What's With These Creative Writing Programs?

Years ago I went to St. Louis University as a 17-year-old undergraduate to attend their Writer’s Institute and to prepare myself to be the next Great American Novelist. The Writer’s Institute was then one of the few ‘writing programs’ in the country. I never became the Great American Novelist, and in typical Jesuit logic the University closed down their wonderful Writer’s Institute in the 1960s, just when many colleges and universities across the country were emulating the great Iowa Writer MFA program. Teaching creative writing has now become a cash cow for higher education. I am not sure how many full-time and low-residency creative writing programs there are in the U.S. and around the world, but it must be in the thousands.

What I find particularly amusing is not that there are so many programs (mostly for poets) but how they go about ‘selling’ themselves to would-be Great American Novelists. Reading, for example, the advertisements in the recent issues of Poets & Writers (May/June 2012) and The Writer’s Chronicle (May/Summer 2012) I was struck by the uncreative language used  in the Ads to attract writers.

It was rather amusing going from one glossy advertisement to the next and see the same few words used to describe what they offered graduates (and undergraduates) in the way of environments, courses, faculty and faculties that might catch the attention of the next David St. John or Stephen King.

Here’s what I mean (and what I read!) in these publications.

At the MFA in Creative Writing at Ashland University (that’s in Ohio) the heading states: “Write from the Heartland.” Now on the west coast, at the University of San Francisco, you can write in the “heart of San Francisco.” But wait! Lesley University, back in Boston, claim their students “Write from the Heart of Writing.” What about soul? Or Head? Or computer?

Other MFA programs don’t claim that they control the blood stream of writers. They push the climate. At the University of California in Riverside they have “THE HOTTEST MFA” (in just such big, black, bold letters.)

Most of the Ads, however, focus on the emotional tug, drawing new students with the peace and tranquility of their campuses which makes the Pacific University unique. They have writer Ben Percy’ photo in their Ad. He looks like a crazed poet staring out at readers, suggesting, I guess, that if you don’t enroll in the Pacific MFA Ben Percy will track you down and make you pay.

God must loves Antioch University as no amount of bad news can close down this college and its many off-brand campuses. If you go to LA and enroll in their low-residence MFA program you will (as stated in big, black bold print) CHANGE THE WORLD WITH WORDS. (They must think we’re going blind.)

Meanwhile, back in New Jersey, Drew University tells you that they have a faculty that focuses on you, while at Stephen F. Austin State University you can write “in the Piney Woods,” and at Oklahoma City, they offer “Red Earth” for their MFA. What is “Red Earth” really? Or, you can “find your voice” on the coast of Maine at the University of Southern Maine. How? Singing to the sea?

The Brits, too, are into hustling for Americans. Bath Spa University calls itself “The  Best Writing Programme In England” (and they’re sure to spell Programme the English way to let you know how English they are.) At Bath they also tell you right off that you do your ‘creative writing’ in a “listed Elizabethan manor house out of the World Heritage City of Bath.” Not sure if that helps your plotting or your prose.

My favorite Ad, however, is from Seton Hall University in New Jersey which they claim proudly is just 14 miles from New York City (well, so is Sing Sing about 14 miles from NYC.)

This M.A. in creative writing doesn’t sell itself with a photo of a brooding writer, or a profound quote from some famous writer, or even that you can change the world with you prose and poetry. No! They have a photo of a beat up pick-up truck from the ’50s next to their course description, as if to suggest, perhaps (subliminally), that if you get a MFA in creative writing from them, and not a masters in computing, that pick-up truck will be all you’ll be able to afford to buy.

Finally, let me recall the famous story told about Sinclair Lewis, and how he was invited to talk to some students, I believe at Columbia University, about the writer’s craft. He stood at the head of the class and asked, “How many of you here are really serious about being writers?” A sea of hands shot up. Lewis then asked, “Well, why aren’t you all home writing?” And with that he walked out of the room.

So much for creative writing programs. I suggest you join the Peace Corps, then you’ll have something to write about.

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