MFA Writing Programs: Lego vs. Construx

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a big fan of Lego1. Even as a child, I was not shy about my dislike for those rigid little bricks. My problem was that Lego was too detail-oriented. The work was painstaking and the rewards small: put together a bunch of rectangles to get … a bigger rectangle. Sure, some people can do incredible things, but who has that kind of time when they’re eight years old?

The building toy that won my heart (and allowance) was called Construx:

Totally awesome, right? Construx are similar to tinkertoys in the sense that consist mainly of beams and joints2. This type of system forces kids to think in structural terms. With Construx there is no such thing as a “final product” — even the models in that commercial looked unfinished. But what a child loses in polish, he or she gains in versatility and speed. It is essentially a concept driven building toy.

I do not actually think one toy is superior to the other. That depends on the kid. But I do think the differences between Lego and Construx perfectly reflect the two major styles of writing MFAs.

Graduate writing programs tend to fall into one of two categories: “Creative Wrtiting” (fiction and poetry) and “Dramatic Writing” (movies and plays). From what I have read and experienced myself, it seems that with each of these categories comes a different pedagogical approach.  Creative Writing seems to put a heavy focus on fine-tuning the details of a product — word choice, flow, tone, etc… Conversely, Dramatic Writing tends to emphasize the big picture issues — plot, pacing, character.

As with Lego vs. Construx, it all depends on the needs of the student. Some writers need help with fine-tuning, others need help with structure. Actually, writers need both — but hopefully they can figure out whatever they didn’t learn at grad school on their own.

I recently read a fascinating article by Cathy Day who has been teaching fiction-writing for years3. She identifies a problem with traditional Creative Writing MFA programs:  semester logistics makes novel-length assignments impossible, and so instructors instead focus on short stories — a medium that most students (not to mention the reading public) don’t even care about. This model is justified by the “learn to walk before you run” argument. Day, however, observes that such programs don’t help people run, they just teach people to walk really well.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with short stories (or walking!). But Day worries that all this focus on fine-tuning leads to graduates who are not prepared for the structural challenges unique to long-form projects. It sounds to me like she is wishing her students could play with fewer Legos and more Construx.

  1. 1.  I am aware that this is heresy; feel free to leave hate mail in the comments section
  2. 2. This toy was tragically discontinued in 1988, which meant much of my collecting involved dragging my mother to yard sales in search of discarded sets
  3. 1. Thanks to Liz Burns for the link!

3 Comments Leave a Comment

  • Craig Chapman says:

    Anyone who knows me knows that I’m HUGE fan of Lego. Even as an adult, my office is adorned with Lego-models (predominantly of the Star Wars variety). In fact, my first scientific publication as a graduate student used a Lego figure (the head of a Clone Trooper) in the experiment – it even appears in the diagram explaining the experimental set-up. I love the detail-oriented authenticity afforded by Lego. While I struggled as an eight-year old (and continued to struggle for years) to build something that looked like an X-Wing, you can imagine my joy, at eighteen years old, when Lego released an X-Wing model. Using what other toy could I construct an AT-AT, put it outside in the snow and take pictures of it that looked exactly like Hoth? I could continue to laud Lego for pages – their introduction of Technic (gears, pulleys, pneumatics etc.) followed by Mindstorms (programmable robotics) expanded the definition of Lego from toy to educational tool. I have both used and instructed with Lego in university courses.

    I also had Construx as a child. I too enjoyed the speed with which you could rapidly build models that (sort of) looked like what you wanted (for a new, similarly themed toy, google Straws and Connectors – my 5yr old niece got it at Christmas and literally built a fort with it). My problem with Construx was that you couldn’t ever get something to look exactly like it should. Take the video in Jon’s post – what is that dino-thing that the dog tries to eat? Is that space ship meant to resemble a mail delivery van? I also loved the way that Lego allowed for recursion – the power-rangers idea that that some larger vehicle could be comprised of, or contain smaller vehicles. Construx was too course to allow for this type of design.

    Perhaps it is no surprise then, that I ended up in a career that is detail oriented. As a basic scientist (no, this doesn’t mean I study really easy stuff, but more that I study stuff that is hard to directly connect to real world applications) in Neuroscience I am necessarily constrained to examine very specific details – the proverbial 1×1 flat brick of Lego. If you are lucky, you might assemble three such details into a full 1×1 Lego brick – you might call such an assemblage a PhD thesis. In a career you might get to put together what amounts to one or two regulation 4×2 Lego bricks. If you are really lucky a couple of these bricks might get used by someone smarter than you to build a really cool model of something important.

    But what happens if you spend your whole life looking at 1×1 bricks? It’s kind of like looking at a super-zoomed digital picture where all you see are a couple of pixels. Consider this passage which I wrote at the start of my thesis: “In order to gain experimental traction, the careful scientist asks very specific questions. Specific questions can be the most meaningful precisely because they are the most answerable. But, by necessarily asking specific questions, we sometimes lose sight of the big picture – the overarching principles that simply must be true. If our very specific answers are to questions that have become too far removed from the real world, then we may have gained traction, but it is on a road that goes nowhere.” When we get caught up in the details, when we find ourselves endlessly searching among thousands of Lego pieces for that single 1×1 flat gray piece that WE think is most important we are failing to remember that the MOST important fact is that the 1×1 flat gray brick is part of a much larger structure called “Scientific Knowledge”.

    In part then, scientists need to be creative – to zoom out and see the broader implications of their work. Unfortunately, we don’t have alternate grad school paths like you do in Writing. We are schooled to be obsessed with details, to demand that our methods are precise and careful and that our data is only as complicated as it needs to be and is free from bias. We are schooled to play with Lego. I guess what I’m saying amounts to the same thing as Jon – even though I pledge my undying allegiance to Lego, we could all use a little Construx in our lives.

  • AB says:

    insightful post, both about the lego v construx debate and also the writing insights.

    i’m a lego lover, though did enjoy construx for a time. but if i self-analyze my own struggles in life…I DO struggle too much at a detail level, often missing the big picture.

    If only I had played more with construx. *sigh*

  • James says:

    Very useful analogy.
    i think though that lego started to suck as soon as it came out with more specific models and types that did half the work for you.
    what’s up with that?
    i once made a working, transforming top half of Optimus Prime with basic lego pieces and a few hinge pieces from the castle lego models.

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