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There’s Not Always a Pill for That: In Defense of Conflict

By posted at 6:00 am on February 18, 2016 27

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If you talk to literature professors, you may have heard them wonder aloud at the tendency of their students to diagnose characters. Anna Karenina clearly has borderline personality disorder, Holden Caulfield seems to have been abused as a child, Raymond Carver’s characters wouldn’t have these problems if they’d just go to AA. Perhaps it’s an obvious direction for students to take, given the information society provides them. Yet it’s pointless to reflect that Mrs. Dalloway could have benefited from Prozac. It wasn’t available to her.

The stakes are raised, though, when you consider work being produced by those same students in creative writing workshops, whose characters (period pieces excluded) have access to a range of drugs and treatments for mental illness. In the rush for realism, students are quick to say a character struggle wouldn’t happen because, “she’d be on Lithium by now.” This class climate presents a challenge for the fiction teacher. When there’s a pill-for-that at every turn, what happens to conflict in narrative?

I recently returned to school to pursue my MFA. During student-teaching of a fiction workshop I was surprised at the difference from the workshops I’d attended in undergraduate classes 20 years before.

The students, I noticed right away, have a more gentle demeanor than those who’d been my peers in undergrad during the early-90s. They seem more mindful of the tender feelings connected to the works-in-progress. They give constructive criticism and demonstrate little joy in pointing out weaknesses in their peers’ stories. But they are relentless on medical details that are likely to vary from person to person. Like how the body responds to Oxycontin. How people with Alzheimer’s behave. How depression manifests itself. How sleeplessness is not usually a symptom of psychosis (Really? I’m not sure about that. How do I correct this student? I didn’t receive this particular training!)

A friend with whom I’ve workshopped fiction for years, Maggie Leffler, is also a doctor, so I thought she might have an interesting perspective, that she might at least be shocked at all these laymen so quick to make diagnoses they’re not trained to make. People aren’t shy on that front, she tells me. In a workshop with her own peers, one reader said her character should just get on Lexapro. “But her mother had just died,” Leffler remembers thinking.

“Pretty much any character’s idiosyncrasies could be interpreted as symptoms of a mental illness,” Leffler says. “But we want to read stories about the human condition, not necessarily a medical case study.”

Still, why should it bother me? Why not just redirect and move on? After all, doctors are using writing to improve their approach with patients, why shouldn’t writers use the medical knowledge they’ve accumulated? I asked Jason Lewis, who runs a series of writing classes for physicians through his work as the director of the writing and humanities program at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, and who is also the editor of its journal, The Examined Life, which features the creative works of physicians.

The doctors-in-training who take his course love it because it represents a departure from their typically humanities-free curriculum. “They tell me the writing helps them remain present as individuals for their patients. When things get difficult they may be less likely to shut themselves down.” Free from the hunt for a final and correct answer, their thought processes have room for a fresh kind of discovery.

Lewis believes that the reverse, however — letting a creative writing discussion get hung-up on the finer points of a medical or psychiatric condition — is a form of narrowing, of letting the science take over in a realm where the human condition (not the medical condition) must remain sovereign. He has also taught young people who want to be writers, and he thinks the medicalization trend is a symptom of a desire to sanitize, to avoid anything uncomfortable. Their characters tend to act wild only if they’re drunk (so he forbids his first-year students from including excessive drinking in their works), conflict rarely reaches a breaking point, characters get on anti-depressants, and the story ends abruptly. “How can you blame them: they live in the era of micro-aggressions and trigger warnings. Their characters, their very thoughts, must seem dangerous.”

Author and psychiatrist Doris Iarovici adds a wider lens to Lewis’s observation, pointing out that the students might be right to worry about what thoughts they put on the page. “In medicine, we once thought of fantasy as something the patient was unlikely to act on, but now, in these times of mass shootings, spurious lawsuits, and limited time to evaluate patients, if a patient divulges a fantasy with certain disturbing elements, in some cases we are required by law to take it very seriously, even to report it.”

