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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).Keep it inside you, where it belongs." There are many who agree wholeheartedly.
Now, 18 months after graduation, "Family Plots: A Story of Love, Death, Sex, and Tax Evasion," is complete. She's moving into the refurbished basement of her home that straddles the Oakland-Piedmont border so she can rent out the main floor and bring in some cash. According to a recent survey, Patrick is in good company: 81 percent of Americans say they have a book in them. it makes writing a book look fairly easy," he wrote in response to the 2002 survey, conducted for the Jenkins Group, a Michigan publishing firm.
A trim, cheerful brunette, Patrick, 43, has 400 pages of family intrigue and an agent who has expressed interest. Just in case any more of those would-be authors get the urge to crank out their books, however, New York Times columnist Joseph Epstein has some advice: "So many third-rate books are published nowadays that . "After all, how many times has one thought, after finishing a bad novel, 'I can do at least as well as that'?
When someone writes a bad book, people complain about all those gosh-darn MFA programs." Whether good or bad for literature, culture or humanity, MFA writing programs are undeniably popular.
For decades, starting in the 1930s, Iowa University, Stanford University and a handful of others had a lock on graduate creative-writing programs.
About to turn 40, newly widowed with a 13-year-old daughter to raise, Patrick felt unmoored.
"I think," she announced over breakfast, "I'm going to pierce my belly button. Maybe a small hoop or a diamond stud." Her daughter burst into tears.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.Patrick, chagrined, and trying to act parental, picked up her newspaper.There she saw an ad for the University of San Francisco's masters of fine arts in creative writing.While the most prestigious and competitive graduate programs, such as Iowa and UC Irvine, subsidize students, covering tuition or paying them to teach, the Bay Area's programs offer no such perk.Getting an MFA in creative writing here costs from ,100 (California State University) to a whopping ,800 (California College of the Arts) -- for a degree that gives you worse odds of financial windfall than playing the lottery.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.A program that promised students they would graduate with a book-length work. Patrick forgot all about her belly button, and jumped.Two years later, she had her masters of fine arts, and her book -- or at least half a book ("There's a difference," Patrick said she discovered, "between a 'book-length work' and a book").