Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sexy, Sexy Armadillos

The Rejectionist has a little news flash for you: MFA programs may not help you get published.

Let me preface this by acknowledging the truth that Writing of True Genius can elevate any topic, no matter how dull or off-putting to the public's sensibilities. A 500-page novel about the sex lives of armadillos? Great!

Good, now that that's out of the way: You're not a genius.

Have you been Highly Educated in writing? That's wonderful. You've spent years thinking about what makes writing good, and practicing those skills, and caring, and god knows we need more of that. The slush pile blesses your heart.

However, what MFA programs tend to instill in writers is an appreciation for their fellow writers as sole audience, because through all that workshopping, your fellow writers are your sole audience.

Guess what? If you want to be published, writers are not your audience.

Now, this is not an argument for the dumbing-down of literature. I wholeheartedly do NOT want ANYONE to appeal to the lowest common denominator. I want you to appeal to average people, who need books as much as you do (and possibly more). Average people are not stupid, but they're less smart about literature than you are. And that's ok! And you should think it's ok, too.

Average people will happily read a Work of Fine Literature and be AMAZED and CHANGED by the experience, but they won't even pick the thing up if it's about the sex lives of armadillos, you know? (Or working-class alcoholic armadillos in snowstorms.)

If, however, it's tightly plotted and about something people can identify with, then you're on your way to moving the hearts and enlightening the minds of thousands. Your publisher loves you! Your readers love you! And your MFA program can barely recognize you, now that your head is completely out of your butt!


Sarah Laurenson said...

*deleting 476 pages of armadillo sex complete with footnotes*

Wendie O said...

Sarah, you made me giggle.

hmmmm. The Rejectionist seems to be working in the field of adult literature.

There Are MFA programs concentrating on writing for Children and Young Adult that are staffed with writers who are multi-published (award-winning) in that field. Who push you to write great books about interesting characters.

I want to improve my writing skills.
I want an MFA from one of those schools.

Unknown said...

Well, as a soon to be graduate of an MFA writing program, I have to politely disagree. Sure, we workshop, but that is such a small part of my MFA experience. I listen to lectures on craft, setting, characterization, stereotypes. I listen to editors and agents talk about what they expect from writers. As far as I can tell, no one can teach you how to have a good story, that comes from yourself so if someone is writing about armadillos then it has to do with them, not the program.

And believe me, as much as I love being surrounded by other writers who 'feel the pain', I am way too aware of the fact that I am not writing for them. I am writing for readers, editors, interns, gatekeepers, and everyone else involved in the publishing process.

The best part of being surrounded by other writers though is that hopefully you will make one writer friend that will tell you truthfully that she/he doesn't think there is a market for a book about armadillo sex in a polite, but manuscript killing way.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Venus, good to hear from you.

But if you think a writer friend can tell you when you have a story there's no market for, why do you also think no one can teach you how to write a story there IS a market for?

Anonymous said...

yo I probably am a genius actually

Editorial Anonymous said...

Then please ignore my humble rantings. No doubt I will one day lick your boots.

Steve said...

It's amazing the various and diverse perspectives that are all considered part of "being a writer".

For myself, I'm a long time reader (50 years of science fiction) but I never had more than a trivial aspiration to write. Then, at age 63, I realized I had a story I wanted to tell - a YA novel about a rock band, of all things. So now I'm an aspiring YA writer with a prologue and 3 chapters in first draft.

The notion of writing as a profession or life calling - of taking college level programs to become such a professional - of seeking others in that profession as one's primary audience - this is bizarre almost beyond belief to me.

Not to disparage anybody's chosen trip - just to say writing is many more different things than most of us realize.

Life is strange,

The Novelist said...

I laughed when I read this!

I am the furthest thing from a genius that there is. My friends have pointed out to me that I sometimes end my sentences with a preposition. Yikes! I also have a real problem with punctuation. Commas who needs them run on sentences are so much more fun to read because you have to reread the sentence 10 times just to figure out what was said in the sentence.

(I did that on purpose! I couldn't help it.)

Seriously though, I am very lacking in skill. What I do have is an extreme passion for stories.

I would probably benefit greatly from an MFA program, but I am really hoping that if and when I am ever considered for publication, that those editing will make me look like a genius!

(I probably made some ginormous errors there!)

kitchenpantryscientist said...

I don't care about the sex lives of armadillos. I was, however, fascinated to learn about The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

Claire Dawn said...

Hoping to embark on an MFA next year. Hoping not to end up like this. The truth is, I used to write way too prettily and "purply".