Our imaginations may not be considered sufficiently separate from real life anymore. So the fiction writer, at work conjuring conflict (a form of Munchausen by proxy, maybe?), becomes a sort of psychopath, a war-monger of human emotions, when we should be giving peace a chance.

Where does this leave a fiction student exploring characters of all types, asking peers to look at the work and offer suggestions to improve it? If these peers don’t say the psychotic protagonist needs psychiatric help right now, are they themselves guilty by inaction? If they don’t scold the sexist behavior of a character, are they somehow complicit?

Conflict has long been considered a cornerstone of fiction: Man against man. Man against nature. Man against himself. Sharon Dilworth, professor of creative writing at Carnegie Mellon, thinks the discomfort with inner turmoil may be the reason so many students are turning to science fiction. They can handle man-against-nature or man-against-evil, but they come up dry on conflicts against another good person, or against self. “We’ll workshop a story about a planet without water, so I’ll ask them, ‘but what’s the problem?’ and of course I mean interpersonal but they say, ‘well, there’s no water.’” Or a student will turn in a story in which the roommate who at first seemed distant is revealed to be paranormally evil, so the “good” main character has no choice but to kill her. “There’s no conflict for a whole story and suddenly they’re blowing up the world or killing the roommate.”

If main characters are always good, if protagonists always squeaky clean, what is revealed about our inner selves? Have we decided there is no value in exploring the darker side of real human existence?

Literacy advocates argue that putting conflict on the page is a good way to help people process it in their imaginations so that real life is more manageable — Lewis’s medical students use fiction to build bedside manner, for example, and (scientific!) studies show that reading literature builds empathy. For great moments in literature to play out, conflict must play out, and often characters must behave in ways that aren’t pretty. By resisting conflict on the page, we may risk being resistant to empathy.

It’s a phenomenon wrapped up with the likability theme that recurs in writing discussions. Writers worry in workshop about the moment a character does something evil or wrong. Perhaps the action needs to be explained, perhaps there’s a psychological problem that has seized an otherwise likable person. They squirm at the idea that a character might be evil or wrong in a way that is untreatable, unsolvable. To be evil or wrong, even just once, may be culturally untenable. And the phenomenon reaches beyond the workshop, awaiting writers who may one day face agents and publishers who are equally influenced by trends that demand likable characters who only do the right thing — or who do the wrong thing for a very good reason.

Iarovici remembers a discussion she had with a high school student preparing an essay for college. Iarovici asked the young woman to describe something in her life that went poorly or she regretted, a reflection on strengths and weaknesses. The student became flustered and couldn’t answer the question. “I guess I should come up with a weakness that’s really a strength, huh?” she finally said. Iarovici reflects: “It’s like it’s unacceptable to make mistakes or have anything dark in your past.”

We’re a culture of problem-solvers. The very format of the workshop — to read the work of peers, find “problems” with the work and suggest solutions — is often at odds with the human complexity that fiction so effectively celebrates.

But a workshop instructor has good reason to wrest the discussion away from the quick fix, to inspire these fledgling authors to get their hands dirty, go into the darkest recesses of the imagination. The future of narrative (at least the interesting kind) may depend on it.

Here are a few suggested re-directs for a medically-derailed workshop discussion:

1. Applaud the attention to detail and accuracy, but question whether too much detail about the psychological disorder will be meaningful to the story.

2. Remind the students that they’re the same ones who are resisting the confines of gendered pronouns. Why are they okay with boxing characters into diagnoses?

3. Remind the students that discussion time is short. A medical point can only be made quickly and then back to the conflict.

4. Suggest that, for purposes of narrative, the malady the author has included could go unnamed, thereby preventing the reader from comparing symptoms in the story to a WebMD page when (we hope) the story is about much more.

5. Ask to explore reasons that the character might avoid the “obvious” solution. Have them brainstorm ways to preserve conflict. Remind them that maybe it’s better to have a story than a diagnosis or case study.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.





