An Entirely New Milieu: Rethinking the MFA Story

Jeni McFarland

UPDATE: This piece has been edited since its original posting date.

I’ve noticed a trend. It might be chalked up to coincidence, but I’m not convinced. The trend is that journals say they want more writing by women and people of color, but when the submissions roll in, time and again, they choose writing that resembles pieces written by white males. Sometimes they even were written by white males, using a pseudonym. There’s a definite difference, in my mind, between writing about women and people of color, and writing by women and people of color. A woman of color, for instance, can write a story that hits all of the plot points, that makes clever use of voice, and features people of color. The format of the story can be what I call the MFA story, stories where people sit around with drinks and talk about something other than what’s really going on. Or maybe they’re walking around town looking at things and thinking about something other than what’s really going on. Or maybe they’re jogging through the suburbs to escape what’s really going on. Or they’ve traveled or moved to an “exotic” location to escape. Whatever, something will happen to bring the thing that’s really going on to a head, and then the character makes a choice causing a tonal shift that mirrors a shift in action. The story will probably end on a strong image, one that suggests epiphany, or is at least ambiguous enough to read epiphany into it. That story might feature people of color, but the rhythms, structure, and overall concerns of the story are the same as any white man’s story, as any of the “canon.” To be clear, I’m not saying I don’t like stories by white men—my favorite author of all times is still George Saunders. I’m not arguing that white men should stop publishing. I’m simply arguing for more diversity. 

Alternately, a woman of color might write a new story, a different story. It might make use of an entirely new milieu, one that leaves the reader feeling slightly disoriented. Its structure might be new, or its character arc. It might, on the page, read like an extended poem, or an “experimental” piece. 

What I’m advocating for is diversity in writing, as well as diversity in writers.

I for one am thirsty for this. I’m thirsty for stories that make me second-guess what it is that makes a storygood. I’m thirsty for stories that grab me around my middle and pull me into them, regardless of my own plans as a reader. I want to be bombarded with imagery, with emotion, I want to feel a story. However you get me there, whatever you have to do, do it. Take me somewhere I’ve never been (either a physical space or an emotion or mental space), and leave me no choice but to make myself comfy or uncomfy there. Or, take me somewhere I have been, somewhere I’ve tried to forget, and force me to remember. Make me know that you’ve been there too. Take me by surprise, ambush me, pull the wool over my eyes, trick me into seeing things your way. Or better yet, seduce me. Make me acquiesce to your terms.


Comments (6)

  1. Candace:
    Mar 10, 2016 at 01:04 PM

    I like the aim of this approach but it seems like writers of color are held to a higher standard than our privileged counterparts. We have to write stories that "that make [you] second-guess what it is that makes a good story"? We have to "seduce" you? This echoes a dangerous reality that underrepresented folks experience at work, academia, etc. Why is the bar for our work always moving higher while the bar for those with privilege remains the same?

  2. Carlos Hernandez:
    Mar 11, 2016 at 12:18 AM

    I feel what you mean Candace. Sometimes a Jezebel is what it takes to shake things up for the better, one who doesn't wait around for the dominant spouse to engage. And I think that's what Jeni's referring to, and though we have a LONG way to go, she has a "safer" space now than ever before because folks of color have used seduction tactics -- in addition to more aggressive ones -- to start transforming our pedagogical landscape.

  3. Jeni McFarland:
    Mar 11, 2016 at 06:13 PM

    I agree, Candace, we are held to a higher standard. And I would argue that, for me, as a reader, I want every story to seduce me--regardless of who wrote it and what the their position on the disadvantage/privilege spectrum. I don't want to read the same story over and over, and, in the classes I teach, I don't want to teach the same story.

  4. Jude Crump:
    Mar 26, 2016 at 11:06 AM

    I'm an older white woman and I can understand what the writer is saying though I have no experience with it. I did particularly enjoy the "MFA story" and had to laugh as it has echoed through my mind as I read some of these journals. I have to wonder if the judges and editors all came from the same program and learned to think that this is what is art or this is what is the cutting edge of the craft and fail to think outside the box as they say.

  5. Mharlyn Merritt:
    Jul 05, 2016 at 02:14 PM

    There is a cookie-cutter approach to the MFA in Creative Writing experience that Jeni's articulates so beautifully, I have nothing to add but affirmation. As an older woman of color (double-whammy or double blessing or maybe both) who has been a closeted writer since elementary school my biggest challenges has been the question: "Did you really write that?" This question has reverberated from the past right into the present. If you put in your 10,000 hours and you write about life from your unique perspective as a human, I think people find this disturbing in a non-White writer because the real possibility that you are a writer without a tag, like Hemingway or Jonathan Lethem or any white male writer who is called simply a writer is kind of incomprehensible on some level. I'd like to think I am not obligated to write about Black people doing Black people things. I'd like to think that I am a writer, not a writer of color or a woman writer or a senior citizen writer, but a writer, and that that is enough. And if you what diversity oh mighty literary journals you might want to include diversity of thought, content, characters and plot, all of which transcends all labels except that of writer.

  6. Christina Simmons:
    Aug 07, 2016 at 03:43 PM

    I agree with what I have read so far to a certain degree. Being a multi-talented, a disabled woman of colour; trying to break through the barrier as it stands. Isn't easy by far!!! Being an amputee, with neurological conditions. Makes it so much more difficult getting my work out there! I feel I must persevere with my craft: in the long run I hope to afford my own care! By way of virtue what I'm having to put up with is so lousy it's affecting my health.

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