Dispatches | March 23, 2012

What does it mean to say a manuscript is a “MFA story”?

This question comes from a tweet sent by Union Station, an online magazine based in Brooklyn. They actually phrased the question “MFA-styled,” so I’m adjusting the phrasing a bit, but it’s a really good question. I instantly had a few phrases that came to mind. I’m thinking only of fiction here, not poetry or nonfiction. These words and phrases include:

Strong Prose. This isn’t, obviously, a bad thing. Perhaps that’s what I’m starting with this one. Stories that have good rhythm, sentence variety, proper grammar and syntax (with the rules “broken” when needed), and a rich vocabulary suggest a writer who has spent time on his or her craft.

Static. This might be what is really meant by “MFA story”: the claim that “nothing happens.” The idea of a static story usually means the lack of an exterior plot because MFA programs, and writers from these programs, do their damnedest to avoid cinematic plots, turning away from guns and violence and melodrama for a stronger sense of a character’s interior life.

Case in point: In my MFA program, during our second year, our visiting professor gave us an article that involved (and I’m piecing this together from memory) a shooting. Something about, I think, a pizza delivery and a discovery of physical abuse, I’m fuzzy on the details, but there was a shooting and a killing. We were asked to write a short scene about this incident. Out of twelve students, only one of us wrote directly about the most dramatic moment: the killing. We just avoided it. Our professor was stunned by this. Why would we avoid the hard moment? Why would we avoid what is most dramatic?

Interior. MFA stories tend to focus on thought. No other art form can really get inside a character’s thoughts. Movies use voiceover, but that technique is hackneyed and lazy. The exploration of a character’s consciousness, all those messy thoughts, is a response, a moving away from cinema and television. There is so much “action” that seems devoid of any true emotion that it seems natural for a writer to focus on characterization in a way that is seen in literary writing.

Opaque. MFA stories seem to be pretty straight-forward. But more often than not, when reading a MFA story for a third or fourth time, editors will often wonder “What is this story actually about?” You’d be surprised how often the story’s purpose isn’t really clear. It’s usually a feeling that the writer is the one who isn’t quite sure. Either there is too much thrown in (and by this I mean possibilities or feelings, not events like car chases and crashing blimps and a talking sea lion battalion armed with flamethrowers)(digression: I’d like to read that sea lion story) or what is presented as the conflict is too weak and not truly explored.

Character Driven, Not Plot Driven. Those five words should be pretty clear. MFA stories can sometimes feel like character sketches more than stories.

To summarize, a MFA story is a well-written, character-driven story that is awfully interior, very little happens, and the ending feels like not much has happened.The question Union Station posed, though, has a pretty clear connotation: it’s negative. Not that Union Station is trying to be negative, but the phrasing, the actually saying that you have a “MFA story” is not considered a good thing.

Does this mean that Missouri Review, Union Station, and other journals won’t publish writing by MFA students? Of course not. Our track record, and the track record of many other fine journals, proves that very good stories are not just written and published by MFA graduates, but by emerging writers currently in MFA programs. I’d even say that the idea of a “MFA story” is probably a holdover from ten or fifteen years ago. Most emerging writers are savvier now.

But many of the techniques learned in the programs are just that: a series of tools, a series of styles, but the story will be, should be, greater than the sum of its parts. To extend the metaphor, all magazine publishers are looking for that magnificent and curious house, not the cookie cutters with the two-car garage wholly indistinguishable from the other homes in the development. We haven’t, won’ t, and will not disparage the programs. We just want to the houses that let us know—despite having walls and windows and roofs and gutters and all the other basic qualities—that we’ve set foot in place unlike any other.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

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