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27 Responses to “There’s Not Always a Pill for That: In Defense of Conflict”

  1. heathercurran
    at 8:42 am on February 18, 2016

    And the Human Condition of suffering and discontent need not be pegged into a diagnosis from the DSM, which changes all the time. Don’t forget homosexuality used to be considered a condition for psychiatrists to “fix”. BPD is the new Hysteria. Who know what it will be called in a hundred years. Further, pegging fictional characters into categories of mental illness denies them the complexity of personality that they, indeed all of us, have. If we continue in this vein characters lose their humanity, flawed and struggling to be good (or whatever). We may as way horoscope them, like Jane was a Pisces therefore she was deep and whimsical and prone to wearing flowing boho dresses.

  2. heathercurran
    at 8:48 am on February 18, 2016

    *may as well horoscope. I really need to proofread my shit before posting.

  3. Sham
    at 9:12 am on February 18, 2016

    This whole discussion just goes to show why MFA programs produce mostly boring, similar work. This comment says is all:

    “one reader said her character should just get on Lexapro.”

    In order for a person to go on Lexapro, or any other medication, they need to have the means to do so. I’m guessing more than half of the country can’t afford to go on Lexapro. Another proportion does not have access to it – rural or small town folk. So we’re back to more writing about white upper-middle-class urban Coastal lefties.

    May I offer tip #6: If students are serious about writing, have them get out of the workshop and go live in the real world for a year or two. Their fiction will improve in ways no workshop can approach.

  4. Nina Corwin, clinical social worker, Chicago IL
    at 1:20 pm on February 18, 2016

    As a psychotherapist, I totally appreciate your article. First, if you haven’t been trained you shouldn’t be diagnosing. Not only because you know nothing about the nuance of human phenomenon (what professionals call “rule-outs – the alternative possibilities) but because of the lack of objectivity (people are on a tear of diagnosing those with behaviors they don’t like as narcissistic or psychopaths). Most important, though, diagnosing a literary character is reductionistic in a context where uncertainty is of the utmost importance. Approaching the character on his/her own terms requires leaving judgments at the door and experiencing/relating to that character. This is also the case in psychotherapy. Would such readers/writers like to be pegged this way by a therapist? My guess is they’d prefer to be known on their own terms. Oh how much we miss – as writers and (amateur) therapists when the OTHER, (to quote TS Eliot) is pinned and wriggling on the wall). It makes people feel smart when they diagnose. But remember, too what Keats says about negative capability, what psychology calls “tolerating ambiguity.” I read AND write to experience the world on its own terms. I suggest that these students do the same.

  5. Tony M
    at 4:40 pm on February 18, 2016

    “…Raymond Carver’s characters wouldn’t have these problems if they’d just go to AA….”

    Who ever said that clearly never read Where I’m Calling From.

  6. Huehuehuehue
    at 6:34 pm on February 23, 2016

    “This whole discussion just goes to show why MFA programs produce mostly boring, similar work. This comment says is all:
    “one reader said her character should just get on Lexapro.”
    In order for a person to go on Lexapro, or any other medication, they need to have the means to do so. I’m guessing more than half of the country can’t afford to go on Lexapro. Another proportion does not have access to it – rural or small town folk. So we’re back to more writing about white upper-middle-class urban Coastal lefties.
    May I offer tip #6: If students are serious about writing, have them get out of the workshop and go live in the real world for a year or two. Their fiction will improve in ways no workshop can approach.”

    One, the majority of MFA students don’t go straight from undergrad (they could use even longer, imo, but I think the average age is mid-twenties). Two, if you don’t think the non-MFA writing world is equally or perhaps even more rife with boringly pathologized, middle-class white characters, you are out of your goddamned mind. The larger culture and its intellectual failings get distilled in MFA programs for our easy periodic amusement in pieces like this, but MFA programs do not exist in a separate dimension, sorry to say.

  7. Sham
    at 10:13 am on February 24, 2016

    “MFA programs do not exist in a separate dimension, sorry to say.”

    If you think a bunch of students paying a shitload of money to do nothing but sit and think and write for a couple years resembles in any way the “real world” you are out of your goddamned mind.

  8. Ryan
    at 11:24 am on February 24, 2016

    MFA programs are valuable to the top five percent of writers, the ones who will publish. The rest of the students are just there to keep the lights on. If only there was a pill that would make them stop talking for three hours a week.

