23 January 2011

To Degree or Not To Degree?

Back in December there was something of a debate over on Neil Gaiman’s blog about whether or not to get a writing degree. Well, I have two of them and am a completely unpublished, unproduced writer, so I figure I might as well weigh in.

First off I should say that I am closer to 30 than 25, am wildly underemployed, make no money, am $60,000 in debt (for grad and undergrad in NYC: so really not that much) and my assets include a half-finished novel on my hard drive.

I was encouraged not to write genre and not to write for children. (Both of which I’m doing now.) I was lucky enough not to want to try writing comics since I’ve heard that the academic response is even worse. I’ve had teachers who apparently reveled in their ability to make young adults cry in front of their peers. I’ve had classmates who were pretentious, or drug addicts, or lazy plagiarizing jerks. In arts programs grade inflation runs rampant, but is not as dangerous as the rampant egos of your classmates or professors. It is a crazy chaotic world that can cause permanent psychological damage if you invest too much of yourself in the process.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

Part of the problem is that most people think that writing programs will teach you to write. This is NOT TRUE. (Of course, studying a management textbook won’t necessarily make you a great manager either. It’s worth remembering that higher education is often a bit of crapshoot. You may gain the necessary skills to perform a task, or you may not.) There are certainly things you can learn from a good writing program, but how to write isn’t one of them.

For instance, my first writing degree is a BFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU. This was a tiny program of only fifty kids a year. When I started you could focus on playwriting or screenwriting and now they’ve added television screenwriting as well. There were basically two types of classes: traditional workshops and what could be described as history/analysis classes.

The workshops were as I described above: a lot of crazy students, a lot of crazy professors and amounts of competition that would be more familiar to the gladiatorial arena.

The fundamental course of the program was something called “Craft.” Craft combined these two types of classes. We met twice a week, one day was a workshop and one day was a lecture course (although the two had a lot of crossover). This was the same set-up for both Craft of Screenwriting and Craft of Playwriting. Again, in the crapshoot that is education, your craft teacher determined a lot about what happened to you for the next four years. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful craft teacher (the playwright Paul Selig) who really drilled us in the fundamentals of story, character, reversal, plot and structure. He gave us assignments that were achievable, but tricky: write a monologue based on a photograph, write a dialogue based on that monologue, write a scene on a train with these six random objects, write a screenplay that is an adaptation of a short story, write a scene to a piece of music, keep a dream journal and turn a dream into a short film, write a one-act play in real time (This is the greatest assignment that I’ve ever been given: you want to learn to write? Do this.). We teased out the difference between plot and structure, talked about the importance of the audience and the only textbook was Aristotle’s Poetics.

The other analysis classes were just as good. In Shakespeare For Writers we looked at theme and delved into deep structural/textual analysis of the plays (is the chaos of Much Ado About Nothing attributable to the highest ranking noble being only a prince?). In Film Script Analysis we broke down films by beat in one semester and in another we examined modern examples of given genres through the history of the genre itself. For example we watched a modern romantic comedy in conjunction with an analysis of the genre of the romance beginning with courtly love and ending with the idea of the companionate marriage.

In these classes I learned the grammar of structure: that something has to change (even just a character’s perception) in each scene, how to ask a question in one scene and build tension by not answering it until another, that you need to push your characters to do the worst things they can (or to have the worst things that could happen to them happen), and how to pick and choose among all your options to lead the audience on the journey you want them to go on. I learned how to think about story as an equation (because of x, y happens) and how to think of reversals as logic gates. I had serious conversations about establishing the appropriate amount of “peanut butter” (the emotional entanglement or stickiness of a relationship) between characters. I learned the difference between set-up, rising action, action, climax, falling action, and denouement. I learned that you have to build space into a story for character, for breathing, to make the next piece of action mean something. I learned to “tag” or “twist the knife” at the end of each scene. I learned that a sitcom writer is supposed to have three jokes a page, and if a page equals a minute, you should laugh every 20 seconds of a good sitcom. (And that if you lose your audience for more than 20 seconds you are probably in trouble, no matter what you’re writing).

But all that analysis, reading, watching, reviewing and breaking down only worked because we were leaving those classes and going into the crazy workshops. And truthfully, I loved workshops. I loved feeling like you could get your hands into the clay of the story. That each sentence (at least for the first third of a story), could lead anywhere and to anything. That the work had infinite possibilities.

Was I frustrated by my professors? Yes. (Especially when one basically said my grandmother was psychotic, because my professor’s daughter was a hospice nurse: no seriously, that was basically her argument. And context really doesn’t make it any more sensible.) Was I frustrated with selfish students who didn’t care to read or comment, but darn well wanted theirs? Yes. But that’s the way life is. Art school really will prepare you for incompetent insane bosses and nutty co-workers. Your skin will get thicker. You will learn to embrace useful critique while still loving your writing. You have to, because the other option is to quit writing.

But when I read the description of workshops like the one up at Neil Gaiman’s blog, I realize that most programs are more like my Masters program. No lectures, no breaking down writing and structure, just throwing writers into the metaphorical deep end. This sink or swim mentality would be great if you were actually auditioning people for a writing job, but it really doesn’t help students.

There were moments in my Masters program where a flaw in some writing would seem obvious to me, but the responses would just seem odd. There were people who didn’t understand basic ideas about how a scene includes change or how collections of scenes need to build on each other to create rising action. These sorts of mistakes would have gotten lectures, requests for more in depth outlines, reading suggestions or even the class re-arranging the whole scene on the blackboard in my undergrad workshops. But in my Masters program there would just be vague suggestions and requests for rewrites because “it’s not working.” But there would be no look at what would work or which storytelling fundamentals were being ignored.

That sort of writing program would have destroyed me as an undergrad. There are plenty of mistakes in my writing (Well beyond typos: I have a flair for the unnecessarily complicated.) and I needed to learn how to find them, what they were, and how to fix them. I suspect a diet of strict workshops would perhaps teach you the first, but nothing about the second two.

But I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for my MFA. I didn’t want to learn how to write. I wanted a group of writers I could trust and keep meeting with, I wanted to intern (this is the most important thing you can do if you’re in art school, and I never did enough), I wanted a piece of paper that said I could teach (an MFA is a terminal degree) and I wanted to stop doing what I was doing. I got all of those things. Except for the piece of paper I imagine you could do all of that for much, much cheaper.

If you want to learn to write you shouldn’t go to a regular workshop based program. (And if you want to write screenplays or scripts, you should start by studying them, because they are much more restrictive type of writing than prose. I am constantly shocked that I get to just write what the character is thinking instead of figuring out how to reveal that through actions or dialogue.) But there are programs that teach what writing is and what it does and if you’re paying attention that information can translate into how to do it.


At 4:10 PM, Blogger Ghenet said...

The classes you took at NYU sound amazing. I wish we could have learned about the craft of writing in our MFA program. I agree that our critiques would have been more productive and helpful if we had. Lately I've started reading books on writing to learn the types of things you were taught at NYU. I'm finding them helpful as I forge through the rest of my draft.

I still don't regret getting an MFA because there were plenty of other benefits, even if I didn't quite learn how to write. I had taken a few writing classes pre-MFA so I felt I had a decent foundation.

Anyway, interesting topic! Thanks for sharing. :)

At 4:35 PM, Blogger Mike said...

I don't regret my MFA either. I just think it's worth understanding that there are at least two kinds of programs. The New School one is the most dominant, so I was really trying to contrast the two.

But, just as an example none of the people in my MFA program were heroin addicts. So yay there!

Seriously, I love my MFA cohorts! I wouldn't trade you guys for anything!


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