What MFA programs don’t teach

There are definitely things you don’t learn in an MFA program, things that are necessary to becoming a successful writer. Now that I am done, I have come to understand this. I guess I’m willing to excuse it— obviously no grad program can cover everything, and every student makes choices about what to take and who to take it with. And there are always the arguments by anti-MFA folks about how if you need someone to teach you to be a successful writer you’ll never be a successful writer. Yeah, yeah.

But I’ve been thinking about my struggle with revision, and about wildguppy‘s comment on it, in which she describes having similar revision woes. There’s no doubt that revising a piece of writing, whether it’s a short story or a poem or a full-length memoir or novel, is hard. It requires patience and a clear head and, somehow, distance from your own creative work.

But I was looking back on my MFA experience, and I realized that revision was not part of the program. I was lucky enough to take a course on “writing the nonfiction book” which gave me an understanding of how to go about constructing something longer than an essay. And, we had to write book proposals for the class so that when we finished our nonfiction books we’d be able to submit them to agents. In this respect the class was practical, helpful, and informative. But I realize now that we skipped a step: Revision! In fact, in none of my workshops was I ever required to revise a piece I had turned in previously. The only way to get help with a rewrite was to turn in the revised piece to another workhop, which to me always seemed a waste when you could be turning in something new. Plus, the students in the 2nd workshop probably wouldn’t have seen the pre-revision version and so wouldn’t be able to comment on whether the changes you made were good or bad.

So now, as I try to revise 270 pages of a book, along with a number of other essays and short stories that have been shelved since I produced and workshopped them in my MFA program, I am lost. To be fair, I can’t blame my MFA program for everything. I am, after all, inexperienced at writing books, and very inexperienced at revising my own work. But looking back, I see that a class in revision would have been a huge help. There’s probably no magic revision formula, but having an idea of where to begin, or another writer’s process would be very, very helpful.

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2 thoughts on “What MFA programs don’t teach

  1. My MFA program (same one as Wildguppy’s) now has a revision class–but who knows how that is? Yes, revision is a lonely process, lonelier than the writing itself. I wish you luck.

  2. When I was revising my novel, I found a lot of articles to help me with the process. There are as many ways to revise a manuscript as there are ways to write the damn thing.

    In the end — and I know this sounds strange — you are limited by your own talent. I didn’t expect to turn my crazy, rambling novel into a blaze of glory, just into something that was workmanlike and made some sense.

    You might still be too close to the manuscript, and could need a few more months before looking at it critically. I think the longer the manuscript, the longer you need to step away.

    In the end, my revision process was simple. Take it one chapter at a time and make it as good as possible before moving on. Sometimes I finished a chapter in an hour; sometimes it took a week. Occasionally I left a crucial scene alone to revise later. This method resulted in some backtracking when I screwed up (which was often), but seeing those polished chapters pile up was encouraging.

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