  9. Amy
    at 12:34 pm on February 24, 2016

    @Sham: You are aware that most MFA applicants try for fully-funded programs (and that those exist and are probably the majority of MFA programs), right? Unless someone insists on going to Columbia or makes the decision to take an unfunded offer somewhere, they’re probably not going into significant debt for an MFA. I know I’m not.

  10. Huehuehuehue
    at 1:05 pm on February 24, 2016

    Sham,

    You seemed to have missed my point. Most MFA students have been in “the real world” (whatever that means) before doing an MFA.

    @Amy,

    No, of course he/she doesn’t know that. MFA-haters’ first salvo is always something snide about paying a shitload of money for the degree, which as you say, isn’t true of most programs. I mean, I;m okay with people hating MFAs–there are plenty of legitimate reasons to do so–but paying for the degree isn’t one of them, and it’s kind of irritating how wrong people always are about that.

  11. butt
    at 3:49 pm on February 24, 2016

    Why do we expect great work from young writers? Sure, there’s a cultural expectation that genius strikes early; we think a first novel is more likely to contain the fresh spark we all crave, and our expectations for later work are greatly reduced, although this is probably just marketing. But the reality is that most great art is produced by mature artists. Someone who has spent most of their adult life in college–and yes, being in a fully funded MFA program contributes to this effect–has encountered little real conflict, little original insight. For many young writers, introspection simply isn’t possible. The well must be filled before it can be drunk. In your twenties, the conflicts you encounter are the same as anyone else’s; breaking up with your boyfriend of three years, falling out with your parents due to your lifestyle, quitting your job because your supervisor harasses you. It’s the accumulation of these conflicts that allows you to apply perspective and insight to them. Barring extraordinary talent or circumstances, I wouldn’t expect a great human novel from anyone so early in life, and would encourage patience from anyone who has to teach this lesson to young adults.

  12. Sham
    at 4:48 pm on February 24, 2016

    Whether or not an MFA is funded or not is irrelevant to the sheltered environment it creates. In fact, someone paying you to sit and think and write a few stories presents an even greater “real world” disconnect – in the real world you are paid to produce. So thanks for strengthening my point!

    Is there any data to support the “most MFA students have been in the real world”? I went into my MFA right away, as did 90% of my classmates, but perhaps this was just an unusual experience.

  13. Huehuehuehue
    at 5:18 pm on February 24, 2016

    Tom Kealey’s book says the average age is 28. As far as I know he’s about the only person who’s done any actual research on the matter, though I can’t vouch for the exact number. Nonetheless it suggests the average person has done some things in between college and the MFA. My MFA experience supports this: there was a range from 22 to around 40.

    To your larger (I think) point, well, being wrong doesn’t usually strengthen an argument, especially when–in this specific case–that argument is incorrectly premised on a characterization of most MFA candidates as fatuous idiots willing to shell out “a shitload of money” for their worthless degree. My worthless degree was free and, in fact, floated my writing for three years. I’m not sure why–other than the fact that it seems you may have been one of those people who actually went into debt for their MFA–you would be so hostile to this idea.

    Also, in the real world, sure, you are “paid to produce something,” I guess, but for most writers that entails sitting in cubicles doing shitty unimportant work, so Idk what’s so much more valiant or heroic or nourishing about that than living on a modest stipend and getting to be around other people excited about art for a couple of years. Your entire position, to be honest, reeks of some kind of strange caricature of MFA-land a la Girls.

  14. Huehuehuehue
    at 5:41 pm on February 24, 2016

    butt,

    I agree with you. I think MFAs can be a good experience for younger people, validating and perhaps informing work down the road. But yeah, in general, most people are not going to write anything very worthwhile until around, say, thirty.

