The rap against graduate writing programs is pretty bad these days. They're insular, they turn out cookie-cutter writers, and they're too damned many of them: over 200 by a recent count.
When I teach workshops or do readings, people often run those criticisms by me and ask if they should bother with a program. I have to tell them to think it through carefully, but I also tell them I got a lot out of mine.
I was at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst MFA program for two and a half years back when it was rated in the top ten, for whatever that's worth. The workshops kept me writing and turning in stories, even when I wasn't in the mood, a good lesson to learn for a writer like me who later ended up doing a lot of print reviewing on tight deadlines.
I enjoyed the company of my fellow students in what was in effect a giant writers group. Were they all good writers or even good critics of each other's work? No. But the enthusiasm for writing and reading was powerful. I can still remember finding a friend at lunch who was glowing because she'd been reading Richard Wilbur's "The Mind-Reader." I only knew him through his Moliere translations, and was thrilled myself by the poem when I read it right there at the cafeteria table. But that was only one POV; another friend said after a reading Wilbur did in Amherst: "God, he uses so many old words!" We definitely didn't march in lock step.
I took lots of literature courses at UMass and read writers I would not necessarily have come to on my own: Rimbaud, Conrad, I.B. Singer, Susan Hill, Muriel Spark, and James Tate, who taught there. I had some inspiring professors, like Cynthia Griffin Wolff, who was just about to publish her brilliant Edith Wharton biography. Her seminar deepened my love of Wharton and guided my own teaching later on.
Best of all, I won the program's writing prize for a short story that wound up in Redbook. This was my first attempt at writing about the legacy of the Holocaust for children of survivors, and it opened a door for me into my own psyche, as well as launching my career and earning me a lot of money.
It was a particular triumph because the same story had been shredded by my workshop a few weeks earlier. The contest judge was Martha Foley, who was editing The Best American Short Stories series back then, and when I told her how my workshop had felt about it, she growled, "Don't change a goddamned word." After I won, the workshop professor said, "It's still crap, but now it's crap with a prize."
My other writing professors were more positive and helpful, but on balance, I learned less from them than I did from all the tremendous amount of reading I did, from the literature professors, and the immersion in a community of writers. Those years were good for me. I emerged a more experienced and dedicated writer, a better teacher, and someone more determined to make it as an author even in the face of savage criticism. Taking those two and a half years for the program was taking myself seriously. Maybe I was an exception, maybe I was lucky, but nineteen books later, I have to say I got my money's worth.
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