If MFA Programs Don't Teach Story, What Good Are They?

Like porn, just about everyone knows a story when they see one. But to define it? To teach it? To know what a story is when sitting down to write one? Even writing instructors struggle with the concept of story. In fact, many seem to dismiss it altogether. I’ve had students fresh out of MFA programs who had no idea what a story was. One reported being told by her mentor: “You write so well, don’t worry about story, readers will follow you anywhere.”

It’s heartbreaking, because these writers had just spent a small fortune, and most of them were pretty good with words. Words that, unfortunately, went nowhere. Because they had no idea how to use them to tell a story, and what’s worse, they’d been taught that story is . . . lowbrow. Formula. For hacks. Not necessary. The attitude seemed to be that it’s the reader’s job to make sense of the author’s prose. And if the reader isn’t up to it? Well, leave ‘em to pulp fiction. Because “real” writers don’t pander to their audience.

The irony is that the most successful of these instructors, the ones who have published well read novels, are amazingly good at story. They just don’t know it. Why? Because it’s reflex, they live and breathe it, so they’ve never had to deconstruct it. When they write, their prose flows in story form without them having to give it a second thought. They don’t even realize they’re doing it. So their success is attributed, instead, to their masterful way words. But words are just the surface of a story. Their resonance, their meaning, their transformative power comes solely from the story they’re telling. Without it, they’d just be pretty words, lyrical gibberish. Make no mistake, words are the servant of story, not the other way around.

And so is voice, another thing MFA programs stress. Trouble is, without story, voice has nothing to say. I remember one very talented student who’d just completed her MFA. She’d worked hard to get into a particularly prestigious program because she wanted to study with a renowned author whose work she revered. She did. But upon graduation she discovered that not only hadn’t her writing improved, worse, her voice now sounded suspiciously like her mentor’s.

As you can see, I don’t think much of MFA programs. How about you? Maybe your experience is very different. Or maybe you have a horror story of your own. Tell us all about it, we’re dying to know!