My Wobbly Bicycle, 177

Posted by on Sep 4, 2019 | 4 comments

One more post on creative writing programs. Probably I’m speaking to a very limited audience.  I just wanted to answer a recent question.


So, you ask—someone asks—someone asked me recently—what happens in a so-called creative writing program? How can you teach someone to write a poem, for instance, considering that you have to have talent? Of course, I might reply, you can’t teach someone to write a poem. But you can, given the right conditions, help a person with some intrinsic sense of a poem get better faster.


If we have to argue about “better,” probably better stop talking right now. Better—as in visual art, movies, music, dance—is a matter of having trained the ear and eye to want more than cliché. Deeper, richer, more complex, more musical thought.


People enroll for these programs because they recognize they’re writing not-bad poems and stories. They feel frustrated because they’ve read enough to recognize brilliance and they can’t figure out how to approach making it happen in their own work.


A good comparison might be with religion. You can’t exactly “teach” it. You can teach facts related to it, but the actual thing has to be caught, like a disease. It has to be insinuated by proximity to another who has it. Or, think about the best teacher you ever had. She inspired you by example. You wanted to BE her. You picked up some of her mannerisms, you wanted to please her. And gradually you transferred the wish to please into a wish to please your new self, the one that now contained the essence of your teacher.


You also absorb energy. Besides this—and now I’m back specifically to a creative writing program—you study how good poems and stories are made. You take them apart and look at the turns, the moves, the switchbacks. You have help with this. Your teacher helps you to see what you may have missed.


You are required to read a lot. You learn about the history of the form. You study poems from centuries back.


And then you blunder along with your own work. You revise even when you hate doing it. You thought it was okay as is. But you do as you’re told, at least for now. Your first draft turns out not to be sacred. You begin to break through your habits, your rigidity of thought and of language. Listening to someone else’s ideas didn’t “ruin” your individual genius.


There are other students, and you bounce your drafts off them, and vice versa. You see that your opinion is pretty darn good sometimes. Or, you see you were way off base, that you hadn’t read carefully.


You’re pushed to write a lot, more than you’re used to. So you don’t have time to moan about your lack of skill. You have to plow ahead.  So, you don’t get to be great. But you do begin to understand the craft of it, and in the process, you see that imagination is simply what gets dragged out of its dark cave by the hooks and pulleys of mundane craft.


Okay, that’s my answer, by way of explaining why someone would spend good money to enroll in an MFA program. NOTE: these are words from someone who didn’t attend an MFA program, who took only one undergraduate creative writing course in her life. Not that I’m sorry about that. It happened as it happened. And then I ended up teaching creative writing at the University of Delaware and at the Rainier Writing Workshop for years.


I do think these programs are helpful. I have watched many students get to be much better writers in a short time. I have watched some break through into real beauty. If you’re asking me if you should apply to an MFA program, I’d say, yes, if your goal is to improve what you’re already doing. If your goal is to be a “Poet,” or a “Writer,” I guess you could just put on a beret, get a bunch of tattoos, and bang away on your computer in your darkened room. (Of course you could get tattoos either way.)










  1. Beautifully done, dear Fleda, says one who likewise never took an MFA. Didn’t even take a writing course as an undergrad. Such a thing didn’t exist.

  2. You absorb energy, required to read a lot, you blunder, you’re pushed. Love it!

  3. I love this: “you see that imagination is simply what gets dragged out of its dark cave by the hooks and pulleys of mundane craft.” You are a jewel, Fleda!

    • Me, too.

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