San Francisco State Creative Writing

While any graduate degree carries prestige, the MFA in creative writing has spawned a cadre of naysayers bemoaning that the programs churn out cookie- cutter writers who may be technically proficient, but lack heart and imagination.It's an inundation of mediocrity, cry editors (perhaps overwhelmed by the mountainous submissions pile looming over their desks).

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Several years ago, Mary Patrick and her husband, Tom, stood side by side at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, gazing at his family's burial plot.

They shook their heads and laughed at the irony of what -- and who -- would be underfoot in the future.

At the mishmash of relatives who would share space under the tombstone -- people who, in life, loved one another fiercely, while reneging on deals, stealing money, holding grudges, hoarding secrets.

"This," she said to her husband, pointing her finger at the names already etched into the dark stone marking the grave, a sea of monuments stretching beyond, "would make a great book." Patrick promptly dismissed her spark of inspiration, caught up in parenting and her career as a marketing consultant and private investigator.

Within a few years, however, her husband was dead of cancer, joining his half brother, his godmother and his father in the cemetery.

A few months later, she buried her mother-in-law, too.The Iowa Writers' Workshop gets more than 1,000 applicants for 50 spaces.San Francisco State University, the most competitive program in the Bay Area, got nearly 400 applications for 20 spots in fiction, 20 in poetry and eight in playwriting this year."I call it my MFA in poverty," said Teresa Walsh of the poetry MFA she got from California College of the Arts in San Francisco in 2002.That doesn't mean the school's 5-year-old program is begging for applicants, added Walsh, who is manager of the writing program."A lot of critics enjoy beating up on creative-writing programs as if that were responsible for the decline of literature," said David Fenza, executive director of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, which supports more than 400 college and university writing programs, as well as thousands of individual writers."When somebody plays bad basketball, nobody complains about sports programs at universities.Nor will it get someone a job: While an MFA is considered the terminal degree in creative writing, there are fewer than 100 tenure-track jobs open each year nationwide, with a slew of applicants for each one. "To devote two years of your life to writing, books, studying authors, that is a wonderful oasis in anyone's life.You take that study of literature with you through the rest of your life." Writing programs, said Fenza, are also a populist boon -- one that has given North America's literature multicultural depth.Book critics and fellow writers (those who are "self-made," that is) can be even less generous: It's a self-indulgent waste of money, a degree for sissies and wannabes, they argue.Real writers rent a drafty attic garret, confront their demons alone in the twilight and write.


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