Part 2 – Should you take a creative writing degree? And if so, how to choose one
Roz Morris: Any general advice for writers who are wondering whether to take such a course? Who should take them? Who shouldn’t? What expectations should they have?
Garry Craig Powell: Yes. Don’t do a BA in Creative Writing, take a degree in English or Comparative Literature instead. If you’re considering an MA or MFA, make sure you’ve already read widely and deeply first, otherwise it’s likely to be a waste of time. Don’t rush into it.
RM: How should they weigh up the offerings at different institutions?
GCP: Look up the professors teaching on graduate courses and read their books. I think it’s essential that you admire the work of the writers who are going to teach you. They may or may not be great teachers—there’s no way you can tell in advance, really—but you can tell if they’re good writers or not.
RM: Should the course be taught by a famous writer?
GCP: I once asked Peter Carey, who runs the Creative Writing programme at Hunter College in New York, and is a famous writer himself, what made a good programme, and he said ‘Teachers who are acknowledged major writers.’ That would rule out most programmes! (And incidentally, it would exclude me and all my former colleagues.)
Very few programmes have famous writers teaching at them, and even if you do get a place in such a programme, it might be very hard to get a class with a popular professor, particularly if he or she has a very light teaching schedule, which is often the case. So find out. I would want to expect that I would be taught by the writers I admired working in the programme, and that I would be able to work in the genre that interested me. In many programmes, for instance, a fiction writer can’t work on a novel, but has to work on short stories. In very many programmes, students who are interested in fantasy or science fiction find that they’re forced to write literary fiction, though this is slowly changing.
Perhaps most important of all, I think you want to make sure that you don’t get into debt. The degree isn’t going to be a big money-spinner! So make sure that the programme offers scholarships or assistantships, and reduction or elimination of fees. You can consult rankings, but I wouldn’t trust them.
A famous American writer, whom I’d better not name since she still teaches, told me that most creative writing programmes were scams. That’s putting it strongly. Of course lots of the writers who teach on them are dedicated to their students—I was, for instance. But many aren’t. They see it as a way to support their writing, as ‘patronage.’ And I think few programmes are really honest about what their students can expect to gain from them. In that sense they are scams, especially if they aren’t fully-funded, which is usually the case. Most students end up in debt, often crippling debt.
RM: So what sort of sums are we talking about? Is it like other degree courses? And how do students get help with funding?
GCP: I imagine the sums are similar to other degree courses. In the States, many undergraduates end up $40,000 – $50,000 in debt, even at a public university. Private universities are much more expensive. A friend of mine was offered a place at Columbia, but no funding, and was advised he’d need about $75,000 a year, to do the MFA. And that’s why so many of the students on these courses are from better-off backgrounds. Frequently they have trust funds. I suspect it’s totally different in Britain, where in general universities are public and tuition is much more reasonable. The big advantage of American universities is that a lot of them do have a great deal of money to offer in assistantships and scholarships for students they really want. You just have to apply for the funding when you apply for the place. Some universities, like the University of Arkansas, or the University of Texas at Austin (the Michener Fellowships) offer funding to everyone who’s accepted. Most offer funding only to those students they consider the best—which often causes ill feeling. But it can be a good way to study. I got my MFA degree, from the University of Arizona, for nothing.
RM: Were you involved in selecting students when you became a professor?
GCP: Yes, I was.
RM: Perhaps a controversial question – which applicants do you reject/are rejected?
GCP: The truth? Almost all of our MFA candidates got in. A programme can only retain its funding if it keeps up its numbers. This means that most programmes are forced to be very unselective.
There are exceptions. At the University of Arizona, only about one in ten students were selected, when I applied. At Iowa, I believe it’s more like one in a hundred. But we used to read our candidates’ portfolios, make recommendations in a group—there was usually very considerable agreement about which candidates we thought most deserving—but then, when the best ones often went to institutions that offered more funding, or more prestige, or both, our director would offer places to people we didn’t really want.
And in case you think that only happens in the smallest, worst programs, I happen to know that it happened at a program run by a very famous writer too.
RM: Are there any changing trends you’ve spotted in the kinds of writers who come to your courses? What do your students tend to write about?
GCP: ‘Genre’ fiction—fantasy especially—is much more popular. A lot of students, especially at the undergraduate level, write stories that are really rehashes of films and TV series they’ve seen, things set, typically, in New York and LA, places they generally haven’t been to. So you can imagine how convincing they are. A lot of American student writing, unsurprisingly, is obsessed with violence, and there’s nothing wrong with that in principle, but it’s usually very stereotypical. The ones who attempt literary fiction are often solipsistic, though that’s a greater defect with the so-called creative nonfiction (which is only rarely creative, in fact.)
RM: ‘Only rarely creative’ – I simply must know what that looks like!
GCP: I don’t mean to sound ungenerous. Most of the students are too young to have had, or digested, very interesting life experiences. So a lot of memoirs read like angsty diaries. Lots of self-pity (victimhood is in fashion), lots of condemnation of parents and society who don’t understand them. There’s nothing wrong with that as self-therapy, but it doesn’t make for gripping reading. A lot of students think their drug trips are fascinating. Another common genre is the coming-out essay for the gay student. Probably the most common of all are tear-jerking stories about dying grandmas and friends killed in car crashes. There’s an obligatory funeral scene, replete with red eyes, floods of tears, sobbing, etc. I’m not saying that any of these stereotypical subjects is off limits: an essay about your cute dog could be fascinating if you treat it in a unique way. But most of them are formulaic.
And as I said, the big problem with much of the fiction is that it’s inspired by film and TV, and not from anything in the students’ experience. I’m generalising, of course. There are exceptions.
RM: I’ve definitely seen this with writers I’ve mentored. The stories stay on the surface because film and TV don’t usually go into the characters’ interiors. On the page, it makes for an unsatisfying read.
So what styles do the students like and how has that changed?
GCP: It’s generally the hip current writers, in American courses, mostly American ones: George Saunders, Dave Eggers, Miranda July, Jericho Brown, etc. I don’t think there’s a particular style. It’s just whatever’s in fashion. Most of it isn’t very good.
RM: Talk me through your own teaching approach or approaches…
GCP: I didn’t have any formula. I’ve just finished reading a biography of Eleonora Duse, the great Italian actress, and although she electrified audiences (and critics) everywhere, she had no set approach or method. She was intuitive.
I’d like to think I was too, as a teacher. My only rule was that I insisted my students read some great fiction each week, and commented on it, and that they produced a certain amount of their own work. Then I would read it, comment on it—as would their peers—and they’d have a chance to revise it. That’s pretty much standard procedure in writing workshops. I probably emphasized the importance of the language more than many teachers.
RM: I think your rules are a good maxim for all of us, Garry – thanks again. In part 3 we’ll look at the relevance of creative writing degrees in the modern publishing environment.
- If you’re considering an MA or MFA, make sure you’ve already read widely and deeply first, otherwise it’s likely to be a waste of time.
- Look up the professors teaching on graduate courses and read their books. It’s essential that you admire their work.
- If the course has a tutor who is a famous writer, find out how many classes they teach and whether it is difficult to get a place.
- Also check whether you will be able to work in the genre that interests you.
- Make sure that you don’t get into debt. The degree isn’t going to be a big money-spinner! So make sure that the programme offers scholarships or assistantships, and reduction or elimination of fees.
- Garry’s rule: read and reflect on some great fiction each week.