jimvanpelt (jimvanpelt) wrote,

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Will a Grad Program in Creative Writing "Mess You Up"?

One of the Yahoo groups I'm a part of has a member who has recently been accepted to an MFA program in Creative Writing.  He noted that he was afraid the program might "mess him up."

Which got me thinking: can a masters program in Creative Writing mess you up?  My short answer is "no, unless you're easy to mess up, and then still probably not."

When I teach creative writing I tell the students that I'm going to share with them the things I've learned about writing through years of listening, learning and practice.  I will, inevitably, also share with them my prejudices and opinions based on what I think constitutes "quality" in the written arts.  I also tell them that the exact same class being taught next door by a different instructor could be a completely different experience because that instructor would be sharing her prejudices and opinions.  There is no single of "right" way to teach creative writing.

So, what the students should do is to listen to what I have to say, knowing that they either will find what I'm teaching is eye-opening and agreeable, so they will try to modify their own writing based on that, or they will be in disagreement and use my instruction as a point of departure.  Either way they are getting something from the class.

For me, grad school at U.C. Davis from 88-90 was a transcendent experience.  I had instructors I liked who opened my eyes.  I had instructors I didn't like who also opened my eyes.  Sometimes I heard criticism of my writing I agreed with, which made me relook at the work to its benefit.  I also heard criticism I disagreed with, which I didn't use to modify my work but did teach me about the different ways an audience can perceive a story.

Sometimes I was asked as part of an assignment to do work that I didn't think would be helpful.  Some of it was helpful anyways and some wasn't, as I suspected, but the work that wasn't helpful didn't kill me.  It was just part of one class, and I didn't ever have to choose to do that kind of work again.

One of the classes I had to take that I thought was going to be a total waste was one on "Form Poetry."  I'd been a free verse patriot my whole life to that point.  Now I was going to take a class where I had to write sonnets (for crying out loud!) and villanelles, and pantoums.  The instructor was such a rhythm nut that when she lectured, you could see her counting off the meter of her speech with her fingers on the table. 

That class turned out to be one of the best classes I took at the university.  If Professor Sandra McPherson is out there and reads this blog, thank you!

Much of the benefit of attending grad school was that for two years I taught, thought, lived and breathed writing.  I worked on my material constantly.  I attended classes about literature and writing (and did the reading and papers associated with those classes).  I hung out with other people in the program after class, eating pizza, in the bars, talking about our lessons and our work (and a lot of half-baked philosophy that sounds much more convincing when you're a pitcher or two into the conversation).  I attended lectures from visiting writers, including a hugely memorable one when Kurt Vonnegut hung out with the writing grad students for an afternoon.

I made connections with other writers that are still with me today.

The summer that I was going to go the grad school, I was also accepted at Clarion.  I didn't have enough money to leave for grad school and do Clarion, so I didn't go.  I've often wondered how things would have gone in my writing life if I would have been able to go to Clarion too.

I don't know.  I've heard that Clarion can mess you up.

But I doubt it.
Tags: life, teaching

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