Sometimes readers ask me what I think of MFA programs. I think this:
You can't "learn" writing any more than you can learn how to make love to a woman. A truly accomplished expert can show you a few things, but he's unlikely to let you watch when he's really at his best. So you have to rely on whatever tricks he chooses to tell you. As likely as not, he won't be too comfortable discussing these in detail with you. And since those aren't really your tricks, to perform them will feel false. Coming from you, they may just be confusing, even painful, to experience.
But as in mastering lady-pleasuring, time, practice, and awkward failed efforts are necessary. MFA programs provide this. If I were endowing an MFA program, here's what I'd do:
I'd buy ten cabins out in the woods of Vermont. Each cabin would be a day's walk away from the next. The only application would be to fill a single sheet of paper with writing that made me weep or caused me unusual physical sensations. If accepted, you'd get the keys to the cabin, 300 sheets of paper, 60 cans of beans, a slab of bacon, and a broken typewriter.
You'd be required to chop three feet of cordwood every morning. Every few months I'd stop by, and I'd ask you to tell me the names of all the birds in the area. If you called an American widgeon a whimbrel, I'd send you packing. That evening, you'd be expected to bake me a pie out of whatever fruit or berry happened to be in season.
After three winters, if I felt that your pies displayed the kind of concentration, discipline, and inventiveness a writer needs, I'd give you a degree.
Denis Johnson (1949-2017)
4 hours ago