Reading mainstream books, I realised that most author don't write like that. The challenge is to weave a beautiful story using average words, so that's' what I've been trying to do.

Hopefully, I'll remember that post-MFA.

Julie said...

OK, M.T. Anderson, the challenge has been issued: give us a story about sexy armadillos!! I think it has lots of potential - the exoskeleton as metaphor for alienation and failure to engage, the small & hopeful tail, the tenderness beneath the toughness...if anyone can write it, Anderson can (oh-oh, he does have an MFA....)

The Rejectionist has a news flash that could have come out in the 1890's - that's how long people have been arguing about whether writing can be taught. It's not news, having an opinion about that.

My opinion: MFA's are often about community - finding it, nurturing it, making friends, leaving the snark factor behind, coming out from behind the armadillo shell. I'm proud to be part of one.

Ebony McKenna. said...

I come from the 'trial and error' school of writing. With loads of errors.

I have no formal training in writing a book, but that didn't seem to discourage my publisher.

My gut feeling is publishers won't care what your qualifications are, they just want a good story that will appeal to lots of people.

Liesl Shurtliff said...


In truth, I have mixed feelings about MFA programs. I have considered them, but maybe because it might make me feel more official? More like I deserve the title of writer? More driven to publish because Holy Crap, I spent 40,000 dollars on a writing education so I better be a writer?!!

I went to an MFA program workshop, one where they are trying to convince you that an MFA program is the only way to become a real writer. I did enjoy the workshop. I thought it was well done and worth my time, but I didn't get the feeling that they had anything to teach me that I couldn't learn on my own or for much less money. So when they opened up for questions I asked "What can I get from this program that I cannot get any other way?"

After much mumbling and stumbling and finally "It really gives you a jump start..."

A jump start into what? Great writing skills? A circle of writing friends? Agents and editors? At the end of it all, it would really stink to spend 30,000+ dollars and still have nothing to show for it except perhaps a piece of paper that says you can teach other people how to write.

I still don't think there is anything they can teach you that you can't get in any other way for much less if not free. BUT some of my favorite writers have come out of MFA programs, including Shannon Hale and Kristin Cashore, and I'd just like to know, how much credit do they actually give to their MFA programs for their current success?

Michael Grant said...

EA you are right.

MFA's serve in large degree to separate writing from actual readers. Writers are readers but readers are not writers.

I keep saying this to writers: it's not a group activity, and it's not about "connections" or learning a formula or pleasing the aesthetes. It's about telling stories. If you can tell an interesting and original story in such a way that your audience cannot look away, almost nothing else matters. That's 90% of the game.

TK Roxborogh said...

As I always tell my students, I disagree with the adage that 'everyone can be a writer with a bit of help'.

Then I go on to illustrate: I will never be a good athlete. With training and practice I might be a better amateur but I will never hit the top ranking.

I know this from childhood experience. I used to twice weekly attend gymnastics with my best friend. She could do flick flaks, walkovers, bend her body in such a way it was scary. I did manage to get to gold (the third grading) but it took me two years of intensive training. Took her three weeks. She was gifted.

I am a great (gifted?) story teller but I need by agent and editor to make the writing better so that readers don't see the cogs, ropes and pulleys behind the curtain. Cos no matter how many times I crawl through the draft, these two ALWAYS go 'What?' and show up my weak spots.

I'm sure you do this too EA for your authors.

As I said on blog, writing is a very painful and hard occupation.

But, I have over the past 15 years of writing, attended some workshops, read a lot, talked a lot to writers and publishers and editors and I am very, very open to suggestions from those who know.

Unknown said...

I'm not sure MFA's are useful, in general. Probably far too many of them. But my MFA program specifically, rocked.

I had concentrations in both adult fiction, and children's writing. I had amazing teachers in both concentrations that helped me improve a lot as a writer. (Notice I said teachers, not students).

I came late to children's writing ... had no intention of doing it at all until an extremely compelling idea struck me that happened to be YA in nature, and I knew nothing about YA lit, so I sought guidance. What struck me about the children's community of my university was that it was a "community" -- much more welcoming, nurturing, less pretentious than the adult fiction program. And it was due to my professor taking me to a SCBWI event that I met the first editor who published me. So MFA's have their uses for certain.

I was never a literature snob, and if fact, was worried about that before I applied to my MFA, since I write "high concept" fiction, with literary sensibilities. But since most snobs can't see past the "high concept" I wasn't sure how my writing would go over in workshops. But it's funny, this is the second time in two days that I've heard/read someone arguing (the other was editor at an SCBWI conference) about writing that "sells."