  15. butt
    at 1:52 am on February 25, 2016

    “Also, in the real world, sure, you are “paid to produce something,” I guess, but for most writers that entails sitting in cubicles doing shitty unimportant work[…]”

    Why would most writers who don’t go for an MFA end up in a cubicle? The reality for almost all writers — no thanks to the glut of available MFAs* — is that they’ll need a non-writing job at some point. Instead of going to college I learned a trade. Now I have more time to write than most writers because I also have more money than them. Sure, I’ll never be able to write a novel about the MFA experience in some whiter-than-bread New England liberal arts retreat, but what I can write about are experiences that really resonate with the greater book-buying public, like all that blue-collar rustcore shit that’s popular now. In all seriousness, I think an MFA can be a great experience, but I’m not sure it’s a good investment. Most graduates come out financial losers, I think, with less experience than their peers and often nothing of real value at all, unless a short story collection that sells a couple thousand copies is valuable (to ME it’s PRICELESS of course it’s my LIFE’S BLOOD POURING).

    *I assume that MFA programs have created an excess of writers; that is, there are many programs and they accept too many writers, and by too many, I mean almost all of them.

  16. Sham
    at 9:25 am on February 25, 2016

    huey

    I’m hostile to the MFA based on my own experience, which may be an outlier, but the problems I encountered seemed to systemic I doubt it, and besides, all you need to do is pay attention to lit culture these days to understand the affect the MFA has had.

    For example I was immediately directed to work on short stories. I write novels; don’t care about short stories; didn’t matter. Second, the workshop system is stupid. I did not care about the opinions of three quarters of the people in the workshop, who couldn’t write a decent sentence to save their life; the other quarter seemed intent on sucking the life out of the story as though there was a “right” and a “wrong” way to say something. Third, the whole atmosphere of the program was one of ludicrous entitlement and elitism – a bunch of spoiled kids who felt like the world owed them a living as a famous author. Thankfully I got out before being totally ruined as a writer, with minimal debt. Like Mr. Butt I got a good-paying day job which supports my night-time writing.

    All of this could be chalked up to one person’s bad experience if the MFA influence didn’t pervade the culture. Agents and editors don’t pound the pavement for talent; they rely on recommendations from their friends in MFA programs. An MFA is almost a prerequisite for publication, which is insane because an MFA has nothing to do with talent. It’s a vicious cycle: published writers go on to teach in MFA programs, feeding students to their agents, etc etc. Because of this system many writers spend a good chunk of their lives in and around academia, and they begin to write stories about professors and writers, stuff the reading public gives no shits about. (A good example is Ben Marcus, who started out writing super weird avant-garde stuff but recently, now a professor, published in Harpers a story about a writing professor teaching writing which had the blank style of a second-rate MFA student.) But they have names now so they get published. This is what passes for literary fiction now. And so literary fiction becomes elitist and, increasingly, irrelevant to the culture at large.

    So yes, I’m hostile to the MFA system because it is slowly destroying literary fiction. It’s great that you were able to get someone to support your writing for a few years. But if the result of that support is another navel-gazing novel about writers talking about writing that gets published perhaps at the expense of another better non-MFA novel, sorry, we all lose.

  17. Huehuehuehue
    at 10:21 am on February 25, 2016

    Butt,

    Because most people work at lame jobs they don’t like? I was responding to this false dichotomy of MFA vs. REAL WORLD, in which living on a stipend and going to class twice a week is characterized as a fantasy land vs. the presumptively enriching experience of working for Initech and spending half your day trying to decide which chain restaurant you’re going to eat at. In my view, most people’s lives are hard enough–wherever you can find patronage as an artist, and more time to work, hey, go for it. Good for you that you learned a trade and work at night–that’s what most people wind up doing, in one form or another, MFA or not.

    Sham,

    It does sound like you had a bad experience. Actually, it sounds like you just shouldn’t have been doing an MFA period, since you thought workshop was stupid and only wanted to work on a novel. The reason short stories are pushed on people is because it’s a way for students to learn how to do things fiction should do (have plot and character arcs, etc.), in a self-contained unit that can be fully discussed in class. No one has time to read entire novels, and chapters are by nature open-ended and difficult to discuss. I agree that the workshop method is flawed, but when it’s done well, it is a good way to facilitate a long group discussion about writing craft, as well as a way to force students to continually be working. The rest of what you describe–the spoiled entitlement/elitism… Idk, maybe I just had an outliery good experience, but I experienced almost none of that, just people who were happy to get to work hard on their stuff for a while. Did you go to Columbia? It sounds like it.

