perhaps because it’s seen as the most accessible of the arts, and therefore the one that sprouts the lowest-hanging fruit.

But it’s really startling to see a former teacher of the craft denigrate his students to the degree found in Boudinot’s piece. In writing his snarky listicle, he has essentially gone out of his way to confirm the view that MFA degrees are a cynical money-making exercise deployed by universities struggling for a buck, and not worth the paper they are printed on.

This may be true of some of them – I don’t know. Certainly there are significant differences between Australian postgraduate writing programs and the United States MFA. An MFA is a ‘terminal’ degree, meaning not that it will kill you but that it’s the highest degree obtainable in its discipline. It is predominantly practice-based, with the production of a body of work as its primary focus. The program within which Boudinot taught was low-residency, meaning mostly correspondence; the critical aspect was downplayed in the course description, meaning that students may have been attracted by its seemingly non-academic nature.

Conversely, at least within my own experience as a Creative Writing student, Australian postgraduate study takes the twined strands of critical and creative discourse as its starting point. Rather than the discovery of ‘Real Deal’ writers, the aim of this stream of study is to constantly interrogate the boundaries between creativity, subjectivity, discourse and language.

What does this mean, in real terms? It’s much more complex than simply being ‘a good writer’. Within my own postgraduate study, I mingled with writers who spoke multiple languages, including Auslan, and experimented with the plasticity of language through multilingual poetries; others responded to Kristeva, Lacan, Foucault or took the precepts of the Situationists as their starting point; or else dabbled in erasure, automatic writing, or rare forms.

The sheer joy of writing within an academic context is in encountering new ideas in theory and responding to them in practise; research begets creative work, which gives back to the academic something authentically new in turn.

Though my specialisation was in poetry, I imagine that narrative non-fiction or memoir students would have been writing in equally experimental ways. To chide writers of memoir for not writing interestingly enough, when there is a wealth of study and literature around experimentation in that form, seems to betray a massive failure in Boudinot’s competence as a teacher.

The teachers in my own program were modest to a fault, regarding students as their peers in a lifelong apprenticeship to craft. We weren’t expected to impress them, but rather the engage deeply with ideas, to experiment, to fail, to write execrable poetry (as I did) and then better poetry and then one day, maybe, one good poem. The result of ‘repressing’ our homework (as one psychoanalytic poet put it) was missing out on an interesting conversation.

The Boudinot-esque assumption that academia has a top-down meritocratic hierarchy was completely unsupported; at any point, as we all knew, the least likely person could form a sentence that would bring us to our knees.

What was expected of us was that our writing engage in debates around class, race, sex, gender, queerness, feminism, ecology, post-structuralism, psychoanalytic criticism, etc. – as well as being formally innovative or beautiful. ‘Good writing’ is only one half on the Creative Writing rubric – within a university, our obligation is to give back to academic study as much as we take; to use our unique gifts as writers to filter through what has come before and make it afresh.

Academic language is so often bemoaned as being wanky, obtuse or inaccessible. Creative Writing’s shining gift is that it can engage academic conceits in plain language, or at least, innovative language. There is a vibrancy and freshness in the discipline’s contribution to academia that has nothing to do with the ‘Real Deal’ writing that Boudinot venerates.

And look, my thesis was pretty niche. ‘Sites of Dis-Ease: Four Approaches to the Intersection of Violence and Landscape in Contemporary Australian Poetry’ is never going to be published; it will gather dust on the library shelves, waiting to be discovered by students with similar academic curiosities tucked in their sleeves.

But it was valuable as an attempt to give something back to a pool of knowledge through which I became immeasurable enriched. I’m a jobbing writer; I will likely never reach the peaks to which Boudinot aspires. But I wouldn’t trade my degree for the world. It gave me a deep and far-reaching critical framework, applicable to virtually anything; it allowed me to participate in a hotly exciting exchange of ideas with dead poets, living poets, writers, mentors, and language itself.

If the MFA can’t provide these things, it is perfectly within Boudinot’s right to inquire as to why. Delivering on the promise of his title, ‘Things I Can Say About MFA Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One’ could have opened up valuable questions about creative and fine art pedagogy and the place of writing within universities. As it is, I can’t help feeling exasperated that a discipline so engaging, rich, and varied is once again reduced to a representational cliché, of the gullible and unskilled masses sitting around singing kumbaya.

Jessica Friedmann

Jessica Friedmann is a Melbourne-based writer and editor.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Having just finished a Masters in Creative Writing, I can say that the time spent studying was the most valuable investment in my writing career to date. Literacy as some people believe is not all a person needs to write creatively. Postgrad writing courses teach you skills that are near impossible to learn in other contexts. if technical skills can be valued in fine arts and music, then they should also be valued in writing.

  2. I read Ryan’s article (I wouldn’t denigrate it by calling it a listicle) and enjoyed it, didn’t feel it was snarky or anything but intelligent, and I’m surprised by the negative reaction it got.

    I was in an MFA program 40 years ago. Most MFAs, even back then, when none of my friends or family had heard of an MFA in creative writing and I kept having to explain it, do not become any kind of writers. Probably more are working in real estate (a survey of Columbia University MFAs found this was a fairly common profession for them).

    I have never taught in an MFA program, so I can’t corroborate Ryan’s experience, but it rings true to me after seeing what happened to most MFAs I’ve known — people who got their degrees in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s.
    They end up doing something far removed from creative writing. Most do not even follow contemporary fiction and poetry. This is probably to be expected, especially given the explosion in MFA programs. (There were only two dozen in the whole United States when I attended one.)

    I agree with your comments about the skills learned in writing programs, and I’m sure many people who graduate MFA programs and go on to careers — yes, even in real estate — find them valuable.

    However, I do worry about the people, at least in the U.S., who go into debt for an MFA degree. At least my MFA cost me only $450 a semester in ’74-’76. (I already had an MA in English.) And it definitely helped me, but after the first year, I was already writing for myself and using the editors of the magazines to whom I submitted stories to as my critics rather than my classmates. Sometimes, by the time we got around to criticizing my story in a workshop, it had already been accepted by a magazine like Transatlantic Review or Texas Quarterly.

    For me, the best thing about Ryan’s piece was the truth that if you need an MFA program to get you to write, you are probably better off doing something else. And the other big truth I got from it is that you should rely on yourself to market your own writing. (Some of my classmates would ridicule my acceptances from magazines they’d never heard of, because they were aiming for The New Yorker or Esquire.)

  3. P.S. “class, race, sex, gender, queerness, feminism, ecology, post-structuralism, psychoanalytic criticism, etc.”

    Obviously, forty years ago none of this was ever discussed in our workshops.

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