I don't think it's so much a problem in children's literature (on the ground, with editors) and probably not with editors in adult fiction either. But I think MFA programs in fiction teach to the Lit Magazines that they also publish ... and there is extremely little high concept writing accepted by the hundreds of literary magazines that are out there. It's all armadillo sex.

'Nuff said.

Bethany C Morrow said...

I'm one of those (...assuming there are lots) who chose a major I was interested in intellectually because the last thing I would do is major in art. And yet, here we all are, reading the same blog in the same pursuit. Let us Kumbaya, friends.

And also, I would be super testy (regardless of my attempts at being otherwise) if anyone suggested Sociology isn't the best and most wonderful field of study in the history of the universe forever. ;)

Unknown said...


I have serious opinions about this.

First off, an MFA should be reserved for those who wish to lecture and teach writing to others, in that tired-and-true manner. Unless of course you prove you can write good books, for which no degree is needed, and you’ll therefore be asked to participate in teacher-in-residency programs, and will eventually, should you chose to accept, wind up teaching literature somewhere in your golden years. So, an MFA doesn’t even really guarantee that approach.

Second, people who approach writing via the MFA track are akin to people who approach any other art via a secular educational environment: they are on the outside looking in. These are the people who, and this is just my experience, who go to a trade school to learn a craft versus spend the same amount of time working at said craft. And MFA is at best a degreed apprenticeship one step removed from the artist studio, the glassblower’s furnace, the writer’s REAL life, at worst a complete waste of time and money.
Sure an MFA will get you networking bonuses, first dibs to writer’s conferences, and the occasional “sit” with an editor or agent. Sadly, or fortunately, depending on where you sit, the Internet has pretty much done away with that perceived edge. What do they really teach you? They teach you to write like other writers, they try to put out Faulkners or Sedarii or whoever they think is relevant, cool, and a positive genuflection/reflection of their alma mater.

Too many times, TOO many times, they are simply trying to produce marble sculptures from wood, brass, or occasionally, diamonds. I see too many writers who have wonderful vision and a refreshing approach to the craft – all stifled because their way isn’t “the way.”

The best way to get better at writing is simple. Read and write. That is all. Sure you should understand the tools of your chosen trade, you need to understand grammar, you need to understand plotlines, the largely ignored art of storytelling (versus writing), and the ever important question of WHY to write (versus the rather easily attained answers to HOW).

All that money spent on an MFA program could be better spent buying out the time it takes to write. Take the $20k and take some time off to write, however much that tuition can buy you. All that time that you bought for yourself, and your stories, is the best money ever spent, and the first and most important investment in your writing career.

[ /rant]

ae said...

The notion of writing as a profession or life calling - of taking college level programs to become such a professional - of seeking others in that profession as one's primary audience - this is bizarre almost beyond belief to me.

Not to disparage anybody's chosen trip - just to say writing is many more different things than most of us realize.

Life is strange,

Steve... I hear you in so many ways. :)

Most of my favorite writers are so because of their being inspired and passion... not being educated. Not that education is bad... it IS necessary to some extent... but all by itself, well that is not enough.

Effective writing entails so many things, indeed. B :)

Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks for giving me a reason never to visit your site again. This is hugely offensive.

Latin Geek said...


"Sedarii"? I love you. :)

Anonymous said...

Forgive me for this brief pity party here... but, hell, there are people that can afford 20 or 40 grand on an MFA program and I can't even afford to buy a book I want to read by an author I know I already like? I'm waiting on a reserve list at the library right now (number 93) which means the book will probably come out in paperback before I get to it... okay pity party over, thanks.

Seriously though. I often think that the deep and ponderous question of to MFA or not to MFA is just someone trying to delay the inevitable torture that is writing. If this is your biggest problem in life (and I'm not suggesting it is) it's a rather elite problem. Get over yourself, I say. Sit your scrawny or fat ass in a chair and write. It's going to be torture. Having an MFA isn't going to make make it less so.

Chris Eldin said...

Not to offend anon even further, but I enjoyed this post and it makes me want to come visit even more often.

Anonymous said...

Yo, Annoy on 11 April--

Zut alors, I'm a genius as well! (Not in general. Just in writing books for children. In general I'm pretty dopey.)

Shame there's so few of us, n'est pas? It makes the mean streets of publishing verrrry dangerous these days, what with so few literary lights still shining forth...


Rose Green said...

