Are We Living a Golden Age of Creative Instruction?

So the countdown begins. Having been admitted to her art college of choice, in a few months my daughter will be a 10-hour drive away, living artistic instruction day and night. It’s a dream for her, and I’m thrilled (my pocketbook is perhaps less so). I’m also a bit envious–at how clear her creative path is to her, and at the idea of total immersion in a world of creativity.

My daughter took this photo during her pre-college program this summer. She trespassed into an abandoned building to do so. I couldn’t have been more proud.

All of us creatives find our own path to our muse. I am a creative writer, but my undergraduate education didn’t include a single creative writing class, not even English Lit. I am now squeezing a low-residency MFA in Writing program around a very busy schedule of professional work and family. I will attend my daughter’s high school graduation in June, and she will attend my MFA graduation in July.

But are she and I anachronisms, pursuing higher education when there are so many ways to learn today?

In the early ’90s, I briefly reconnected with my muse by reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. My students at The Writer’s Center reconnect by taking my course and others, which enrich and educate without leading to a degree.  And let us not forget the power of the Internet to facilitate one-on-one instruction. I spend six months working remotely with a Vermont College of Fine Arts faculty member in my MFA program, but there are many talented writing instructors who provide similar services directly, outside of a formal educational institution.

In a post last year titled “What Defines an Artist? Self-Taught vs. Trained,” I highlighted two artists I interviewed on my cross-country U.S. road trip. One was a self-taught painter, the other a professionally trained composer. Both were successful, and both were happy.

I look at the date I wrote this piece, and realize I produced it at the very time I was applying to MFA programs. I myself was wrestling with the question of whether I should take on the enormous task of graduate study. There was no right or wrong path for me. My life to that point had been about creative growth outside formal educational structure; I then chose to spend two years experiencing formal education. After July, the burden will be on me again to grow without the regimen of MFA packets.

If you’re reading this post, you seek to honor your creative muse. What has been your path to where you are now? I’d really love to hear from a variety of perspectives: students or instructors in formal BFA or MFA programs, and students or instructors in coaching or tutoring programs outside of an academic institution. Let us know what you’ve learned about the many ways we can all improve our craft as creatives.

16 thoughts on “Are We Living a Golden Age of Creative Instruction?

  1. Congrats to your daughter Patrick! How exciting and wonderful 🙂 I’m wistful about getting an MFA but I am not sure if it will be helpful enough to warrant the debt I’m just paying off from my last masters degree. I have always been a school oriented person, I love the structure, I thrive off of structure (and I’m an artist? gasp!). My schooling has opened doors to connections, learning, and offered me personal extensions I wonder if I would miss out on without that schooling. Yet, I have so much respect for the self-taught. I just took a workshop from a fine art photographer living off of her work. She taught herself how to play with a camera and photoshop and she is the one living off of her work, not me! That has been one measure of success I have always aimed for in some way… and I guess that however one learns, if they are committed to learning perhaps that is what is most important?


    1. Hi Carrie! I’m glad you’ve chimed in on this, as an educator and artist. You already have a Master’s, which puts you in a bit of a different situation from me. And you and I have discussed before about how we are creative but we don’t view that as separate from craving structure! When I interviewed the self-taught painter in Cape May, New Jersey (linked to in that other post), I first met him at a gallery show of his, and most of his paintings were already marked as sold, including one for five figures. But in the interview, he expressed significant jealousy for those who had been able to receive that schooling. So he’s proof that it isn’t necessary, but also that it is an opportunity that one shouldn’t shy away from if presented with the opportunity.


      1. I am beginning to wonder if its a grass is greener kind of scenario; I sincerely admire those who don’t choose the academic path and forge their own success. Apparently, just as some of those you know and interview wish they had more schooling!


  2. I look forward to reading the many comments/perspectives this post will generate. My path, like that of many, has been a long, meandering one. I was dubbed an “artist” in kindergarten (at a time when, to my mind, all children are). I was simply a visual learner who could reproduce an object, visually. This early pin-down both helped and hindered my creative growth. Later, in 8th grade, I wrote a story that my teacher wanted to get published. I always figured, from high school, I’d go to The Academy of Art in San Francisco … but, alas, home life and the need to quickly earn a living nixed that. With the exception of short poems and random pen-and-ink drawings, I was immersed in my job as an administrative assistant (and in night school aiming toward journalism/communications) for years. It wasn’t until after, essentially, a breakdown (panic disorder) that I returned to writing … and have, since then, never stopped. I returned, after my second daughter was born, to college and changed my major to studio art (back before the economy turned sour). Graduated with highest honors but, still, In light of the economy, I have mixed feelings now — about the change in major. Since 2002, I have taught both art and creative writing privately (from the tiny studio space attached to our house and at a local homeless shelter). I love it but it doesn’t pay the bills, nor does my art degree go far in the current hiring climate. I wish your daughter much success (and fun) along her journey. Perhaps things will be different by the time she graduates. .


