Writer Cathy Day put up a great blog post last week in which she, with some help from Dinty Moore, discussed the reasons why getting a MA in creative writing (as opposed to a MFA) is not a waste of time or money. One benefit: The MA program allows young writers a few more years to decide which writing genre defines them. Having made that decision, these writers are now prepared to apply to MFA programs, which all require you to focus on a single genre and to name that genre on your application. Cathy is absolutely right that MFA programs typically do require this sort of specialization, but I think it's a fair to ask whether they should. It's long been noted that the habit of defining writers by single genres is an American mindset, one not imitated by readers and writers in other countries. It's not uncommon in Britain or Ireland, for example, for an author to write novels, short stories, radio plays, film scripts, and poetry over the course of a career--and maybe at the same time! In America such a writer is regarded as a curious, almost inexplicable, exception to rule; and the writer might even meet suspicion from the literary policemen of our culture, as if one can't possibly be serious about writing the Great American Novel if one also likes to dabble in sestinas. It's sort of the capitalistic model applied to a writing career: Do one thing; do it over and over and over again; anything other use of your time represents sinful inefficiency. Henry Ford built a lot of cars this way.
The problem is, acting as a writer is not the same as being a cog in a manufacturing assembly line. Practice at one genre inevitably helps one with various aspects of another genre. What better way for a fiction writer to enhance her dialogue that to write plays? What better way to for the same writer to practice precision and economy in her descriptions that to write poetry? But even these equations, while true, seem incomplete because they suggest that the only reason a person writes in one genre is to serve the needs of that person's "real" genre. It's the Henry Ford model all over again, just stated differently. The fact is that every writer, and I mean every single one, no matter how young or old, has a lot inside of him or her that is begging to be chewed over, imagined, elucidated, and articulated. These may be subjects of great private and emotional importance or they might be exterior and intellectual or even political concerns. And to take on one of these different subjects aptly the writer will probably need at one point to embrace another genre than the one he's best known for. But when the writer does take on the subject, he'll immdiately feel an artistic rush of feeling that makes him say, This is exactly what I need to be writing right at this moment. And finally what the writer recognizes at the end of the day is growth, both as a person and an artist.
This subject of genre flexibility, as you may have guessed, is one of special concern to me. Through high school and college I wrote both poetry and fiction. In graduate school I also discovered that I really liked composing plays. I focused on poetry for my MFA degree but fiction for my Ph.D dissertation. During my tenure at UCA, I've taught almost every genre we teach in the creative writing program, and I've published in them all. Just this past week, I proofread galleys of a long personal essay on marathon running that I'm publishing in 1966; I proofread galleys of a one-act play that I'm publishing in Foliate Oak; I finished a crown of sonnets that I started in my Wednesday night Topics in Creative Writing class; and I edited a couple short stories that I've written this semester to prepare them to submit to journals. I find it difficult to qualify any of these activities as wasteful or a distraction from what I'm "supposed" to be doing. I'm supposed to be doing all of them.
At UCA's MFA program we are unique in NOT insisting that our students stick to a single genre. Admittedly, this is a virtue forced upon us by the fact that we are a new program with relatively few faculty. The only way to make sure our students get the number of classes they need is for them to take many of the same classes together; this means they are often "forced" to take classes in genres outside of the ones by which they originally defined themselves. But we're discovering that our students our benefiting in profound and unexpected ways from this arrangement. Two students who came to the program thinking of themselves as poets--and still very much are--wrote novels in my Novel Writing Workshop class that they now want to revise and use as their theses. One of these students, having caught the bug, started a second novel almost as soon as she finished the first for me last spring. Another student who was admitted to the program on the strength of her nonfiction has found that she is growing as a science fiction and fantasy writer, even while she continues to write nonfiction. Yet another student, a talented and committed young poet, just had his first publication the other day: a piece of nonfiction. And I know the whole group had their eyes opened last spring by the poetry workshop they took with Terry Wright, our resident master lyricist and current dean. In a more conventional program, our students would have been denied these formative experiences. And it's not just that they are growing in other genres, they are growing as writers period. Including the genre they "specialize" in.
The problem with enforcing genre prisons isn't just that they hamper budding young writers, however. In my opinion, all writers should see themselves as young writers their whole career; they should welcome each new project as a new challenge; indeed, they should seek out new challenges, even if that means going outside of genre.