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“It is a deadly question,” says the literary critic Anis Shivani, author of the 2011 book “Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies.” “Everyone who wants to be a writer in this country has to confront it, even if you rebel against the M. And your writing will change, he says, and not necessarily for the better. Shivani say the degree is responsible for so-called program fiction — homogenized, over-worskshopped writing void of literary tradition and overly influenced by the mostly upper- and middle-class values and experiences of its students. “If you do the degree, opportunities open up.” Without it, he warns, you may be able to publish in small presses but are more likely to be “condemned to obscurity,” particularly if you write literary fiction and poetry.
tells us about our era’s myths, she says, is that “the arts are more inculcated than they were before.
Lands, a professor at the University of Tennessee Graduate School of Medicine in Knoxville.
Among them: the pervasiveness of digital media and celebrity culture, where anyone with a blog feels like a best-selling novelist-in-waiting; the rise of memoirs, a natural extension of the online selfie writing culture; the popularity of magical realism and noir fiction novels, which have turned many 20-somethings on to literature; and changes in generational attitudes, aspirations and culture.“The younger generation is making career choices determined by quality of life,” says Jeannine Blackwell, dean-in-residence at the Council of Graduate Schools and a professor at the University of Kentucky. Barth, a National Book Award winner in 1973, called his students “advanced apprentices.”M. Students have come to expect education to be prescriptive, she says. They allow students to test their stamina (and talent) for what Timothy Donnelly, chairman of the Writing Program at Columbia, calls a “radical lifestyle choice.”The best also hone technique and train students to read analytically. Donnelly puts it, students develop an appreciation for the “sensuous aspect of language” and the ability to translate their experience of life onto the page. “And then I think, ‘Well, let’s roll up our sleeves.’ ”Creative writing programs are designed as studio or academic models. They typically offer fiction and poetry tracks, though “creative nonfiction” is gaining ground, as are screenwriting and playwriting. programs are low-residency — they meet for about two weeks on campus or some other on-ground spot (New York University, for example, gathers low-residency students in Paris); the rest of the semester is conducted online. and is contemplating pursuing the degree, says: “What writers don’t understand is that there is little pragmatic about the M. A.” Of a dozen writer friends who went on to earn M. A.s, most, he says, are now doing “whatever they might have done before getting the degree,” including restaurant management, real estate and writing Web content.
She sees that as a reflection of undergraduate education that emphasizes specialization and pre-professionalism, with little room for the arts, reading or writing. A., adding a year because students needed more time to develop.“Our understanding of what it takes to be an artist is geared to an era’s myths,” Ms. The best provide a temporary respite from a fast-paced culture unsympathetic to the pursuit of art for art’s sake, and an opportunity to find a community of like-minded people who validate your work and motivations.
It was peak reading season, and Lan Samantha Chang, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was gamely juggling a call from a reporter, interruptions from her 7-year-old as well as a 10 percent surge in applications to the University of Iowa’s Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing. Chang was in the thick of decisions about who would fill 50 spots evenly divided between the fall fiction and poetry workshops.“I’m deluged,” she said, surprised by the number of applications she was sorting through — 1,380 — especially in a year with a stronger economy, a condition that typically causes graduate school applications, never mind those to fine arts programs, to drop. More likely, the swell in applications is not so weird.“Explosive” is the word routinely used to describe the growth of M.
”Perhaps, she speculates, the surge is a result of the juggernaut HBO series called “Girls,” the one where the neurotic aspiring novelist Hannah Horvath, played by Lena Dunham, takes off to the Iowa cornfields and shines a bright light on the venerated program. Sample manifestoes from blogs and chat rooms: “Why you should hate the creative writing establishment (…as if you needed any more reasons)” and “14 Reasons (Not) to Get an M. Mc Gurl, a Stanford English professor, describes the M. — to make you, if you’re lucky, a famous, well-paid author — strikes so many people with even the smallest literary dream as utterly irresistible,” Mr. In its strictest form, it works like this: Classmates evaluate and write detailed comments about students’ work, then sit around a table and “workshop” the piece. In the workshop, writing is deconstructed and put back together. A skilled instructor can point out flaws and suggest techniques it might otherwise take years to figure out. “We read the personal statement closely,” says Ellen Tremper, chairwoman of Brooklyn College’s English department. They were mainly writers with material in need of guidance and derailed by career or family, says Ms. At the core of every program is the writing workshop, the so-called Iowa model because it originated there. “When 14 people tell you something isn’t working, you listen.”The workshop is so central to the experience that programs often screen out applicants who could be problematic. Last year, there were just 112 tenure-track creative writing positions. ” was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize when she was 29, is similarly inured to the critics. With tuition high for a degree not known for its marketplace potential — on average ,600 for a two-year program at a public university, ,600 at a private — funding is often the deciding factor in program choice. “Most critiques I read of creative writing programs or writing in the academy are kicking entities that don’t actually (in my experience) exist.”Karen Russell, whose book “Swamplandia! Iowa, Syracuse University, Vanderbilt University, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan also have fully funded programs. Low-residency programs typically offer no grants or T. Before that, says Leslie Epstein, who was the director for 36 years before stepping down last year, it too lost students to schools with better aid packages, prompting it to up its game. Rowling, Colson Whitehead, Hilton Als and Emily St. But there is another argument, and another list — prominent literary writers and poets with M. With so much seemingly working against it, it is astounding the degree has gained traction at all. Jean Mc Garry, a chairwoman of the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, says that the teaching of creative writing has taken on even more significance because the way we learn has changed. The program started as a one-year Master of Arts and attracted students older than the average 26-year-old in today’s full-residency programs. Antioch University, Los Angeles, has a social justice emphasis; Chatham University in Pittsburgh emphasizes environmental writing; Pratt Institute in New York has social justice and environmental tracks. Academic programs require other coursework, sometimes literature, foreign language or translation courses. One hopes people at least understand the odds and how difficult it can be.”Including the odds of teaching at college, which many hope to do with the terminal degree. “It’s like, is anybody out there even reading this stuff? That, she says, goes hand in hand with a focus on reinvigorating urban communities through theater, art installations, food culture and centers for literature and writing. Some distinguish themselves by focusing on thematic writing. Studio programs mimic conservatories and focus exclusively on the writing craft. program last May, says that once out of the cocoon, degree holders face a tough adjustment to the unstructured writing life, and the grind of sending work to multiple journals and receiving multiple rejections, if they hear back at all. Kanakia is more fortunate than most, with pending publication of a young adult novel begun at Hopkins.)Chris Brecheen, who blogs on the M. John Mc Nally, an Iowa graduate who based a satirical novel, “After the Workshop,” on a washed-up graduate of the Iowa program, has described his own experience there as affected by “bitter jealousies, competition” and writing to please instructors and classmates. David Win-grave, a New York University student, says that at first the camaraderie, the attention on his work and the mounds of feedback were “thrilling.” But it was easy to lose focus and feel frustrated, and he learned to rely on only a few trusted readers. The writer sits silently while classmates comment first on what is working, then go back around to comment on what is not. “We try to see if a person seems rational and, frankly, unneurotic, because if you get someone with a screw loose, it can be disruptive to the group.”Achieving workshop harmony can be a challenge. He also points out that criticism is coming primarily from peers who “are people who don’t know anything about writing, which is why they are in the program.”The workshop can take getting used to.