Dispatches | July 08, 2013

One of my friends recently graduated from college and, as a person serious about writing fiction, she began researching MFA programs in creative writing. Along with deciding what she wanted from a graduate writing program, she interviewed several people who have completed MFA programs, from the recently graduated to those who finished graduate school years ago. She wondered: what do I know, what do I know I don’t know, what do I not know I don’t know, and so forth. Most of the advice has been good if relatively straightforward—don’t go straight from undergraduate, get full funding, etc. But one particular bit of advice she received was quite different. She was told that she should go to a MFA program already knowing how to write a short story.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit: should a writer enter a MFA program already knowing how to write a short story?

Here is the usual “Should I get an MFA or not?” pattern. An emerging writer (note: I’ll go with “emerging” rather than young because not all writers planning to enter a MFA program are 22 years old) likes to write and thinks, maybe I’m good at this. Or, more forcefully, I want to do this for a living. Basic program criteria are fired through: low-res or residential, two or three years, teaching or not. The faculty is examined, the recent graduates’ publications, maybe the literary journal that comes from the program.

Here is the usual “How do I get in?” pattern. The emerging writer fires up the best story (or stories) one can. A personal statement agonizing over why this matters, at all, is written. Old professors are chased down and politely/desperately asked for letters of recommendation. A decision, usually driven entirely by financials (damn you, application fees!), is made about how many programs to apply to, and then application packets are mailed off. March becomes a month of nail-biting anxiety, wondering, “Did I get in?”

I hadn’t really considered what an emerging writer should already know before entering a program. The previous two paragraphs really focused on the process, but didn’t focus much on the individual. Loosely, the insidious “they” tell an emerging writer to submit only his/her best work to enter a writing program. Most of the publicly available advice doesn’t really ask, directly or indirectly, what a potential MFA candidate should already be able to do with the pen and the paper (Or, keyboard and screen. But, whatever, stay with me …). It’s about “feeling ready” or something sentimental about where you are emotionally as an artist, but rarely asks the emerging writer for a self-assessment. What can you actually do?

Time and experience are the two things often stressed before going to a graduate program. After an entire life spent in school, does a twenty two year old have anything to actually say, to actually write about, in a meaningful way? While I’m inclined to lean on William Maxwell, who believed you had the full spectrum of life experiences before you were five years old, practically, I’ve rarely seen a writer succeed without being out of school for a few years and living a bit.

The undergraduate creative writing experience probably does not prepare a student for a MFA program. In my Intro to Writing Fiction class, I never mention publication; I tell my students on the first day that my goal is simply to get them to continue writing fiction after my class is over. The University of Missouri also offers undergraduates Intermediate and Advanced classes in writing fiction. Students can take up to five creative writing classes, which is, I imagine, standard or close to standard at other universities. Does that seem like enough to know how to write a short story?

Almost certainly not. Reading widely and writing endlessly, are almost impossible to achieve in college (unless the student is on a six year plan and/or is a phenomenally mediocre student who blows off all other coursework. This is not inconceivable). Further, an adult who discovers writing as a calling is probably limited to online classes or community workshops where the seriousness of the other writers is questionable and, maybe much more importantly, the demands of Life are constant and neverending. This type of emerging writer is probably thirsting for a community of like-minded folks who want to be fully immersed in a writing life. Both categories of emerging writers feel the MFA program will fill in the gaps that, thus far, they have not been able to fill on their own.

Analogy: What should a college basketball recruit be able to do? While it would be nice if the youngster had a killer jump shot, sick handle, and could rebound like Charles Barkley, many highly touted college recruits know very little about the game. They usually know how to score and are phenomenal athletes. There is the old saying, you can’t coach height. But they aren’t expected to be, and in fact rarely are, finished products. There is so much for them to still learn about the game on a fairly rudimentary level.

Any experienced writer will tell you there is no such things as “mastering” the short story. You might know how to write a story, but each story presents a unique set of challenges. For each new story that makes you feel like Chekhov, the next story will humble you. How can you be prepared, really, ever, to survive such a roller-coaster with no breaks? Analogy #2: Imagine building a house. You need certain things — a roof, walls, plumbing, electricity — but each house you build is different. Every house you might build has a new set of demands, aesthetics, quirks, many of which you might have no control over (location, location, location!). All you know is how to be prepared for the challenge of each house, and the person(s) paying you to build the house.

This means having a lot of tools and knowledge at your disposal, and being flexible to the outside demands over which you have no control. Tools and knowledge: how to create narrative tension in a space (or a twenty page story), how to embed a home with character (“character”: a double entendre!), what things can be left out (you don’t need that extra half-bath; or, how I learned to cut the extraneous story thread and love my short story), an aesthetic style to the language that is appropriate to the story (you like sunken living rooms? all right, then …), and a wide-range of additional—and perhaps endless—tortured metaphors comparing your writing tools to building a house.

And if “being flexible to outside demands” sounds strange, ask any writer about the paradoxical frustration of being the sole creator of a story while simultaneously trying to understand its characters or “figure out the story.”

Can this be learned before graduate school? I don’t see why not. If one read “Everything Rises Must Converge” and read that story over and over again—I mean, really read it—and then retyped it, and thought about the choices in every paragraph, in every sentence, taking notes on what O’Connor did with each line … if you really did this, and not with just this story, but with the other greats, would, then, perhaps, you have a fuller grasp of the short story?

So, yes: maybe you should be able to write a short story before you go to a MFA program.

Like a true basketball player, a gym rat, the writer who “knows how to write a short story” doesn’t assume to have all the answers. This weekend, I watched a YouTube clip of Hakeem Olajuwon teaching Carmelo Anthony various spin moves. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking basketball, homebuilding, or writing. For the best, the learning never stops. The emerging writer truly ready for the leap to a graduate program, a story can be read, written, and discussed the story with a greater level of nuance and complexity than the average emerging writer. The emerging writer can always write a competent short story … and can also recognize that it is a story that is merely competent, not great, not yet, but believes, perhaps stubbornly, that the story (and consequently its author) can get there.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye