Would you rather be an enlightened barista or a working writer?

My brother Tod did an interview with the Association of Writers and Writing Projects blog about his approach to running the low residency MFA program in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside. This brief excerpt pretty much says it all: 

Caleb J Ross: You said something at last year’s AWP which stuck with me. Paraphrased, of course, you said that you teach your MFA classes like an instructor of any trade program might, with the end goal of providing financial opportunities for the students. This seems like a radically different approach than most MFAs which may instead focus on non-definable, creative signposts to gauge student success. First, am I expressing your idea correctly? Second, how is this goal compromised by a low-residency program, if it even is?

Tod Goldberg: Pretty close. Essentially my philosophy is that if you’re in an MFA program, your goal isn’t to become the most well-read person on earth with a handful of literary quotes at your disposal at all times, it’s to be published. It’s to be produced. Graduate programs in creative writing are some of the few that seem entirely esoteric because they don’t seem to be training you for anything tangible, apart from maybe being a particularly enlightened barista, because, well, that’s frequently the case.  But I think that has to change. Being a professional writer is a job. And if you want to write books, or write screenplays, or write poetry, simply for personal edification, you certainly don’t need an MFA program to do that. But if you want to become a professional writer, I think an MFA program can and should be a clear stepping stone in that direction. Most aren’t. Most entirely eschew the idea of life after the MFA — in fact, most programs tend to herald your acceptance into the program as the “making it” part of your writing career, which is silly. It’s school. It’s what you do afterward that makes a difference…


8 thoughts on “Would you rather be an enlightened barista or a working writer?”

  1. I think many educational programs forget that the purpose of education is to prepare for the next stage of life by creating future professionals. They get stuck in their own love of study and passion to produce papers for their peers that they forget there are other reasons for learning.

  2. I applaud your brother. He’s proof that the old adage “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” is only “almost” always true.

  3. I have yet to find any MFA creative writing programs that focus on genre fiction or popular fiction. And I’ve been hunting for years. At any rate, I like what Tod is saying and doing. He’s a blessing to his students. I have no fear of competition from the seven thousand or so students who graduate each year from creative writing programs, including bachelor, MFA and even a few doctoral ones. All they produce is more artsy-fartsy stuff, mostly about dysfunctional families. They can flourish only in academic zoos.

  4. There are few programs that even allow genre fiction, Richard, much less focus on it, which is something I find extremely distressing. The few that do tend to have program directors who have a foot in both literary fiction and genre fiction, like I do. That we also have a screenwriting program really opens the door to commercial writing in general — most MFA programs don’t have screenwriting as a component — but also brings the issue of making a business out of it important. No one writes screenplays because they want to be poor, after all.

  5. Tod, thank you for that. Implicit in the academic assumptions about an MFA degree in creative writing is that popular fiction is not a “fine art” and thus not worthy of study or emulation. That is, people like Tony Hillerman, John Jakes, Taylor Caldwell, Mary Higgins Clark, Elmore Leonard, or James Clavell produced little or nothing worthy of academic consideration, and all such works are inherently inferior to literary novels. I wish I knew where that perception came from, and why it is so rigorously believed in academia. Whenever I read a crummy literary novel, the prejudice seems all the stranger to me.

  6. Richard:
    You’re right about feeling confused every time you read another poorly written “literary” novel. The reason for this distinction stems from time long past and overly naive in the first place (I’m talking about the 60’s here) in which these ideas were born. Originally there wasn’t such a hard line drawn between “literary” and “genre.” There were just books with very tenuously defined categories. From amongst those, some rose to the top of their hills to define, redefine, or tear down their genres in new and interesting ways. These were the books heralded by the academics (back when academics actually read books instead of merely their own criticism, and subsequently criticism of the criticism, etc. etc., but I digress). So, yes, once upon a time a genre novel, let’s say such as a seafaring adventure tale about hunting a whale (yes, Moby Dick), would be praised as high literary art. And it still is, but only out of rote obedience to old traditions and a steadily fading sense of preserving the “classics” (feminism and the other “isms” will destroy us all). But, would Moby Dick be so lauded today, or would it be written off as 19th century sea-shanty genre fiction and relegated to the mass-market paperbacks section condemned to obscurity unless it gained a cult fanbase (which is the only way genre writers can break through).
    Now, however, with the onslaught of the college creative writing programs that graduate so many budding “great American authors” there is a glut in the so-called “literary” novel and has, in turn, established itself as its own genre, and in the eyes of the elites is the only one that matters.
    There are now just as many “literary” writers as there are of any popular genre, if not more. The irony here is that “literary” books almost never sell (short of winning the Pulitzer, you might sell 2500 units). Granted, this is the case for most writers, but the odds against being published are just as hard or harder, because these books don’t sell very well.
    I, myself, and a perfect irony of that system. I went for the MFA, not for some pipe dream that it would build me into a great writer, but only because I knew it would drastically increase my chances of landing a good teaching gig with benefits and a steady paycheck (which every writer needs). I came from a redmud place in the oft-derided deep-South where my choice was either that or dig ditches. While at the MFA, I wrote my book, Raise a Holler, and it was adored by my atsy-fartsy faculty committee members. I graduated and left the program thinking I had a top-notch literary property on my hands (and I do, really. Well, maybe medium-notch, but worth the cost of the book). I then spent over two years getting it rejected by agents and publishers left and right, not because it wasn’t good (They all said it was good, oddly), but because it was “not marketable.” So, there you have it. I slightly revised it (not much), repackaged it as a genre work (Southern crime/southern adventure), and have had a good smattering of success in publishing several chapters as single stories and even gained an ebook imprint on the full manuscript. Not the literary success story of our decade, but a start. The cool thing is, I can take tidbits and fractions of what I gained in my college writing experience (the best of which was watching my Gators win two national championships, so how ’bout them Gators?!!) and use those toward writing more interesting genre fiction. It’s the same concept, whether you’re writing a book about Irish gypsies on steam-powered airships or writing the next WASP-y navel-gazer; write the best one you can.
    But, let’s face another fact, too, while we’re at it. Big publishing doesn’t really give a rat’s turd about either group. They’re going to continue to dump money into garbage like the Snooki book or the J.Lo tell-all like there’s no tomorrow. Big publishing will openly say they’re praying for the next Harry Potter or Twilight to ride in on a white horse and save their dying economic system.
    The future of publishing can and must come from forward minded small imprints that allow creator-controlled/creator-owned properties. Books still need editors, but we editors will have to keep our dayjobs, too.


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