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Cutthroat? How?


ovalwriter
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Hello Folks,

 

I was reading back through posts from over the past couple of months. There was mention of programs sometimes being "cutthroat." I'm not sure I understand how a program can be cutthroat. Help me out. I picture the experience like this:

 

Students go to classes, do their work, work on their writing, treat everyone with respect, build relationships with their advisers, etc.

 

How can one MFA student cut the throat of another MFA student? I saw a post in which someone mentioned that students gave their classmates incorrect deadline information. Isn't it our responsibility to know deadlines, and wouldn't it also be our responsibility to get information from faculty and/or the college\university's staff instead of simply asking our classmates?

 

Your thoughts?

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Under director Frank Conroy, the Iowa Writer's Workshop had a reputation for being cutthroat —dominated by middle and upper class white males, the workshop environment celebrated modernism and Carver-esque minimalism while discouraging anything postmodern or experimental. Women often found it difficult to assert themselves in such a male centric environment, and minorities were discouraged from writing characters with ethnic names (current director Samantha Chang once experienced this in a workshop). 

Before Samantha Chang took over, Iowa only gave financial support to a small amount of writers, and 1st year students were expected to jockey for position to receive illustrious teaching and / or research assistantships. As with all workshops, petty jealousies developed. 

http://www.amazon.com/We-Wanted-Be-Writers-Literature/dp/160239735X

We Wanted To Be Writers is a great resource for what Iowa was like in the 70s, as a true "cutthroat" program. 

Jane Smiley on the Iowa writers' workshop: "In that period, the teachers tended to be men of a certain age, with the idea that competition was somehow the key-the Norman Mailer period. The story was that if you disagreed with Norman, or gave him a bad review, he'd punch you in the nose. You were supposed to get in fights in restaurants."

In recent years you'd be hard pressed to find a program that's truly as rough-and-tumble as Iowa was back in the day. Still, many programs (Iowa and Michigan come to mind) have a reputation for being hyper competitive when it comes to publishing. The workshop star with a piece in the New Yorker will undoubtedly attract negative attention from bitter and/or jealous peers. 

Hope this helps!

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Some things worth mentioning from my time in and around various workshops...
 
One is that every incoming MFA class is unique.  The adcoms often go through the applications with the intent to balance it as much as they can.   Thus, one of the challenges in the laboratory that is the workshop is learning how everyone starts to read each other.  I was somewhat blessed in that, after some initial rough patches, my MFA class largely grew to appreciate each other's work and hung out, primarily with each other.  The year ahead of us was talented but kept to themselves and the year behind, we found less that aesthetically excited us.  Sometimes this can be a difference in adcoms as the faculties tend to cycle through groupings, although each institution will operate differently.  For example, Iowa gets such a high volume of applications that the creative samples are screened through the current students and this can sometimes result in a more homogeneous class from year to year.
 
While it's true that demographics have changed in Iowa over the years and that it's now more inclusive, there are competitive aspects to it that remain similar.  There are TAships for all now, yes, but people are also competing for an increase in stipend and awards in their second year, which are still boons worth squabbling over.  The other thing is that, as Iowa ostensibly attracts the best of the best, their students often wear their "best" labels on their sleeves, having been the alpha of all their previous workshops, and come ready to attack for stylistic deficiencies.  I had an environment similar to this in my undergraduate program and my friends who came through Iowa, mostly women writers of color who are more reserved in nature, struggled at times with workshops that would verge on personal attack.  All the worse if people smelled blood in the water and took a remark made by the workshop instructor as a signal to bite on to anything that sticks out.
 
Partially for this reason, when my friends were at Iowa, even talk of publishing was discouraged.  People were reading contemporary journals, but publishing was bête noire in the classroom and something to be talked about only in private.  This can do a bit to stave off the green feelings that emerge in workshop, but you should be aware of, and bear in mind, that competition for fellowships and prizes on the outside can often come across as rather cliquey.  You'll look up one morning to find a group you know who has multiple members shortlisted for something that you never even heard about because you weren't enough of an insider to know.
 
There are certainly good things and more challenging things that come of a higher pressure environment.  While some people can come across as overly dogmatic in their opinions on what constitutes good writing, they wouldn't be there if they weren't fairly intelligent writers/readers in the first place.  Each individual has to learn what their threshold is and how to balance the criticism they receive with their creative vision as they had understood it.  Be prepared for this and strive to be kind and approach the work on the merits of what it's trying to do and people will respond to it.  You can't control how others react or their level of hostility, you can only do what you can for yourself and in the long term, people will notice if you're a good reader.
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Hello Folks,

 

I was reading back through posts from over the past couple of months. There was mention of programs sometimes being "cutthroat." I'm not sure I understand how a program can be cutthroat. Help me out. I picture the experience like this:

 

Students go to classes, do their work, work on their writing, treat everyone with respect, build relationships with their advisers, etc.

 

How can one MFA student cut the throat of another MFA student? I saw a post in which someone mentioned that students gave their classmates incorrect deadline information. Isn't it our responsibility to know deadlines, and wouldn't it also be our responsibility to get information from faculty and/or the college\university's staff instead of simply asking our classmates?

 

Your thoughts?

Yes. And if your fellow classmates repeatedly told you incorrect information in the hopes that you would miss deadlines, miss out on fellowships, and fail assignments, would you think that was a supportive environment since it is ultimately your responsibility to know that information or would you think they were being jerks? If you don't think it's cut-throat to do that type of stuff, you probably don't need to worry about the atmosphere of different programs.

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