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Time, Place, and Manner

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So, I guess I'm in the dog house. Con Daily had an anniversary this week and erm ...I forgot to do something about it.

Why did I forget? Because I'm back in school and it's a lot of freaking work. Some of you already know this, but probably most of you don't. I've gone back to school for an MFA in creative non-fiction writing, the least creative of all the creative arts. And unlike law school, it's a lot of freaking work.

I know what you're thinking, Hey now, I know 3L year is a giant bore, and back during the boom, once you had an offer from OCI, 2L year was pretty relaxed too, but come on, wasn't 1L at least a giant hellish cesspit of stress and cold calls?

Eh, kinda. The typical law school class, especially for 1L year, is a large lecture hall filled with students hoping not to be called on that day. In some classes, this hoping generally pans out. If cold calling is random, and there's 100 people and only 4 get called on each class, then yeah, most days you're safe. Where cold calling just goes down the row, or there's a schedule in advance, hoping doesn't get you quite so far. But either way, what these classes have in common is most of the time it doesn't matter if you come to class prepared. With random cold calling, you just get lucky most of the time, and once you've been called on you're safe for the rest of the year. For classes where being called on is predictable, you only have to read once the entire year.

In an MFA? Yeah, that shit doesn't fly.

When there's only a dozen people in a literature class, you can't get away with not reading. Cecilia thinks her decision to keep her engagement with Delvile is driven by reason, but when she concludes she can't break off the engagement she feels relief. This looks less like she's following her rationality, and more like she's looking for a rational justification for following her emotional desires. Yeah, you don't pick up on the use of the word "relief" in that scene (Francis Burney's Cecilia) without actually having read the text. It isn't in the Cliff's Notes.

And even if you know which of the professor's theoretical itches to scratch to distract from not being prepared in a lit class, it definitely doesn't go in a writing workshop. First thing that happens when workshopping a classmate's piece is, one at a time, everyone says what in the piece they thought worked and what didn't. If you didn't read, and I mean really read, like read, sit around thinking about it for a while, and go back and read it again, it's very obvious. Then you're not just painting yourself as an asshole to your classmates, but you're likely to get shafted when your pieces come up for critique.

That's really the most pronounced difference between law school and a creative writing MFA. Law school definitely has more reading to do on a daily basis, though the MFA isn't too far behind. The difference is that in law school you might get called on 10 times the entire semester among all your classes. In an MFA, you're expected to contribute every single day. It's a thoroughly more engaging experience, despite it's lack of prestige.


There's another important way in which the MFA differs from the JD. It's a trade school. You have some academic classes, but here the breakdown is 25% workshops, 25% literature, 6.25% literary journalism, 6.25% translation, 12.5% electives, 12.5% internship, and 12.5% thesis. So really, you've got 62.5% required skills classes, 25% academic lit classes, and 12.5% for electives, which many people use to take additional workshops. The norm is probably 75% skills training. That's a trade school. And like I said above, it's far more intellectually engaging than law school ever was, so for all the people who repeat the mantra of "law school is not a trade school, nor should it be," screw you! You don't know what you're talking about.

In every class I've had so far, we've had a minimum of three writing assignments, each of which we get back with significant comments, and with typically an opportunity or requirement to revise. Final exams are much less common. And that, along with the higher engagement requirement, is why the MFA is more intellectually rigorous. If you want to teach someone "how to think," you should focus on teaching them how to write. Writing it not merely how we express ideas, but is also the tool by which we work through the ideas before handing them off for someone else to read. Obfuscation, ambiguity, and an over-reliance on terms of art are typically signs that the ideas are not fully developed in the writer's head. It's easy to have contradictions or logical holes in your head, but when you commit to putting the ideas down to paper, those problems become more clear. And if not clear to the writer, then they should at least be clear to an astute reader, who ought to then hand back the work with commentary pointing out the issues.

The writing process is how you teach people how to think, like a lawyer or like anything else. Calling out a random name and telling them they're required to recite trivial facts from a hundred year old case and then bullshit for the next five minutes while you play hide the ball doesn't refine anyone's analytical reasoning. If law school teaches you to think better, it's teaching you to think better but in the same manner of thinking. The MFA actually teaches you a better way of thinking.

[Read more from BL1Y]

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