    I do actually agree with you, to some extent, about the relationship between agents and MFA programs. It is a neat and streamlined way for agents to identify talent and get in early, and it probably has meant that fewer people are discovered in the slush pile, or wherever they used to be discovered. Well, the other method has always been publishing in magazines, which is still the case, and relatively democratic–if you get a story published in, for example, the Kenyon Review, you will likely get emails from several agents. And these magazines–trust me, I’ve worked at a couple–do not give a shit about your MFA. So there’s that.

    On the other hand, it does seem to me that MFAs are simply the new form of patronage, and artists have always gone where the money is. Fifty years ago, it seems to have been advertising, where talented young writers (men mostly) could draw a decent paycheck and live comfortably without much asked of them. Before that, it was journalism, or simply the old standard of toadying up to rich people. Now it’s academia. Plus ca change.

    Furthermore, your opinion here posits a kind of genius-in-the-wild who, absent the negative influence of MFA programs, would be published and prospering, and I simply do not think this is the case. If you write a good book, it will get published, for the simple reason that most books are not good. Are there too many of them, and are MFA programs partly responsible for that? Yeah, probably. But plenty of non-MFAs are getting published, and plenty of MFAs are not writing about New England academia. Most books, in fact, are not about that, for the signal reason, as you say, that people don’t want to read them, and publishers want to publish things people want to read. So I basically think that line of attack, both yours and Butt’s {(lol), is basically BS.

    In my opinion, the worst influence of MFA culture is actually on writing style. Specifically the hegemonic influence of the seventies and eighties minimalists. The artistic primacy of a “lean,” “spare” style is still accepted as cant in many of these programs, for one reason because it’s an easy style to explain and teach, and I do think you continue to see it in the notable lack of experimentation or ambition, on a prose level, of many/most books published today.

  18. butt
    at 1:43 pm on February 25, 2016

    @Hue

    Sham’s line of attack is not mine. I don’t think MFAs are killing literature (what does that even mean). I just wouldn’t personally recommend them. And to be clear, I don’t work at night. I’ve actually not worked in six months in order to write; I can afford to do this because my skills are a hot commodity where I live. In that sense, it’s like an MFA program, except when it’s over I have a well-paying job again. Of course, in my yooouth, I often had to fit in my writing alongside my job, like Faulkner did, writing As I Lay Dying: “It took me just about six weeks in the spare time from a twelve-hour-a-day job at manual labor.” I don’t have his talent, but I can borrow his ethic. There is value to every experience. What is the MFA experience? I don’t know. It’s certainly one shared by a preponderance of young writers. But no doubt you could say the same for waiting tables.

    I will say that the conflation of stories and novels is bizarre and probably damaging. They are not remotely the same thing. You won’t learn how to make a movie in photography class.

  19. Huehuehuehue
    at 5:40 pm on February 25, 2016

    @butt

    I don’t think really disagree with you. My MFA experience was great, but one of the best times I’ve had as artist was a long stretch during which I waited tables two to three days a week (it was at a nice restaurant). It was a wonderland of writing time, and I actually wondered, when I got into my grad program, whether is was a good idea to give it up. It turned out it was, and for a number of reasons–among them the stuff I actually learned in my MFA program (you can actually learn things in grad school), but I don’t necessarily privilege on of those times over the other. My larger point being that I think, as per Faulkner, serious writers will find the time and space whatever the situation. MFA programs are one of those situations.

    To your second point, though, no. No one is conflating stories and novels, or saying they;re the same thing. But you do use some of the same mechanics in each, i.e. plot and character arcs, scene, dialog, etc. A better analogy would probably be learning how to make a feature length film by taking a class in which five minute shorts, out of necessity, are what’s taught.

