Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Creative Writing Programs Need To Change Focus

Teaching creative writing courses is a lot of fun. This is a chance, as an instructor, to really get out there and watch people, who haven't been corrupted by money, who haven't been told they can't write, who haven't seen a rejection letter, really thrive and grow. Creative writing classes truly are places where we can see the human experience coming alive on the page and in front of us.

With that said, I do believe that many of these programs need to find a way to make some small tweaks in how they approach the business. This is especially true for many of the MFA Writing programs out there. What seems to be missing in many of these programs is the element of reality. Writers going through these programs, more often than not, are seeing a world through rose colored glasses. In an effort to encourage creativity and writing, programs are forgetting the reality of what it takes to survive in the world of professional writing.

I do want to stress that not all teachers and programs are bad. I am however, looking at the big picture and seeing too many missing the mark.

I started thinking about this as I sat next to a couple of adjunct instructors at a community college I do some work with. These two were talking about the MFA programs they were part of the works they were crafting. The enthusiasm and excitement was incredible. Their passion was over-flowing as they talked about the "novels" they were writing. The problem I head though, was the sense that they knew, the combination of this MFA and the completion of their novel would equal immediate success in publishing.


I had the opportunity to teach a creative writing class last year and I was equally as shocked when I saw the textbooks assigned for the course. As you know, I am always saying there is no one right way to do something. Your story will dictate the course of action you need to take to get the message across. And yet, the curriculum being taught focused on stressing there really is only one way to do something. Along the same lines, the curriculum even went so far as perpetuating the myth that if you have a plot, character, setting, conflict and so forth (note I didn't say quality here) then the story would be good.

I would also add that many of the creative writing programs are being taught by instructors that might not necessarily be prepared to teach the class. Universities have professors who are published, but the works they are creating are being published within their own university presses. They already had someone who was going to "buy" the work because of their contracts. Others are using POD programs or even programs that many in the publishing industry refer to as rip-offs and scams. Students see these instructors as "being successful" however, and then translate that to their own writing.

As someone who has been on both sides of this equation - someone who works in professional publishing and someone who works in academia - I would call for these creative writing programs to reconsider their approaches. No, I don't want them to eliminate the creative element, and the drive to bring in the human experience, but please, add some reality.



  1. It's been my experience that working writers make the best teachers because they know plot, structure and character but they also know the business of writing. I'm with you one hundred percent, Scott. Writing for writing's sake is fine if you never expect to be published. But if you want a chance at creating commercial fiction, find an instructor who lives in the real world of writing.

  2. My undergrad was a BA in Arts and performance with an emphasis in Creative Writing. I think it helped my writing, but there was nothing available in the program that taught you how to make writing a career. I think that's a huge hole that should be filled.

  3. I took some writing courses at my local college and got the evil eye from the instructor each time I asked a fellow student who they saw as their audience.

    So while I agree with you about the need for business aspects in the writing programs, I feel that audience/readership potential should be addressed first.

  4. While I know or know of quite a few people who were satisfied with their MFA program, the top complaint I've seen is that they were taught nothing about the business side of the equation. They knew how to write a great story and maybe a query, but beyond that, they were in the same boat as the rest of us amateurs. The economy is poor right now, and even people with "reliable" degrees are having trouble finding work. I'd be angry if I paid for an MFA program that didn't do all it could to prepare me for reality, especially because it's one of those degrees many would call "useless" because there's no guaranteed success from it.