04/12/2012 10:22 am ET Updated Jun 12, 2012

Setting the Record Straight on Creative Writing: What We Really Do in School (And It's Not All Recess)

Coauthored by Dianne Donnelly, Tim Mayers, Dinty W. Moore, Stephanie Vanderslice

Last month, this group of six creative writers and teachers argued "Creative Writing Can Be Taught" and answered the question "What is Creative Writing Anyway?"
Too often, detractors of creative writing as an academic field (like Anis Shivani here at The Huffington Post) use a small part of what we do to make a sweeping generalization. Or nay-sayers use a straw man to poke fun at something that doesn't really exist widely in practice. And some critics either have little experience with creative writing programs and courses or have actually benefited from them before turning on them.

As a group, we represent a large swath of the field. In this two-part post, we let readers in on what really happens inside our creative writing programs and classrooms. We consider the charge that the MFA in creative writing is a closed guild system, and we go into more detail about what happens in these programs.

So, is the graduate degree in creative writing, the MFA, a guild system?

DINTY W. MOORE: The MBA familiarizes students with the current methods in the business world and helps them make connections with firms and individuals. Nursing and medical degree programs familiarize students with medical knowledge and procedures and also with how and where medicine is practiced, allowing the students to connect, often through internships and residencies, with hospitals and medical groups. Architecture degrees do this. Social work degrees do this. Law degrees do this. A graduate writing student learns from visiting writers and editors who come to the program for a few days or a month and from meeting other writers and editors at conferences. Sometimes professional connections are made. There is nothing secretive or corrupt about this, no hidden handshakes that make or break a career. It is simply the way the world works -- the world of commerce and the world of art.

STEPHANIE VANDERSLICE: Old-school creative writing may have operated more like a guild system, but with the advent of Web 2.0 and the flattening of the publishing world, all bets are off. The best elements of what might be considered a guild system remain, namely aspiring writers mentored by practicing writers, but programs are realizing that they must teach students how to succeed in the world into which they're graduating, not the world into which the teachers themselves graduated, often generations ago.

ANNA LEAHY: A guild focuses on craft, so in that sense, creative writing adopts useful guild-like principles. The act of writing is done in isolation, but studies of creativity (see work by Nancy Andreasen, Steven Johnson, and others) indicate that community is important too; in the sense of shared interests and goals, our programs are guild-like. That said, because the field of creative writing is relatively separate from the publishing industry (and because creative writing is often part of a nonprofit university), our field doesn't actually establish the insider-outsider elitism, the rigid seniority, or the trade secrets of a guild system.

TIM MAYERS: I strongly disagree with the assertion that creative writing is a guild system. Many of those who make this assertion seem motivated by frustration -- perhaps that their own work is not getting published or, if it is getting published, that it is not getting enough attention. Ever since the advent of widespread literacy in the English-speaking world (starting around the middle of the eighteenth century), writers have been dealing with an unpleasant reality: there are usually more competent-to-excellent writers than readership to support all of them. Creative writing programs today may exacerbate this reality by putting a greater number of competent or excellent writers out there, but it does not follow that creative writing constitutes a closed and undemocratic guild system. Perhaps some who rail against creative writing programs should turn that critical attention toward our increasingly bottom-line-oriented publishing industry.

So how does an MFA program in creative writing work?

STEPHANIE VANDERSLICE: A creative writing MFA works very much the same way as an MFA in any other art, say, the visual arts or music. Aspiring writers are brought together with other aspiring writers and taught by practicing writers. This community of people with a shared passion for the written word is critical to accelerating a novice writer's development. Beyond the coursework, MFA students, depending on the given program, learn by attending (and helping to produce) reading series, by serving as graduate assistant editors on literary journals, and by teaching writing to undergraduates. All these experiences, as well as some experiences that more entrepreneurial students create themselves, teach emerging writers how to sustain themselves after they graduate. In this way, a generation of writers is established.

DIANNE DONNELLY: In our program, writers celebrate with other artists and perform their work at multiple locations on campus. Some programs engage students in more immersive community work and enter into programs with off-campus partners (local libraries, state arts councils, etc.) to foster a commitment to the arts. The impetus of community as the prime mover of discourse has significant potential for our field to connect with other entities within the university and within the global network.

DINTY W. MOORE: There exists a vast network of institutions supporting writing, editing, and reading, far beyond MFA programs. These include independent literary centers, such as The Loft or The Hugo House; community projects such as Writers in the Schools, InsideOut Detroit, and 826 National; a staggering array of magazines, agents, small book presses, and large publishers; and on and on. All of these efforts support one another and depend on one another to survive. While most of what is taught in a writing program pertains to the craft of writing itself, a secondary but important aspect of these programs is to create knowledgeable, sophisticated literary citizens.

ANNA LEAHY: Stephanie, Cathy Day, and I wrote about literary citizenship as part of "Where Are We Going Next?" in Fiction Writers Review. Most creative writers recognize we're part of a local, national, and global culture of arts and literature, and we're continuously rethinking what we do in our programs and classrooms as a result. The Director's Handbook recently out from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs reflects this shift toward literary citizenship for graduate programs.

Coming up: part two of our discussion: Should Mamas Let Their Babies Grow up to Study Writing? De-mystifying what writing students do and learn as undergraduate and graduate students.


Dianne Donnelly, Ph.D., is the editor of Does the Writing Workshop Still Work?, the author of Establishing Creative Writing Studies as an Academic Discipline, and co-editor of Key Issues in Creative Writing. She teaches at the University of South Florida.

Anna Leahy, M.F.A., Ph.D., is the editor of Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom and author of Constituents of Matter, which won the Wick Poetry Prize. She teaches in the MFA and BFA programs at Chapman University and co-writes the Lofty Ambitions blog.

Tim Mayers, Ph.D., is the author of (Re)Writing Craft: Composition, Creative Writing, and the Future of English Studies. He teaches at Millersville University of Pennsylvania.

Dinty W. Moore, M.F.A., is the author of Crafting the Personal Essay and The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life. He directs the graduate creative writing program at Ohio University.

Stephanie Vanderslice, M.F.A., Ph.D., is the author of Rethinking Creative Writing in Higher Education and the co-editor of Can It Really Be Taught? She directs the Arkansas Writers M.F.A. Workshop at the University of Central Arkansas.