  20. butt
    at 8:24 pm on February 25, 2016

    @Hue

    I think we’re pretty close on this. As to short stories, I guess my mind is coloured at the moment by the enormous Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector, in which the short story often jettisons or simply omits those mechanics in favour of what’s uniquely available to a small format (like off-putting difficulty and abstraction). I guess the short story as commonly taught is a commercial story, the same way that the short film hewing closest to traditional storytelling is probably the advertisement, but it’s these stories I’m least interested in. Maybe a better way to put it is that by using the short story to teach novel writing, the short story is actually getting the shaft. Encouraging writers to write stories that can all be mashed together into a saleable book only perpetuates this mindset that I’ve just decided is one that exists in Academia.

  21. Huehuehuehue
    at 10:10 am on February 26, 2016

    Butt,

    Short stories are taught in MFA programs to teach fiction mechanics, that’s it. I think I may have given the wrong impression–they aren’t taught expressly in order to facilitate novels, although certainly many MFA students are in the process of writing novels (you pretty much have to write one to publish, with a few short story collection exceptions). It probably is true that the commercial story (i.e. one with plot and characters that do things and change), are privileged, as the mechanics involved in writing that kind of story are teachable, as opposed to Barthelmeian flashes of incandescent brilliance. People certainly did write those types of stories in my program–it wasn’t discouraged, but yeah, the bulk of stuff produced was relatively mainstream, as you would expect. There are some top programs that privilege experimental work, though, Brown and UNC Wilmington among them.

  22. Moe Murph
    at 3:09 pm on March 1, 2016

    I think this may be spreading well beyond the halls of academia.

    Watched a bit of a reality show called “North Woods Law” last Sunday, following the game wardens of the Maine woods. Way “up” Maine, a grandmother had let her 9-year old grandson ride an ATV (illegal for under ten-year-olds) and he nearly drowned trying to cross a fast-moving creek after the spring thaw. The little boy had just been saved, and the grandmother commented that she “had PTSD from this.” 80 years ago, I expect in a similar situation she would have said “By the Jeezus! I’m in a right fluttered state!”

    The citizens of rural Maine are quite adept at diagnosing themselves in 2016, thank you very much!

    Moe Murph
    Regularly Terrifying Herself with On-Line Medical Assessment Tools

  23. heathercurran
    at 7:57 am on March 2, 2016

    Moe – way to bring in back to the topic, and good point made about the pathologising of the Human Condition.

  24. Moe Murphy
    at 8:44 am on March 2, 2016

    Ta, Heather!

  25. Moe Murph
    at 8:58 am on March 2, 2016

    @Heather

    Our diagnostic tools simply filling in for bad omens and demons, perhaps? In 5,000 years, both may be viewed as primitive tools. : )

    HIGHLY recommend the non-fiction book “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures” – Anne Fadiman which deals with some of these issues in a slightly different context.

    Cheers,

    M. Murphy/Moe Murph

  26. Vic Chinoo
    at 10:22 pm on March 2, 2016

    I enjoyed reading this. I have to say though that writing is like wine. It matures with age. There is noting wrong with starting with short stories and building one’s confidence, style and depth. Over time, just about anyone with a certain degree of talent will make it if they keep at it. Time is the ultimate antidote to poor writing, as far as the writer keeps at it. Heaping enormous pressure on young writers tends to cramp their style or even crush their confidence. They ought to take it one day at a time, starting with short stories if they choose to and then graduating to more extended and complex work. It has been shown over and over again that the older one gets, the better they become, in terms of writing. Time does the magic for those who linger.

  27. cavalcante
    at 11:33 am on April 20, 2016

    MFA defenders are quick to remind everyone else that their degree was free because of their stipend and assistantship (except for the very top programs which pay you just to write). But this overlooks the opportunity cost of graduate school in general, particularly in the humanities.

    If you have a BA in the humanities, you can find a job that pays double your MFA stipend. It may not be glamorous work, but you can still write part-time. And besides, if you have to teach during your MFA or take literature classes, you obviously are not writing full-time anyway. so the idea of doing an MFA to get time to write makes no sense.

    I’m in graduate school because the research that I want to do depends on me being situated in the academy. My plan of eventually getting tenure probably won’t happen, and I know that it’s a foolish to expect that. But I literally cannot do the type of work I am doing outside of academia.

    That is never true for an MFA.

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