The children's/YA MFA I'm most familiar with (Vermont) has both unpublished and well-published students. I can't speak to other programs (though I do hear that many are heavy on the literary), but what I hear about Vermont is that people go there to write *better*--not to get a golden ticket to publishing. That seems completely reasonable to me. After all, your authors listen to you when you edit them because it's going to make their books better, right? I think it's a smart idea to seek out education when you can't do any more on your own. Naturally it doesn't have to be in the form of a formal degree. I think mileage varies considerably with MFAs, and you have to be reasonable about what you expect to get out of one.

Allison Williams said...

I agree that an MFA doesn't make you a working writer, or even particularly help in becoming that. Most of the publishing advice I got in my MFA was geared towards literary magazines, and frankly, I don't really think anyone reads those except other MFA students and their professors.

What my MFA did for me -

- paid time to write. Go to a less-highly-regarded school, get a free ride and get paid to be there. Sure, there was 20K in tuition involved, but *I* didn't pay it. MOST graduate programs in MOST fields pay YOU, not the other way around.

- experience editing. My assistantship was as an assistant to the editor of a professional journal. I edited articles from major players in my field, and got to closely observe what the editor did.

- experiences that became writing, through a strong study-abroad program that let me spend time in a new environment and meet more people to write about.

- the discovery that I liked writing non-fiction and was good at it - never would have bothered to move out of my main genre, playwriting, unless I'd had to take a non-genre class.

Most of my classmates were unqualified to critique, but as such, they were closer to the "average" reader. None of my professors were big-time writers, but the good one was really good.

What mattered most was writing, every week, inspired or not, because of a deadline. I have trouble doing that on my own.

I'd recommend finding a place like Grub Street in Boston, that offers writing classes in a variety of genres, and take some classes if you're not up for a full MFA. It's worth it to practice, to meet people who stimulate you, and to write to deadline.

Heidi Ruby Miller said...


"My opinion: MFA's are often about community - finding it, nurturing it, making friends, leaving the snark factor behind, coming out from behind the armadillo shell. I'm proud to be part of one."

I completely agree. Going through Seton Hill's Writing Popular Fiction Program brought me closer to writing and to the writing community.

Studying under publishing writers and learning about the business has been invaluable for me personally.

Of course, the degree means nothing if the dedication to story isn't there. As with most things in life, you get out of it what you put in to it.

Anonymous said...

Wendie O correctly points out that The Rejectionist addresses MFA programs that focus on literary fiction and turn out writers who publish in small literary magazines. Those programs seem geared more to preparing people to teach in academia, where literary magazines are the equivalent of scholarly journals and the mentality is one of "publish or perish." Those MFAs will never be able to support themselves by writing but rather intend to teach full-time in colleges and universities--assuming they can find full-time positions in what is basically an academic Ponzi scheme.

I'm not sure, EA, whether you consider a MFA program in writing for children and young adults to have similar flaws--preparing their graduates to write literary material that no one wants to read. Or simply that it's unnecessary because critique groups, conferences, and time spent writing are equally effective in perfecting one's craft and networking for publication.

That said, there are other reasons an unpublished or even published children's writer might want to enroll in a MFA program. I'm published but chose to do so because I lost my day job in a dying industry and the degree will allow me to become certified as a secondary English teacher as well as teach at the college level.

Kaye Dacus said...

You're painting all MFA programs with a very wide and inaccurate brush. Yes, I will agree that the majority of them are elitist and not worthwhile if what the student wants to write is something for the "masses"--i.e., genre fiction. That's why I did my master's work at Seton Hill University in the Writing Popular Fiction program. In the two years I was there, I went from a mediocre writer who didn't know tight Point of View or how to market a book once I wrote it to someone with a publishable manuscript as my master's thesis. How do I know it was a publishable manuscript? Because it was acquired 18 months after I graduated, and it came out in January 2009 from a traditional (non-literary) publisher. Now, nine book contracts later, I'm working on a new proposal for a three-book series. In addition to that, having a master's degree in creative writing was what put my resume over my competitors' when I applied to work as an editor at a book publisher---and, after just a few years, has allowed me to do just what I always wanted to do: stay home and support myself by freelance editing and writing books.

The best part of the program for me (aside from making life-long friends and becoming part of a writing community) was working under two authors who are published in my genre who broke me of all of my bad habits and helped me identify who my audience is and how to reach them.

Is an MFA worth all the time and expense? If you go to the right program, yes.

Josiah said...

This is not a slam to anyone, but I think it's both fitting & funny that these are--on average--the most verbose comments to appear on ed.anon thus far.

Julie said...

