Do graduate program curricula stifle long-form writing?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

When I tell people that I am in grad school to study creative writing, the first question they ask is, “So are you writing a novel?” Explaining that I write short pieces is difficult enough, but calling them “creative nonfiction” typically meets with blank stares. “Essays, like feature articles,” I founder. I keep trying to find the lowest common denominator until I am not talking about literary nonfiction at all.

Writer and teacher Cathy Day has published an essay in The Millions that addresses a related angle on the long-form/short-form conundrum. She discusses with humor how and why graduate writing curricula are skewed toward short fiction (and presumably nonfiction), rather than book-length work. She notes wryly that students confuse academic papers with creative writing: “I say, ‘What paper? Do you mean your story, that art you’re creating?’”

Day explains that teachers can wrap their lesson plans around creation of a story with a full narrative arc in the space of a semester. Students too can have the satisfaction of a creating a work from start to substantial revision, even to finish. The workshop model in common practice serves this sort of writing best. As she puts it:

I think a lot of what comes out of creative writing programs are stories that could be or want to be novels, but the academic fiction workshop is not fertile ground for those story seeds. The seeds don’t grow.

She goes on to describe a workshop experience she herself had as a student, in which the workshop leader John Keeble introduced a different approach. As she quotes him, he commented on a student's story:

“Rather than talk about whether or not this works as a story, let’s talk about it as material toward a larger project.” Just like that, Keeble shifted the default setting of the workshop from dissection to enlargement, from what’s wrong to what could be.

Offering this sort of a discussion as an alternative when a workshop piece warrants it sounds easy enough. But what then becomes of the student’s efforts to continue the longer work? She suggests that creative writing programs also include instruction on how to develop writing from a short story to a book. That makes good sense too. But then there is a new dilemma for teachers:

If we offered a class called This Semester You Start Your Novel, we’d be confronted by work that’s hard to critique and hard to grade. So many pages! So many mistakes! This is why we just keep teaching a class called, This Semester You Write Two Papers Whoops! We Mean Two Short Stories. 

I wonder to what degree my affinity for short projects stems from the sort of pedagogy that my MFA program immerses me in. Although I enjoy reading good books, I also find myself frustrated with repetition and wordiness in long-form works that could stand well as shorter pieces. The abundance of good short-form writing in online publications must have an influence as well.

I’m not sure what proportion of successful novels or nonfiction books are written by MFA graduates, or the proportion of short published pieces, for that matter. What’s most important to me is that I know I am learning, and my writing is improving. When I stop learning, then I’ll have a complaint.