Apologies in advance; not gonna talk about writing for the moment. Instead I’m going to talk about the writing life, in a way. See, I took the GRE on Saturday.
I did OK. Astounding on the verbal and abysmal on the quantitative, as I expected. I’ve been using my verbal skills steadily and with increasing intensity throughout my adult life, after all, and I haven’t done combinatorics in 20 years. No amount of short-term cramming can really make up for that, and I didn’t expect it to. All I really wanted to do was not embarrass myself, and I think I succeeded in that goal.
Still, I’m annoyed by the whole process.
I’m thinking about getting an MFA, see, in creative writing. I want to teach writing — and yeah, even with published novels, even with an extant masters’ degree, even with 10 years of experience teaching college students (albeit in a different area), it’s looking like I need the MFA to get a foot in the door. It’s not that I don’t like my current career; I do. But it’s mostly 9 to 5 work, and given that my writing career has taken off, I need the kind of flexibility that teaching would provide. I’m working on my next book already — no, can’t tell you about it yet — but I can’t move at the pace I need, which is almost as frustrating as writers’ block. It’s not a matter of money; I’ll likely make less as an adjunct or non-tenure-track professor. But I’ll gain time, and writing time has become my most desperately-needed resource lately.
We’ll see how that goes. But as I’ve spent the past few weeks’ writing time and a solid chunk of money on preparing for and taking this test, I have to say I’m finding myself really put off of any program that requires something like this for admission. I understand why they do it; in this day and age, American universities are under increasing pressure to prove that the expensive educations they provide are worth the money. They’re also facing the same struggle as every other part of American society: trying to find ways for the majority to do more with less while a privileged minority gobbles more than their share. No university admissions office has the time or resources to do an in-depth analysis of every propective student; most rely on numbers. Numbers are easier to explain, anyway, to people who don’t understand educational systems but nevertheless have power over them. As a result, some of the schools I’m applying to require high test scores from applicants so they can “objectively” say that they are bastions of the best and the brightest. Thus do they justify their own top-heavy existence.
But here’s the thing: the GRE tested me on absolutely nothing that I would need to survive an MFA program. In fact, it forced me to do things that made me a worse writer, from a creative standpoint. See, when I did the word-choice sections on practice tests, the words I tended to choose were those which had the right meaning, but which also added some accessibility or artistic elegance to the passage. But those choices were wrong. I kept getting terrible practice scores until I realized I needed to choose plainer, more obscure words. And this makes sense, given the purposefully dry and esoteric nature of scholarly writing… but in a creative writing program, I’m not going to be doing scholarly writing. It is by definition a program focused on artful writing. So in essence, I had to not write to the best of my ability in order to do well on the test, and thereby get into a program which would ostensibly teach me to write better.
I had a similar problem with the math. Problem-solving is an ingrained skill for novel and short story writers; developing a coherent plot requires it. But solving problems isn’t the point of the math component on the GRE; in fact, people who spend too much time actually solving problems are unlikely to finish. The GRE requires you to instead figure out the rules underlying the problems. A useful skill — but again, I had to train myself to do the opposite of what a good writer should. Which means I survived this test by avoiding the skills I actually need to survive an MFA program.
There’s no sane reason for an MFA program to require this of its applicants. It’s batshit that I have to prove my ability to be a fiction writer not by, you know, writing fiction, but by proving my ability to do something completely irrelevant. Other peoples’ experiences of late-in-life standardized tests have been similar: this guy tried some of the tests that kids in his state are required to take, and found that they tested him on almost nothing that actually applied to adult life.
And this whole experience has been costly, even though I pretty much took the cheapest possible path: the test itself was $160, and the test-preparation book I bought was $22. Taking a GRE test-preparation course from a company like Kaplan would’ve cost almost $1300; I can’t afford that either financially or time-wise. But there are people out there who can’t even afford the test itself, which means that this MFA program is unlikely to admit many people who come from poor backgrounds. Or people who are published trying to survive on a writer’s income, for that matter.
I’m going ahead with it, because at this point I’ve already put in this much effort; might as well not waste it. Only one of the schools I’m applying to — the most prestigious of them — requires the GRE. But I have to wonder what kind of writers are likely to emerge from a program that discourages competence, privileges those with cash to spare and free time in abundance, and is essentially unavailable to a goodly chunk of the populace. Just by throwing up this one roadblock, this school has moved from first to last place on my list.
ETA: So apropos: Graduate School Barbie!