Reading Poets & Writers

Reading the Sept/Oct 2009 issue of Poets & Writers, a magazine that claims it goes from “from inspiration to publication” I was struck by the numerous ads for writing programs, MFAs, on-line degrees, and workshops given by colleges and universities. While the ads claims to be about teaching writing, what they seem to be suggesting is destination travel.

For example, the full page ad for Chatham University in Pittsburgh has a woman with her laptop (by the way most of these ads feature laptops. What happened to pen-and-pencil and yellow pads?) sitting on cliffs high over the Monongahela or the Allegheny, the two rivers that dissect the rustbelt city.

 Now Chatham College (as it is well known) is up in the hills, miles from the polluted waters of the rivers that made this old industrial town famous before the turn of the last century. Nevertheless, this co-ed is watching white caps under the scripted selling line that reads: Big thinking for a big world. Perhaps she is writing a novel about escaping Pittsburgh!

 More amusing is a full page ad–this one in color–of the writing program at the University of California at Riverside. Here we have photographed a woman in a swimming pool. We see a bare shouldered blond at the edge of a sunlit pool wearing Anna Wintour signature sunglasses and reading from a book. Closer to us is a lounge chair, a stripped beach towel tossed on it, and a laptop (this time an expensive looking white Mac) and a pile of books waiting to be read, one is left open as if the pages are to be turned in the  warm California breeze.

The University of California at Riverside tells us that it has “The Hottest MFA In The Country” (I’m not sure if the beach beauty is included in that offer, but they do offer “Traditional & Low Residency Programs.” The pool, I guess, is obtional.

Or you can “Write from the Heartland” and get an MFA at someplace called Ashland University in Ohio. Their full page ad has a black-and-white photo of one of those ‘bridges of Madison County’….are they attempting to suggest you could be another Robert James Waller if you enroll in their two-year low residency program? Well, thank God, you don’t have to go live in Ashland, Ohio, wherever that is.

The best ad, however, is from the University of British Columbia. They have a smaller one (not much $ here) featuring a writer who is grinning and looks disturbingly like Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining poking his head through the door and shouting, “Here’s Johnny!”

This guy is quoted saying, “I live on Gabriola Island in a rambling old log and frame house I built 13 years ago. I have a veggie garden and some fruit trees”…well, do you do any writing? Have you published anything?

This program of prose offers “seven genres of study.” And, they write, “you never have to visit a classroom.” Now that’s a real  ‘optional residency program’.

What I find also interesting is that most of these writing programs sell themselves as “innovative creative writing programs.” What does that mean? You write in long hand? You use a typewriter? You Twitter? 

 Northwestern University talks about how they “develop your write brain” (they show a brain in their ad) and then they say, “All students are encouraged to move beyond their home genre.”

“Home genre”…!  Is that like being a Yankee fan? 

 Seattle Pacific University tells you that “great writing grows out of a respect for mystery, for the ambiguities that haunt the edges of experience.”

 No it doesn’t. Great writing grows out of writing. That’s what these program (low-residency or low-rent or otherwise) need to sell. You write and you share what you have written with classmates, and these ‘critics’ tell you if what  you have written sucks!

I have no objection to writing programs. Some of my best friends teach at writing programs. I have taught writing. And, in fact, way back when I was a teenager, I went to St. Louis University because they had a Writers Institute and I wanted to be a writer. That Writers Institute is long gone. The University (with Jesuit logic) closed it down just about the time writing programs were becoming cash cows for institutions in America.

But that Institute made me a writer (such as I am). I would suggest anyone  looking at writing programs consider one thing: who is teaching in the program? Don’t attend unless you know the writer you want to study with and love his or her books. 

You can’t go onto a college campus today and not stumble over a creative writing program, but what is important is the core faculty, not the setting, or the view, or if you’ll have the opportunity to grow a veggie garden.

The truth is that if you want to learn how to write, then write!

You’ll learn.


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  • Thanks for the feedback on the Ashland University MFA ad — I agree, writers should select programs based off of the teachers, and we have great teachers. We also have great covered bridges. 😉

    Have a great day–

  • Just a correction regarding the Chatham MFA ad. It’s pretty clear if you look closely that the student is sitting by the ocean, not a river. We travel every year with students to various parts of the world and offer a travel writing certificate, which is what the ad is supposed to suggest.

    And you might do a bit more research on Pittsburgh’s rivers, which are not nearly as polluted as they were when Rachel Carson was alive. Pittsburgh has done an incredible job cleaning up our air and waters. We still have a way to go but it’s wrong to characterize our waters as polluted.

    Sheryl St. Germain
    Director, Chatham MFA Program

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