I think what's important is having an instructor who is actually a practitioner. If you take a writing class with a mediocre instructor, or if such a class is required, then people just worry about grades and how to turn that B+ into an A by cracking the professor's prejudices/tastes.
There's an attribute of people that the best term I can come up for is the "give-a-shit gene." It's the tendency to care too much about the intrinsic quality of the work you produce, rather than its reception or where it fits in. Like implementing great code for an employer you hate on a project that's going to fail, or putting in all the effort on a group project in school while others slack off just because you want to have produced something good.
This is usually more of a weakness than a strength in most situations. But to be a good writer, you have to genuinely give a shit about it. I've found a lot of the people I go to school with don't really give a shit about anything, so long as they get the grades or points or whatever they're being judged on.
I thought this was nice and relevant to us hackers:
"I don’t think the workshops taught me too much about craft, but they did teach me about the importance of making things, not just reading things. You care about things that you make, and that makes it easier to care about things that other people make. "
As someone who received an MFA in creative writing I get nervous when this question comes up. I'm pleased, though, that the article matches my experience.
I think zimbabwe has a point that "the classroom rarely adds more than what students could get in a focused extracurricular group," but finding that group would be nearly impossible. Writing is a very solitary activity, and sharing unfinished work is (for the vast majority) a horrifying experience. You're not going to easily get those people together to recreate a regular (and good) workshop.
The workshop itself was pretty widely reviled by professors and students, and contact we had with writing departments elsewhere showed we weren't alone in that feeling. But I agree with the final thesis of the article that "workshops work". I'm pretty sure my stories and novel got better throughout, from criticism I received and from the sheer amount of practice I got. I ended up not writing after getting the degree (programming was more fun), but a few people I graduated with have started making names for themselves, and I feel pretty good about that. It suggests that maybe I could have if I stuck with it.
I sometimes think that a writing workshop could be nicely transferred to programming. It's been my experience that programmers are much more willing to share and accept advice on unfinished projects, and the little writing games that seem so lame to writers might translate better too.
An excellent article from a magazine known for excellent journalism and mediocre fiction and poetry. I wasn't expecting a read this good.
I personally don't think creative writing is something that college teaching is suited for. A few courses, maybe, but a full major in creative writing is not only a risk, it is largely a waste of class time for the student. Since most of a creative writing major is just plain writing, followed by critique, the classroom rarely adds more than what students could get in a focused extracurricular group.
Ah yes, all that mediocre fiction by Philip Roth, John Updike, Alice Munro, Grace Paley, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Vladimir Nabokov, Donald Barthelme, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Lethem, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith ... it's surprising the New Yorker still publishes fiction, with a reputation for mediocrity like that.
I was wondering the same thing. Is there any magazine that has a better reputation for fiction? The New Yorker and The Atlantic have pretty much dominated the O.Henry Awards over the past 100 years....
The New Yorker doesn't have a good reputation for fiction, and it hasn't for a while. However, I think its lack of reputation is more about how The New Yorker isn't thought of as a place for fiction anymore: They only publish one story (compared to when they used to publish many), and their reportage is still quite good.
Sure, that one story is usually by an established writer, which is also one of the most common complaints, but that story isn't going to be a fluff piece.
I'm OK if The New Yorker isn't the best magazine for fiction, there are plenty of other places to find new short fiction. You just have to know where to look.
BTW, I thought gabrielroth's comment was hilarious. A great response to a not so intelligent comment :)
I took a creative writing class in college. The chief benefit was reading my story aloud to a room of peers and a professor who is herself a renowned novelist (Joyce Carol Oates) and having them tell me my story wasn't crap and I should try writing another one. That's what I got out of my class, the encouragement to keep at it.
Doing everything alone and on your own means you don't always get the feedback you need to do your best work.