    1. Thank you for sharing this, Terri. I feel I know you better now as a result. I wrote recently about a painter/photographer who earned an art degree well into adulthood — — and I admire you as much as her. Yes, it can be difficult to earn a living with an art degree. My employer is always pushing STEM degrees–science, technology, engineering and mathematics–but I remain a firm believer in arts education. Perhaps we need a broader set of metrics to determine what “success” is with an art education.

      I may have mentioned this before, but you have led a rich and fascinating life. Much room for personal essays and memoirs, methinks.


  3. Patrick… I didn’t decide to be a writer until my 13 yr old son told me to “settle down”. I rented a cabin on a gulf island (west coast) and retreated there with a typewriter as often as possible. Then I hired myself out as a writer, cold calling on film production companies. I took extension courses in travel writing and weekend w/shops in screenwriting. I entered competitions for everything… even won a 24-hour-one-act-play competition, and was a finalist in the Nichol Screenwriting Fellowships in L.A. I wrote letters to the editor until they paid me to write features. I analyzed film scripts for studios and hired myself out as a script doctor, novelized one of my scripts, became creative director on docu-tv shows. Mainly I studied studied studied stories because the manuals couldn`t convince me that they knew how fiction really works. I discovered a few things about fiction and decided to teach it… put up posters on the main street of town… and got a full house of keen students. When I hear of MFA programs, I think, wouldn`t that be fun. I just love hanging out with people who want to write. What are doing for coffee, Patrick, round about ten this morning?


    1. This was great to read, PJ, really interesting backstory. The recurring theme in all of that is a dedication to self-improvement and accomplishment. That leads to success regardless of whether it’s seeking out education through doing or through academic training.

      I will say that I very much enjoy those residency conversations, at the dining hall or late at night in the dorm lounge. It’s amazing to drop into a discussion on metaphor or the use of the first person. But the vast majority of my MFA experience has been rising at 5 am every morning to squeeze out some writing or editing before I begin a very long day as a father and a working professional. It’s not a very romantic enterprise, although I am very glad I have pursued it. Sorry I missed our coffee, I was at my paying gig! 🙂


  4. I am the proud holder of an MFA in creative writing, AND I constantly tell students and clients that you don’t need an MFA to write. Writing is one of the few professions where all you need is pen and paper and the courage to use them to get words on the page. I can point to many examples of popular and critically reviewed writers who do not have degrees in writing. To be honest, I decided to go for my MFA because I wanted time to write and also, as PJ says, to be able to hang out with other writers. And fortunately for me, along the path of getting my MFA I discovered a love of teaching. It had never occurred to me before to try to teach writing. So I’m well pleased that I spent the time and money to do it. And I also envy people like your daughter, who knows at a young age what she wants to do, and has the courage to follow an art-committed path. I always knew I wanted to write, but it took my years to find the guts to do it.


    1. Yes, I envy my daughter her determination and self-awareness. She knew she would be a visual artist before she even really comprehended that people did things for a living. And I’m supportive of her pursuing this as a career because it’s the only thing where I see her truly apply every part of herself (not unlike what PJ described above). When I was her age, I was running away from a potential future as a professional writer (many reasons for that, which I’m exploring in my memoir-in-progress).

      I’m glad you commented, because you have experienced the “formal” education but provide value to writers outside an MFA program. You are right–no one needs an MFA. It’s not a law degree or a medical degree. But I suspect your students benefit from your MFA.


  5. Pingback: Are We Living a Golden Age of Creative Instruction? | Stan Stewart's Blog

  6. Hi Patrick…
    It sounds as though you and I may be traveling a similar path, although I may be a few decades older. I will be entering my first session toward my MFA at VCFA in January. As a frequent speaker to photo and arts groups one of my favorite lines has been, “When I walked through the door to my first photography class, I was there as the instructor of a college course.” My lack of anything beyond a BA degree has held me back from several opportunities over the years, but career and supporting my family as a professional photographer always came before formal education. At this point, I am hoping that my career and higher education goals will finally merge by the time I am 60. Congrats and good luck!


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