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The cultural transformations of the 1960s spurred the beginnings of a writing education renaissance, and, since 1975, the number of creative writing masters of fine arts programs has increased 800 percent.(By the late 1980s, so many colleges and universities were instituting graduate-level creative-writing programs, in fact, that Stanford University dumped its venerated master's degree, and threw its resources behind what is now the highly sought after Stegner Fellowship, a two-year program that awards 10 participants each year a handsome stipend to study with writers like Tobias Wolff and Eavan Boland, but confers no degree.) By 2004, there were 109 programs that conferred the master of fine arts in creative writing -- and nearly half of those started in the last 10 years.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.
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.
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").
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.
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'?
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.