I love the way Josiah isn't slamming anyone but calls them verbose, and Steve doesn't want to "disparage anyone's chosen trip" but calls the choice "bizarre beyond belief." WTF? Maybe people writing longer posts feel deeply about this and are offended by the usual pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps rants?? Why is anti-intellectualism such an aphrodisiac in this country? And why do people disparage mentorship and act like talent springs whole like Athena out of Zeus's head? Right - I guess Yo-Yo Ma never needed music lessons or a supportive mentor either, he just sat down at a cello and let his genius take over?

Moll said...

I think people need to write what they want and just see where it goes from there. Maybe I am being naive but it is what I think.

Editorial Anonymous said...

I hope no one took what I said as anti-intellectualism, or indeed anti-MFA.

I think (as I said in the post) that it's great that people want to think hard about writing, and study it, and practice it.

What I wish is simply that more MFA programs would make an effort to teach their students about the publishing industry-- what sells and what doesn't. Not as Rules To Follow... but as Information That May Be Useful To You Should You Wish to Be Paid for What You Write.

Anonymous said...

Uh...can we get back to real subject of interest here?


The nine-banded armadillo, found in Florida, has sex in July and August. Usually the female lies on her back and thinks about England. The nine banded armadillo is one of the only mammals that almost always has 4 identical babies of the same sex. These are identical quads, all of them springing from a single egg and all attached by umbilical cords to a single placenta. Closely related armadillo species in South America are the only other mammals that give birth this way.
Armadillo babies (more properly called pups) are pink and soft. But the skin hardens after a few days.

Jean Ann Williams said...

This is a very interesting topic, since I know close to nothing about MFA programs.

On a day when I wanted to quit writing, I have to say, I chuckled and raised my brows at the comments.

I'll keep coming back. Thanks for the post EA!

I Choose2BHappy said...

Sorry--just could resist! Just found your blog & can't wait to read it all, but in the meantime...

Honest-to-goodness just finished these armadillos as part of a mural project in New Orleans :)

(and they fired up kinda cute, too!)

ae said...

Usually the female lies on her back and thinks about England.


Thanks anon 5:32!

Does her pink and soft heart harden after a few days, as well? said...

Literary genius art for the public at large is like feeding pills to your lovely, wonderful, super great dog.

You give them a good piece of smoked ham and hide the pill inside.

~ An mfa dropoout

Kelly Wittmann said...

Excellent post! There is a reason that the "Average Joe" once read great literature-- Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, etc. It was simply far more accessible to the common man than is what is refered to today as "literary fiction."

Helen DeWitt said...

I don't have any personal experience of MFA programmes. My impression is that the good ones enables students to discover and develop their strengths - Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mitchell all did MFAs, and I believe thought they got something of value from it. David Foster Wallace made a bad choice, went to a university whose department was dominated by hardcore realists and didn't get much out of it.

Literary Kitty said...

Totally agree with everything you said here apart from the way you suggested armadillos were boring...that was totally ill-informed....

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Yep, I know this post is older -- I'm catching up on reading!

I have to say, as someone with a happy writing career and zero creative writing instruction under her belt (unless you count thousands of novels read) and also as someone who got published with no contacts in the field, I find the concept of MFAs to be problematic. I've met as many unpublished as published MFAs (probably more, actually), and I have enjoyed the writing of completely unschooled writers just as much as some MFAs.

The problem I have is this. If you get an MFA and then get published . . . would you have gotten published without that schooling? I think the answer is actually yes -- you are the type of person to read and write critically, and so yes, you would have honed your craft one way or another. Which was what pulled you to get that degree in the first place. I am inclined to think that person would've gotten published at some point anyway.

I find all creative degrees problematic. I majored in history and made my living first as a portrait artist (internationally shown) and then as author (it's fun to be able to add "bestselling" to the front of that). I had zero formal schooling either. I have friends who did and never managed to become professionals.

I think . . . do what you feel you need to do, but believe that a) it'll be your ticket to automatic publication or b) think that you can't get there without it. The lessons you learn there you can find on your own. And the community that you find there you can find online.

Ilima Loomis said...

Amen, sistah!

Melinda R. Cordell said...

I'm pursuing an MFA for writing for children at Hamline. I'm not really interested in the degree; I just want to learn from some awesome folks, hang out with some crazy writers, and work with a faculty advisor that I work hard for instead of spending that time procrastinating via internet.

I've been writing on my own for years. Now it's time for a little kick in the tail from some really nice folks, who also give me lots of writing stuff to think about. It's good times.

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